Evening News Deathmatch

Recently, CBC-TV and NTV have moved their six o’clock newscasts to 5:30 and extended them to ninety minutes.

Knowing a battle when we smell one, we asked our opinionated movie/pop culture/everything critic Adam Clarke to keep tabs on the two shows and offer up his evaluation.

Whose newscast will reign supreme? Who will survive the rumble in the supper-time jungle? These questions shall be answered in the battle of broadcasts that Clarke has christened…

THE EVENING NEWS DEATHMATCH

Illustration by Ricky King.

When I was a kid, all joy seemed to evaporate around the supper hour. Every evening at six o’clock, in every house across the province, families switched on to the local newscast of their choice. It didn’t matter if you were watching cartoons or out playing street hockey. You were going to gather with the family ‘round the table and eat the lukewarm, off-brand macaroni and cheese while waiting patiently for the weather. And maybe some news.

You can’t buy those kinds of memories.

At the risk of sounding like Jim Furlong, that was a long time ago.

Lately, I’ve been sitting on a couch with the CBC exploding pizza to the left of me and Captain Atlantis on my right, each one wanting me to be my friend.

That’s what it felt like to watch two ninety minute news shows every night for the past month.

Yes, dear readers, both Here & Now and The NTV Evening News Hour have changed. Sort of. Rather than expand the competing newscasts, CBC and NTV have each created a supplemental half-hour news program to precede the six o’clock news on both stations.

Sounds like a radical experiment, right? Not when you look at the big picture.

“I can remember when people thought they were being wacky to start at 6,” recalls Susan Newhook, who has been keeping a keen eye on the CBC newscasts following the announcement.

Newhook is an assistant professor at the King’s College School of Journalism and a veteran journalist. She has worked with the CBC in Halifax, Edmonton and on Here & Now in Newfoundland.

“For years, the news started at 6:30 on both stations,” she says. That radical change became a tradition for decades.

And so, yet another radical change has come!

To spoil some of the surprise right now, I’ll say though occasionally awkward, the extra half our is a worthwhile addition that serves to amplify the strengths and weaknesses of both newscasts.

So the only way to evaluate them was to do so comparatively, in the guise of two combatants entering the Thunderdome. Plus it’s more fun that way.

Let the Deathmatch begin!

ROUND 1:
THE FIRST WEEK

NTV made the change when First Edition premiered on August 24th. CBC’s Here & Now: Early Edition hit the airwaves the following Monday.

The two half-hour newscasts follow the same formula, concisely skimming the main events of the news day while promising more elaborate and detailed coverage in the news hour to come. NTV packaged this new addition as a separate program with its own anchor—Glen Carter.

Carter will be familiar to viewers as a regular figure on the NTV Evening News Hour and I think he does a fine job as First Edition’s sole anchor.

It does, however, seem a bit odd to have a thirty minute program of news highlights followed by an hour-long newscast. Doesn’t that reduce First Edition to a half-hour preview for the news at six? When I spoke to NTV news director Fred Hutton, he says the shorter program was built on an undying love for local news.

“With so many channels offering national and international news, you’d think that the audience wouldn’t be there,” Hutton said. “But the opposite is true. People want local news.”

But wasn’t this just a naked attempt to keep up with the competition?

The answer is a resounding maybe. Kinda.

“Yes, I would say that competition is a factor,” Hutton says, “but this is something we’ve considered doing for some time… Outside of Newfoundland, a ninety minute newscast is nothing new. In Halifax, they have a program called Live At Five which offers just that”.

Soooo… ongoing competition… lead to an already-discussed idea… to give people the news they crave according to the viewing figures.

It’s a reasonable explanation.

At least the folks at NTV gave the program its own anchor and its own identity, if only to prevent the News Hour hosts from burning out.

But over at the CBC, there are seemingly no new bodies to helm their Early Edition. And no extra publicity.

Is this really just a means to stretch out resources? And so soon after the lay-offs the CBC instituted earlier this year? As far as I know, there are no new jobs, and I’m fairly certain there was no increase in Here & Now’s budget. Does this just come down to making money for the network?

Susan Newhook, recalling a comment from former CBC producer Joan Donaldson, says extra time should never be turned down. You can only try to use it to your advantage.

Still, she says, it’s a challenge.

“The six o’clock segment doesn’t look all that different to me as far as style or content goes,” says Newhook. “But it’s a lot more to take on without a lot more resources to throw at it. You don’t need the same kinds of resources you needed ten or fifteen years ago, but you still need bodies”.

The strain of adding that extra half-hour was obvious in CBC’s first week. Far too much time was used up with Jonathan Crowe repeatedly asking viewers to comment on stories. It happened often enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the camera cut back to a despondent-looking Crowe holding up a cardboard sign with “Will Dance For Viewer Feedback” scrawled on it in Sharpie.

So in this first week, CBC’s Early Edition seemed to lack structure, and the on-air talent were struggling to adjust.

Their debut week seemed cursed with flubs.

One particularly low point came at the end of one newscast, following a brief on bus drivers penalizing foul-smelling passengers, where Jonathan Crowe signed off by wishing viewers “a malodorous day.” Then he paused, turned to Debbie and said “wait, that’s the opposite of what I…um…”Then the screen faded to black.

It’s no “keep plucking that chicken,” but I still wish I hadn’t erased that tape.

Granted, Here & Now was still a source of dependable stories, but it looked like it was stretched by the added half-hour. With their more polished delivery and relaxed atmosphere, NTV had the upper hand.

Round 1 Winner:

NTV

ROUND 2:
PERSONALITY

It’s no secret that CBC have been routinely getting beaten in the ratings by NTV ever since Here & Now was cut down to a meager thirty minutes in the early 2000s and paired with Canada Now, a national news show. The CBC made a pretty gross error in judgment there, downplaying one of its most beloved local programs in favor of yet another national newscast. It didn’t need fixing.

The local news you trust is one that should remain in place. The affection you hold for it is, as Susan Newhook describes, not unlike how you feel about “your Mom’s macaroni ‘n cheese.”

The reason for this is personality. It is the personalities of any newscast that is one of the driving factors in getting viewers to tune in every day.

NTV’s main strength here is that its main news team has remained unchanged for many years. If you grew up with anchors Fred Hutton and Lynn Burry, you can still see them on The NTV Evening News tonight.

Looking at them with fresh eyes, you can’t help but see why people choose to watch NTV. Fred and Lynn are still doing good work and so, too, is entertainment reporter Toni-Marie Wiseman.

Now, some doubtlessly read about Toni-Marie Wiseman and roll their eyes. It’s their loss. Despite being a popular TV personality, Wiseman has been on the receiving end of far too many jokes and false gossip over the years. It’s a shame, as she’s a very likeable presence on the show, and has most definitely earned an esteemed place in local broadcasting. I’m thinking of doing up a few “Free Toni-Marie” tees and selling them at the mall flea market.

Solidarity, people.

Moving down the dial, CBC was at a bit of a loss here, in my opinion. In fact, I think they’ve lost it when they lost the loveable, Charlie Brown-like Glenn Tilley. Sure, it’s been a while, but that guy was Here & Now to me. Fortunately, Debbie Cooper is still on the program and is still a top-notch anchor. Co-anchor Jonathan Crowe and reporter Azzo Rezzori, too, are ideal figures in the newscast.

That said, hands down the best recent addition to the CBC line-up is Ryan Snoddon as the new weatherman. Snoddon is knowledgeable and ridiculously enthusiastic about delivering the weather.

Round 2 Winner:

It’d be very tempting to call it a tie, but I have to give CBC the edge for Ryan Snoddon. He’s definitely a worthy heir to the weatherman throne that Karl Wells once occupied, and there is a tender place in the hearts of nans everywhere for the two of them.

ROUND 3:
CONTENT

Week three.

Here & Now was making an impressive rebound.

The team and the 5:30pm lead-in bolstered a renewed sense of focus. Their coverage of the Jim Walsh fraud case, the drug trade in Labrador West and the sinking of the Sea Gypsy were second to none. Melanie Nagy’s interview with Sea Gypsy survivor Jimmy Kavanagh was remarkable—one of the most compellingly told news stories I’ve heard all year.

Here & Now’s municipal elections coverage deserves special mention here too. Flexing its Internet muscle, CBC encouraged candidates to upload their own videos and info to the CBC website. The Mothercorp’s radio, television and online news divisions are become increasingly connected, seeing this gives me faith Here & Now will thrive with its increased airtime.

On NTV, it was business as usual. Which is what they do really well. While Fred Hutton, Lynn Bury, Toni-Marie Wiseman were as strong as ever, and Michael Connors’ report on the Walsh trial was strong, they couldn’t match Here & Now. Some stories suffered with oversimplified writing—as in when a reporter paused for much too long to explain what a cornea was.

Here & Now seemed able to handle late-breaking stories, while NTV’s Newshour didn’t touch them until the following night, as with the Mount Pearl flagman who’d been hit by a car. While these items were being brought to viewers attention on Here & Now, NTV would offer something like Places To Go. Nothing wrong with that.

When both supper-hour newscasts were lengthened, it seemed like NTV would benefit from having so many recurring “lite” segments. What better way to balance out the airtime? Ultimately, this could and should be the strength of The NTV Evening News Hour. If they’re operating on a lower-budget than the CBC, they can’t always compete when it comes to breaking stories. What they can do is create pieces with a focus on Newfoundland in a way that promotes community. While that certainly seems to be the intent of Places To Go, the segment routinely runs too long, making the whole affair seem like a naked advertorial. What is needed is for NTV to edit, revise and even eliminate some of these features to revitalize the News Hour. Change is good. That’s why the ninety minute format can succeed.

In my opinion, most of NTV’s segments in need of pruning are Today In History and Snook’s Stuff About Stuff. For the former, I can appreciate Jim Furlong’s interests, but isn’t it enough that he has a whole half-hour to do this sort of thing on ntv.ca (the show, not the website)? As for Snook… I’m not a fan of Snook, to put it lightly. It was bad enough when the CBC was airing his segments in the nineties. Now Snook’s just another unfunny Newfie joke.

ROUND 3 WINNER:

CBC.

Though the debate has raged on for years about the merits of each newscast, with many pointing to NTV’s superior ratings as the final word on the matter, Here & Now is the victor in this humble critic’s Newscast-Thunderdome.

While I can appreciate their focus on building community, NTV needs to rethink their program if they hope to match the CBC. After recovering from the disastrous Canada Now experiment in the early aughts and a shaky start with its Early Edition, it seems like Here & Now has returned stronger than ever in its current format.

WINNER OF THE MATCH:

CBC.

14 comments

  1. Elling Lien · December 30, 2011

    Here is where we look despondently at the camera holding a sign that reads, “WILL DANCE FOR READER FEEDBACK.”

  2. Ryan · December 30, 2011

    That illustration is awesome!

  3. Michael Collins · December 30, 2011

    Hooray CBC! I love you! I’ve always loved you, even though your logo looks like it’s radioactive.

  4. Francis · December 30, 2011

    While the content is great, NTV’s formatting reminds me of my grade 10 science presentation.

  5. ToddBaseball · December 30, 2011

    Toni-Marie Wiseman and Ryan Snodden should get together. It’d be like Romeo and Juliet.

  6. RonMexico · December 30, 2011

    Yes, that would be something.

    I’m hoping that CBC will forego the added half-hour of news in favor of a montage of Zack Goudie and Ryan Snoddon’s faces set to soft music. You could call it “Here & Now: Nan Porn Edition”

  7. Rick · December 30, 2011

    Where the heck should I officially comment on the bottom line?! That Bunnicula reference made my day!

  8. Elling Lien · December 30, 2011
  9. Sarah · December 30, 2011

    I’ll never again see the CBC logo as anything other than an evil exploding pizza wishing me a malodorous day.

  10. Emilie Bourque · December 30, 2011

    Adam, what a great piece…nice work! You obviously put a lot of hours into watching the shows and forming this clever critique…I loved it, and learned things I didn’t know about either show! Thanks for such good coverage of this deathmatch. Long live the CBC! You had me worried at the beginning of the article with so many props to NTV, but you made it all fair and square throughout! They both deserved the specific cred you gave them, well done. Great quotes from Sue Newhook as well.

  11. Prosdi Fetish Chat · December 30, 2011

    Can I just say what a comfort to discover a person that really understands what
    they’re talking about online. You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people ought to read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you are not more popular given that you surely have the gift.

  12. Gordon Gekko · December 30, 2011

    Newfoundland is still a small place and frankly we don’t have enough daily news to make for an interesting 60 minute broadcast every night, yet alone 90 minutes. NTV has to drag out their program with boring puff pieces and far too many weather reports. CBC actually had the right idea by trying to include more national news. However I find both programs boring and I look elsewhere for news.

  13. Jon · December 30, 2011

    Sorry, but I can’t stand NTV news. Change your look, change your news anchors, get rid of snook and basically just make the thing look like you are broadcasting in 2013, not 1982.

  14. Steve · December 30, 2011

    Gordon, I have to disagree with you in part. Yes, I think the 90 minutes is overkill, and three “weather hits” in a show is pure filler. I record Here and Now and fast forward through it in about 15 minutes. In contrast, the Fisheries Broadcast on CBC radio is the most content rich news and current affairs show on either medium. It’s broadcast 5 days a week on 640 AM. I live in St. John’s and I’ve got nothing to do with the fishery, but my wife and I always have it on during supper. I’m not sure how many staff they have, I’m thinking either one or two, but they are a prime example of how you can have a content rich news program without a big budget. The real reason we don’t have that type of news program in television is that TV news has forgotten how to do real news. Most of it is fluff and puff, because they think that’s what we want and they also (mistakenly) think it’s cheaper. I listen to the Fisheries Broadcast most days, and there are major issues and debates ongoing which will have a major impact on rural NL. Do these stories make the TV news? Hardly ever. Also, there are hundreds of municipalities across the province. On any given day, there are a number of issues being debated in towns across this province that have major impacts on their citizens, not only locally, but regionally. Do we hear about those? No. Somehow they find time to cover St. John’s City Hall though. Our provincial TV news programs now follow the US paradigm for local news – crap and filler – it’s a “show” not the news. It’s supposed to be “infotainment.” The result is that citizens (the electorate) are not well informed when it comes to the issues of the day when the go to vote. NTV was never a good news broadcast, but Here and Now used to be if you go back to the 70s and 80s – lots of good investigative reporting. Now if they do an investigative reporting piece, they celebrate it like Christmas, probably because it comes once a year.

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