Ken & Barbie on Here & Now

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Is CBC News going in a 'lite' new direction?

Globe and Mail media critic John Doyle has put forward some interesting opinions of late, warning about the gradual devolution of CBC News into "news lite" and even "infotainment".

Doyle's concerns revolve primarily around CBC's hiring of Frank Magid Associates, an American media consultancy, to advise on how to enhance local news coverage.

"The Magid team is notorious because, during the seventies and eighties, countless local TV newscasts in the United States were rejigged by the company," Doyle writes. "As a result, those local newscasts began to look the same, all over the country. The Magid format seemed to emphasize Ken and Barbie' news anchors, a great deal of cheery babble between the anchors, and a lot of mention of action news' in the presentation.

"Over the past few months, I've been in receipt of much anonymous grousing from CBC'ers across the country as the Magid formula seemed to loom in front of them. I can't take the anonymous material seriously, but something seems to be happening across Canada in local CBC newsrooms that's making people nervous and resentful."

You can read the full text of Doyle's column, which appeared June 21, right here at the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting archive.

I had heard in the grapevine that Magid's team is doing substantial consulting work in this province, looking to help CBC improve its Here & Now' supper hour news package, which has had poor ratings these last few years. And I had heard some rumblings, though second hand, that some staff were not happy with the new direction being coached by Magid. So I called Janice Stein (right), Managing Editor of CBC News in Newfoundland, and reporter David Cochrane, for some comment.

Stein confirmed that Here & Now has been using the services of Magid Associates for the last few months, pointing out that it's one part of an overall revamp that's been ongoing for more than a year, including community consultations and input from within the corporation.

However, Stein rejects the notion that the program is going to lighten or dumb down' the way it presents news.

"I am not sure what Doyle means by Ken and Barbie', but that certainly is not what we are up to at all," she said. "Magid is working with us on being on top of the community, which is what the community has told us they want us to be. So you will see us doing a lot more news and a lot more live coverage, out on location. I think last night was a clear example, with the fire at the daycare (at Booth Memorial). That came in late in the day, so we sent our truck right away and were live on the site."

Stein said that viewers may already have noticed some changes on Here & Now. "There's more news, a faster paced news and more live on the scene. If something is going on, we are there. That would not have been the case a year ago. Our live truck is out every night. And it's not for weather, it's for news

"In terms of cuteness or dumbing down, that is not the direction we're going in here at all. Our big effort is to get on top of the news that's going on in the community, so dumbing down is the last thing on our minds. I think we have a very credible team of reporters here They have a history and a depth in this community that's probably unparalleled. They've been with us for a long time and have a lot of knowledge about this province."

David Cochrane reiterated Stein's points and went into greater detail. He acknowledged that some might look askance at American consultants, with minimal knowledge of this province, advising reporters how to produce news in their own market.

"But I think it's always good to have a fresh set of eyes come in, without any baggage or history or preconceptions, and look at what you're doing and how you're doing it, and give a fresh take on it," Cochrane said. "Here & Now has got its hour back, we're trying to build the market share back, but the viewing environment was very different back when Here & Now was on top of the ratings. Back then, people barely knew what the Internet was. We're in a very different world, and it's going to take new ways of doing things to accomplish what we want to"

Cochrane said he has sat in on several sessions with Magid, and found them all to be worthwhile. "They've really given us a focus on not overwriting and not stretching out a story beyond what it needs to be It's not about selling a story short because that's not what CBC journalism is about. It's about really focusing on telling the story in an interesting and engaging way. I think punchier' would be a good word it not fluffy or trivial. I think if the company wanted me to go in a direction where I was doing fluffy or trivial news I wouldn't do it. I mean, politics can be fluffy and trivial at times, but it's also important It's just thinking about new ways of telling stories. The reporters are strong personalities and strong characters, and it's about injecting some of that into the show to give it a good energetic vibe, from 6 to 7 o'clock. You want to open with a bang and then have something engaging in every block of the show."

The consultants are reviewing and offering feedback on every aspects of the program, Cochrane said, not just news reportage. "They are looking at absolutely everything, not just how we do a story but how we manage our resources, how we run our meetings, how we do our desk, how we line up our show, how we shoot our show and I think if you look at the feel of Here & Now over the last few months, I think it's been more upbeat, punchier, snappier and more engaging. I think that's a direct result of this consultation process and I think it's been good."

Cochrane added that the network's investment in local news is the most important part of this story. "This is a significant heavy focus on local news, and it's something we haven't seen from the CBC in a long time. I think everybody here will tell you it was a huge mistake to cut Here & Now in the first place. This is a recognition that a strong network is built on strong local supper-hour shows. In the States they say that a strong network is built on strong affiliates. I think CBC is recognizing that, for The National and CBC Newsworld to succeed, Here & Now has to succeed too. This is a significant financial, time and resource investment in the local newsroom and I don't see how you can call that a bad thing."

Fair enough. I am satisfied for now. But I will keep watching the story as it unfolds on my TV set, and will keep my ear to the ground to see if the reporters are indeed okay with the Magid approach.

Either way, I don't expect Debbie Cooper and Jonathan Crowe will be replaced by Barbie and Ken anytime soon.

Note to readers: The Telegram site has ben experiencing technical difficulties these last few days, and I have been unable to post new items. Thank you for your patience... It's been hard on MY nerves too!

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  • Dee
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    There's nothing wrong with a fresh set of eyes coming in to tighten and streamline, but be careful! If you are doing news for ratings, then the urge to sensationalize may increase.

    Too often the American media (maybe graduates of Magid Media University... maybe not) twist or restrict itself to its corporate sponsors or worse... political influence, and then all we have is a biased carcass of what once was a viable news program.

    An independent, free flow of objectivity and truth is what every democracy needs to, well... remain a democracy. You don't need to inject fluffy, trivial, or punchy to the news... just a clear, well written and delivered broadcast will be just fine, thank you.

    Now if you happen to be Ken & Barbie cute' too? Then that's just a bonus.