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Here & Now should not be distracted by its critics

Back in January, whilst flat on my back with the flu, I read a column from Bob Wakeham in The Telegram with which I disagreed.

I set the clipping aside for when my head cleared, and just stumbled across it again.

And I still disagree.

In the column, Wakeham writes about Here & Now, the CBC TV newscast that he ran as executive producer until his retirement in 2003. I have copied the full text of the column below. But in a nutshell, Wakeham thinks the show has gone straight downhill over the last few years, and criticizes the new direction the program is taking particularly CBC's decision to hire American consultants to help revitalize the program.

"I don't know about other Canadian supper-hour shows," Wakeham wrote, "but the Americans have definitely had an influence on Here and Now'; its once diversified, magazine format of news combined with analytical current affairs, has been replaced by a blizzard of weather hits and a steady diet of accidents, fires and donated turkeys told in a hyperactive fashion by reporters trying, at times, to emulate Rick Mercer.

"And there's no doubt the product has a certain slickness, and looks as professional as any American supper-hour news program; unfortunately, too many nights it has the same lack of depth as those "Action News" programs, as producers try to achieve a "quota" of information hits. But this isn't Iowa, and it isn't heaven, it's Newfoundland and Labrador, a distinct place where journalistic consumers want more than slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am stories that look and taste good, but leave you with a deep hunger."

I don't agree with Wakeham at all.

There is one central flaw in his argument. The ratings for Here & Now starting going down the chute back in 2000, when the stupid decision was made (by the brass upalong) to cut the show down to 30 minutes, and move the time from 6:30 to 6:00 pm, head to head with the NTV Evening Newshour. By the spring of 2002, NTV had 200,000 viewers while CBC had 45,000 a complete turnaround from where things stood just a few years before.

Wakeham resigned from active duty in September of 2003, and, while he certainly fought the CBC over some of their decisions, he still presided over the show's ratings plummet. The show has languished in the ratings ever since.

Now he is criticizing Here & Now for trying something new. And if they were doing something stupid, I would be first to say so. But here's the thing Here & Now is behaving the way a good news program should. They are breaking stories. In fact, they have been breaking more stories than their competition, consistently, for quite a few weeks now.

Wakeham was criticizing CBC for hiring media consultants from the U.S. to help revitalize the program. He bemoaned the Americanization of our local news, the demise of "journalism of substance" and a deterioration into "machine gun, rat-a-tat-tat" journalism.

Nonsense. If "machine gun" means breaking more stories, I'll take a volley of it any day.

I suspect the "rat-a-tat" reference has something to do with the live reports that now dominate the program. It sure can't refer to the pace of the show, because it still feels like CBC to me; the reports are comprehensive and professional. Yes, Zach Goudie is a live wire and Christina Marshall is effervescent, but their youthful energy is a good thing. There are also Deanne Fleet, Azzo Rezori, Glenn Payette and other seasoned journalists who are turning interesting, insightful and, quite often, breaking, stories, and I wouldn't describe their style as "rat-a-tat".

One influence of the outside consultants seems to be an imperative to use more body language; something that most TV reporters do instinctively anyway. But in some cases, I have seen excessive, repetitive arm pumping, from a new and quite promising young reporter (hi Brion). Such gestures are fine if they look more natural, less forced.

The live reports had their growing pains at first and they still have occasional glitches but I have come to appreciate this feature. Given a choice, I would rather know the reporter was filing live from the scene than back at the parking lot of the station. I think it's telling that NTV is now doing more live on-location reports as well. You can be sure that they are keeping an eagle eye on everything that CBC is doing.

Wakeham criticizes what he calls "a steady diet of accidents, fires and donated turkeys", which does an incredible injustice to the good work being done by the journalists. Deanne Fleet, for example, has never been better than she is right now, and all reporters are focused on one thing: breaking the news.

I do agree that Here & Now should offer more analysis perhaps a two-minute "editorial" every day that cuts through some of the spin in the news cycle but we don't need a gaggle of video columnists. These days, we have plenty of ways to access alternative voices, including blogs like this.

The show might also benefit from exploring what they were doing before Wakeham took charge. I should disclose that my father, Ken Meeker, had a senior position at Here & Now back in those days, so I had a front-row seat to what the show was doing right. For example, does anybody remember Collect-A-Wreck? I am not suggesting that they retread old formulas, but a strong community presence including "donated turkeys" can work hand-in-hand with solid journalism.

The bottom line is, Wakeham inherited a massive viewing audience when he took the reins of Here & Now. A number of factors then drove ratings down, but the old magazine format sure didn't stop the slide. Nor did it do anything to bring the viewers back. As a format, it was a tried and true failure.

I understand Wakeham's nostalgia for the glory days of Here & Now. The show was once a powerhouse. But it has to change in order to rebuild its audience, and I hope Wakeham's comments don't nudge them off course.

Here is the full text of Wakeham's column, from January 20:

Sorry CBC, we're not in Kansas, or Iowa

There's a scene in the sappy but enjoyable movie "Field of Dreams" in which one of the resurrected ghosts of players disgraced for throwing the 1919 World Series asks Kevin Costner, the farmer inspired to build a magnificent baseball field for the long-dead athletes: "Is this heaven?"

"No," the Costner character replies gently. "This is Iowa."

So, perhaps it was appropriate that CBC television dispatched its two news anchors, Debbie Cooper and Jonathon Crowe, to Iowa last month, the mid-western state where miracles apparently occur.

After all, it will take a miracle to restore "Here and Now" to its once enviable position as the most popular CBC supper-hour news program in Canada and, more importantly, the most influential hour of journalism in Newfoundland.

The trip to corn country, I presume, was part of that insulting contract the CBC had with an American company to improve the ratings of Canadian supper-hour news shows, including "Here and Now" a program that has lost about 150,000 of its 200,000 nightly viewers over the past decade or so, a percentage decline that still makes people shake their heads.

So, the corporate intelligentsia at the Toronto headquarters of the CBC, the organization charged with promoting and protecting Canadian culture, ventured across the border in ironic search of reconstruction.

I don't know about other Canadian supper-hour shows, but the Americans have definitely had an influence on "Here and Now"; its once diversified, magazine format of news combined with analytical current affairs, has been replaced by a blizzard of weather hits and a steady diet of accidents, fires and donated turkeys told in a hyperactive fashion by reporters trying, at times, to emulate Rick Mercer.

And there's no doubt the product has a certain slickness, and looks as professional as any American supper-hour news program; unfortunately, too many nights it has the same lack of depth as those "Action News" programs, as producers try to achieve a "quota" of information hits. But this isn't Iowa, and it isn't heaven, it's Newfoundland and Labrador, a distinct place where journalistic consumers want more than slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am stories that look and taste good, but leave you with a deep hunger.

And judging by the recent television ratings, Newfoundland viewers having had sufficient time to absorb the Americanization of "Here and Now" are not exactly impressed. The ratings were down from the fall 2006 to fall 2007 by one percentage point, to 16 per of the audience share, while NTV maintained its mind-boggling 66 per cent. I happen to think, based on my own experience and countless conversations with a wide variety of former "Here and Now" viewers, that there's a sizeable audience out there desperate to return to CBC at six o'clock, especially since the one-hour format returned, but they're hungry for journalism of substance.

"If you build it, they will return," to paraphrase that famous line from "Field of Dreams."

It should be noted that the Americans kept their hands off "Land and Sea"; its continuing classy journalism has resulted in a steady ascent in ratings, especially after the show was given a consistent time slot, back to its longtime location in the Monday night schedule.

As well, local management is making laudable moves to increase Newfoundland content on television.

But that doesn't alter the fact that the one-time king of the supper-hour news has embarrassing numbers, and this injection of Americana has been counter-productive.

I comment with a certain amount of guilt on "Here and Now's" struggles, mainly because many of the people with whom I worked at CBC Television are still there Debbie Cooper and Jonathon Crowe among them working their butts off within a program philosophy a fair number of them find unpalatable.

And maybe I'm out to lunch (it wouldn't be the first time) and perhaps the audience will eventually start to gobble up the machine-gun, rat-a-tat-tat style of journalism.

Somehow, though, I doubt it.

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  • Ed
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Here and Now has undergone some changes of format and approach but they aren't the disaster Wakeham painted.

    Sure, there are some clunky moments when reporters feel the need to gesture about events right here in this building [Point awkwardly to obvious structure.] that seem straight out of Edna Boyle's commercials on SCTV. That's largely superficial and can be corrected in a bunch of ways.

    As for the rest of it, the people producing news seem to forget what many viewers have known for a while: the axiom if it bleeeds it leads is not something unique to American television or NTV, as the latter climbed to ratings heaven locally. Oh shock, and horror, the vaunted Ceeb in its salad days more often than not led the 'cast with the latest from the courts.

    If memory serves that approach came from American consultants or was inspired by American supper hour news.

    And the old sweats at the time decried the Americanization of news by the people making the decisions at the time.

    Plus ca change.