CBC’s Hour at Six: bigger and better?

By Margaret Herriman

Critics say that CBC’s new hour-long format is unsustainable, but CBC believes it can do twice the work with the same amount of staff and money.

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Related Links

Click here to watch the latest CBC News at Six Newscast. Archives can also be found here.
Click here to read more about what Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has to say about the increased airtime.
Click here to read more about what the Canadian Media Guild has to say.

By Margaret Herriman

The control room at CBC Halifax is dim, lit by buzzing fluorescents and a myriad of glowing screens. An operator wears a headset on one ear and holds a phone to the other while he consults five computer screens spread in a semicircle around him and the woman beside him counts down the seconds until the news goes to air. Tension is high, and the three operators and two producers will have their eyes glued to the screens in front of them for an hour. Until recently, they would have been done in only 30 minutes.

Last spring, CBC announced it was abandoning its six-year experiment with 30-minute local newscasts, and returning to a 60-minute format. Despite the increase in airtime, CBC has not given newsrooms any more resources, forcing the same staff to produce twice as much content every day. This raises the question of whether CBC has restored anything to local news but airtime.

In 2000, the network cut local supper-hour newscasts from an hour to 30 minutes, citing declining numbers of viewers. In an attempt to attract a larger audience, it created a half-hour national show called Canada Now that preceded the local newscasts.

In many cases, the shows lost even more viewers, and Fred Mattocks, former CBC regional director for the Maritimes, admitted to a journalism class at the University of King’s College that the broadcaster blew it. It needed to get its audiences back.

“Even when it went to the half-hour local news, they still kept an audience, but not nearly as strong as the ATV audience. Not even close,” said Rhona Delfrari, executive producer of CBC Halifax’s News at Six.

Though CBC is trying to win back viewers with more airtime, it’s not giving newsrooms more money or people. The newsroom in Halifax is now about half the size it was before the cuts were made in 2000.

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Not everyone is convinced CBC’s new format is sustainable. Jim Thompson of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an advocacy group, says that increased local broadcasting is a good thing, but he’s not sure it’s possible to produce twice the content for the same amount of money.

“Sixty minutes shows are being produced on a 30-minute budget, and that is a recipe for failure in our estimation,” Thompson said.

Thompson says that when he watches these longer broadcasts, it’s apparent they just don’t have enough money to fill the hour. “Adding that extra time waters down the budget, and in our opinion the quality suffers as a result.”

Karen Wirsig, Communications Officer of the Canadian Media Guild, is also concerned about CBC’s budget. Across the country, newsroom staff are being asked to work harder and faster, and she’s worried they may not be able to keep it up in the long term.

“From a quality news perspective, I mean, how long can you go at 150 per cent?” Wirsig says. “And if you’re already going at 150 per cent, and something happens, like there’s a breaking story, or something going down on a particular day, how well can you actually manage to deal with that and actually manage to put up a good show?”

Though Wirsig has not spoken to anyone from the Halifax newsroom, the Guild is hearing that journalists in newsrooms across the country are feeling run ragged.

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DelFrari confirms that CBC has not changed the budget to reflect the new format — at least not yet. And there is a sense in the newsroom that as technology improves, money will go for new high definition cameras and equipment rather than for new staff. But DelFrari says she has redirected existing reporters and cameras. CBC Halifax is not responsible for producing as much material for The National, and people are freed to gather local news for that evening.

Delfrari says that prior to the switch, most of the decisions about what was going on the news would be made centrally, rather than by each station. Regional crews would often be sent to film stories for The National, as well as being responsible to film stories for the local show.

“For a while there, it was all about national. Everyone was, ‘We tell you what we want covered and you send it to us for the national stuff,'” said DelFrari.

Mattocks is now based in Toronto as CBC’s executive director of English television production and resources, and he’s placing more emphasis on local news and its importance. Rather than have a national bureau tell each station what they need to cover, individual stations are now able to tell the national bureau what is newsworthy in their area.

“It’s no longer them saying, ‘This is the story is important, so find us an angle on it.’ It’s us saying, ‘This is the story that’s important in Nova Scotia. We think you need to put in on the National tonight,'” said DelFrari.

Add to that the fact much material went to waste under the old format and DelFrari is convinced she can get the job done.

“Lots of times before (reporters) would come back with way more material than we could use (and) we just couldn’t get it on. So it was almost a waste back then. We had a staff that could put way more news on the air, but we couldn’t get it on because we just didn’t have the real estate on the channel.”

DelFrari acknowledges that her people certainly have little free time, but says they are not having trouble filling the hour with quality material.

Though the newscast is a full hour, hard news takes up about the same amount of time as it did before. The second half of the hour is being filled with national and international news, feature pieces, and interviews with the host.

When asked what her newsroom looked like before and after the change to a one-hour format, DelFrari says, “Staffing levels haven’t really changed. It’s the way we treat the stories that’s changed.”

But according to the Canadian Media Guild’s website, five jobs were cut from the Halifax newsroom at the end of May, just when they were expanding the news to an hour. Five jobs, however, were created outside of Halifax in the rest of the Maritimes for more regional news. Two in Cape Breton, one in New Glasgow, one in New Brunswick and one in P.E.I.. The newsroom in Halifax now has five reporters, five cameramen and one video journalist who shoots his own stories. At least one of these reporters was laid off back in May, but continues to work there.

Reporters inside the CBC newsroom were reluctant to discuss the issue.

A reporter was hand-picked by management to speak to KJR, but refused to answer any questions about what it is like to work in the newsroom after the changes.

Delfrari thinks viewers are getting the message that local news is important to the CBC.

“A lot of the people that we were hearing on the street were saying, ‘Well you only do a half-hour newscast, and you know ATV is on from five o’clock on, and you guys only do half an hour.’ So in their mind that meant it wasn’t that important [to CBC],” said DelFrari. “And so it’s all a lot about perception too. We may have been doing — we were doing more Nova Scotia stories than ATV was, but people didn’t think we were, just because we were on for a short period of time.”

Though control has transferred out to the regions, as CBC calls stations located outside of Toronto, individual stations still have access to all the stories produced nationally. DelFrari can pick and choose stories to create a line up that she knows Nova cbcsidephotoScotians will care about.

DelFrari says she finds that people are happier with the new local news that they’re watching on CBC.

“Anybody that has come up to me has said, ‘That’s great news that CBC is back in the business of local.’ It really has made a difference for people, I think.”

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Bruce Wark is a freelance editor for the independent weekly the Coast and spent a great deal of his career working for CBC. Though he’s pleased CBC is fulfilling its mandate to produce regional coverage, he’s not entirely happy with the evening news he’s seeing.

Wark says that even though CBC Halifax has some of the best journalists in Canada, there just aren’t enough of them to consistently produce great news.

“I’m still seeing too many voice overs and clips which suggest that they don’t have enough reporting strength,” says Wark.

Wark wants to see more evidence of reporters gathering news, and less of the anchor simply reading a story while a short video clip plays.

“It all comes down to one thing for me, and that is solid hard news coverage off the top of the program. It has to be there. They have to start breaking stories and they have to do a solid job on the news of the day,” Wark says. “I think they can make it work — if they keep their eye on that ball and don’t get distracted.”

He says that CBC does great national news, and that section of the program is always great. What the newsroom in Halifax needs to focus on is local and provincial news, and until very recently Wark thought they didn’t do a great job, because they just didn’t have the resources.

Wark did, however, see one broadcast he was happy with, on Wednesday, October 3.

“Now as for the quality of the news, until last night, I was really pessimistic. I watched last night’s news and I thought they made it work. I thought for the first time, I was seeing a really good, solid news broadcast,” Wark said.

Wark says he would like to think that this broadcast is evidence of CBC hitting its stride and learning how to operate in the new format, but fears it could be an anomaly or accident.

Back in the control room, anchor Jim Nunn looks out from four of the screens.

He tells viewers that Global TV has cut half of its jobs in the Maritime region.

As Global’s presence declines, CBC’s hour-long News at Six will be more important than ever.