Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Does Network TV News still matter? Yes, say head honchos of CTV, Global and CBC

My story published today on J-Source.ca.


It turns out the future is looking pretty good, writes Ellin Bessner. Indeed, the eastern regional director for Global News, Mike Omelus, believes there's never been a better time to be in the biz. If the flurry of broadcast expansions these past two weeks is anything to go by, he could be right.

Don’t touch that dial. Or your iPhone, your tablet, or your living room TV. Canada’s national television news networks are trying to find new roles for themselves in today’s multi-platform news environment.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a slew of industry-related announcements. Take last Monday, May 30, when Rogers announced it would launch an all news TV channel in Toronto in the fall, called CityNews Channel, to compete with CTV’s CP24.

Or last Wednesday, June 1, when Global announced it was bringing back its Toronto morning show, with former Citytv Breakfast Television host Liza Fromer, and former Citytv reporter Kris Reyes as news anchor. Global is also adding morning shows in the Maritimes, Winnipeg, Regina, and Saskatoon, and expanding its existing morning shows in Alberta.

And who can forget the launch in April of Sun News Network, billed as Canada’s Fox News North?

Sure, audiences no longer solely rely on the flagship live national nightly newscasts to hear about breaking news. It’s also true most viewers already know a lot about the news events of the day by the time they tune in to network TV.

But with the potential of video on demand, and a recovering economy, for Canada’s traditional news networks, indeed, there’s never been a better time to be in the broadcast business, according to Mike Omelus, eastern regional director for Global News.

Omelus told a panel discussion at the recent Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Ottawa in May that because of the Bell takeover of CTV, and the Shaw takeover of Global, Canada’s main TV networks are spending money again. Newsrooms are expanding, adding staff, and that is increasing salaries for other journalists in other companies.

Omelus was one of three speakers at the session about the future of network news, which also included Jack Fleischmann, general manager of CTV News Channel and BNN, and Todd Spencer, head of CBC News Network. All three agreed the industry is changing, but are optimistic.

“We don’t serve the same purpose as we did,” said Spencer.

Fleischmann added the traditional model is “out of date”.  He believes viewers want more of the FOX and SUN TV style of news channel, which they can get on-demand.

“People look for reasons and answers, which gives network news a whole new life,” he said. “You’re seeing more people on air now such as analysts, web bloggers, and opinions,” as news stations try to answer ‘Why?’ ”

SUN TV was not at the panel discussion, and it wasn’t clear from the moderator why not.

But CBC, CTV and Global all gave poor reviews to the debut of the Quebecor-owned national news channel, which launched in April.

“I don’t think they’re very good right now,” said Spencer, adding SUN TV needs to present newscasts during their live programming.  “This country may not be big enough [for SUN TV].”

For Global’s Omelus, the country is probably too big for SUN TV’s apparent limited resources.

“They have only two satellite trucks, one in Vancouver and one in Toronto,” he said.

For Fleischmann, it’s not the size of the station or the country that is the problem. It’s the quality of the content, despite pulling in an average of 12,000 viewers, according to a recent Globe and Mail story, which is more then his own BNN does.

“It’s a personality based channel but unless you have the right personalities and issues, it will be hard to attract new viewers,” he told the panel.

Sun executives told The Globe and Mail this week they were thrilled with their ratings, because they are ahead of where they thought their ratings would be by now.

While network television is expanding, it is also taking a new approach to storytelling to a wide variety of audiences, be they online, on mobile devices, or over the airwaves.

Omelus calls the new approach “platform agnostic”. That means some news stories will be told first on the Global website, even before they appear on network TV.

And because there are no time or length restrictions for what can be shown on the Global website, Omelus said the web will be the home for longer news stories, documentaries, and raw feeds of press conferences and interviews that don’t fit into the traditional network constraints.

The CBC also sees longer form pieces finding space on the web, where folks can watch during a commute, or on their mobile platforms when they have time. Spencer cited the strong ratings for CBC’s investigative journalism shows “The Fifth Estate” and “Marketplace” as evidence “there’s clearly an appetite for it.”

But while CTV’s Fleischmann agrees this type of journalistic long form storytelling is valuable, because of resources, “it won’t become a major part of what we do.”

As network television news evolves, one element to watch for, the three predict, is more interaction with the audience even during live newscasts. While MTV has had viewer comments on screen during some of its broadcasts for several years, Global’s Leslie Roberts has been using Twitter on air during his 11 p.m. nightly newscast.

Spencer, of CBC News Network, predicts connected TV is coming, as broadcasters review the companion apps which are now available that will soon allow more interactivity while on air.

“Conversation,” said Fleischmann, “is what the web is about.”

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Ellin Bessner has been teaching journalism in the Toronto area since 1999, at Ryerson University, Seneca College and now, on the faculty of Centennial College. She is a former foreign correspondent in Europe, and a former anchor at CBC and CTV and a current. Ellin is also an avid blogger and social media user.

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