National Idle

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, June 23, 2006

On the one hand, bumping Peter Mansbridge and The National for another American Idol knockoff for eight nights this summer shouldn't be a cause celebre. It's the summer, and Mansbridge himself will be on vacation for many of the Tuesdays, starting July 18, when CBC will carry The One: The Making of a Music Star. Carrying it as a simulcast with ABC is a condition of CBC launching a Canadian version in the fall, and it runs into the National's 10 p.m. time slot.

On the other hand, it's the news. And the crown corporation, whose mandate is to interpret Canada to Canadians, is pre-empting the news for a talent show. An American talent show.

Part of Mansbridge's job as anchor is to defend the newsroom from such incursions. Building the brand, and the integrity, of CBC News is also central to his role. And he takes it seriously enough that he went public with his annoyance this week. Twenty years ago, he turned down $1 million a year to become the CBS morning news host for the opportunity to succeed Knowlton Nash as CBC anchor for about one-fourth the money. (Full disclosure, Mansbridge is a friend, and I appear occasionally as a talking head on CBC Newsworld).

Sorry, Kandahar, we can't run that story of the Canadians taking it to the Taliban at 10 p.m. We're pre-empted by a U.S. talent show. How, as Mansbridge has pointed out, does he explain that to correspondents and crews who are putting their own lives on the line?

CBC management replies it is trying to build audience, particularly among younger viewers, for a network that is steadily losing audience, especially among younger viewers. The CBC's prime-time market share is generally in single digits. The last major homegrown ratings success story was A People's History, produced by Mark Starowicz for both the English and French networks.

The National is the most Canadian thing that the network puts on the air, the flagship of its news division, one hour of news and current affairs every weeknight. Usually without exception.

Except for the winter Olympics from Turin, which weren't even live in the National's time slot, it being the middle of the night in Italy. Except for the four rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which pre-empt the National for two months nearly every night in the early rounds and every second night in the later ones.

Mansbridge isn't complaining about Hockey Night in Canada. He's a hockey fan himself. And hockey is central to the Canadian identity, as well important to the CBC's bottom line.

But no worries, right, because the early feed to the Atlantic is carried on Newsworld at 9 p.m., and the news part of the broadcast is repeated on the main network at 11, and again on Newsworld at midnight. When the viewership of all four broadcasts is bundled together, Mansbridge has 1.1 million viewers. But the 10 p.m. feed is the big one, drawing 650,000 viewers.

This week's dustup over dumping the National for an American talent show came at an inconvenient moment for CBC president Bob Rabinovitch, right in the middle of a CBC board of directors meeting in Yellowknife.

It is a high-powered board that includes two of the country's most respected figures in news and current affairs, Peter Herrndorff and Trina McQueen. Herrndorff is now head of the National Arts Centre, but as a radio executive in the 1970s, he put As It Happens and Sunday Morning on the air. McQueen is a former head of the news division.

They might have had some pretty pointed questions for Rabinovitch and Richard Stursburg, the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the CBC. There was also an interesting quote on this issue yesterday from Kristine Layfield, the new head of network programming: "It's always an unfortunate situation when you have a newscast at 10 at night (in a time slot) that does make it vulnerable to scheduling issues like hockey, the Olympics and other things that, on occasion, have interrupted its regular broadcast." This is the sort of quote that could be in a G8 summit communique, and could read to mean anything from "we're with you, Peter," to "we're reviewing all our options, including the news at 10."

This Mansbridge-bumping incident also occurs at another inconvenient moment, the release of a Senate committee report calling for the CBC to drop sports and ads altogether. "We have come to the conclusion that the CBC is in danger of losing its way," said Senator Joan Fraser, a member of the committee. "It is trying to be all things to all people."

Is running a knockoff of a U.S. talent show a way to build a younger audience? Maybe. CTV's Canadian Idol with Ben Mulroney regularly draws 2 million viewers a week, or about twice as many people who watch all broadcasts of the National combined.

But is building that kind of commercial-ratings success the sort of thing CBC should be doing? Didn't Rabinovitch tell a Commons committee that "some public broadcasters do reality programming. But we don't do that"? And with only a year to go in the second term of his mandate, does Rabinovitch want this as part of his legacy, along with two lockouts?

Only in Canada, you say? No, only at the CBC.

 
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