A successful news organization fades to black
It’s a cool day in October 1976, and Connie Smith is working toward making history. In a time when television news stories are recorded on film and edits are spliced together, Smith starts her first day at CHCH TV, where she will become the first female anchor of weekday news in Hamilton. On this day she’s a general assignment reporter wearing a grey-green trench coat tied at the waist and big earrings that peek through her blond hair. She walks into a little house on Jackson Street, where the news team at Canada’s first independent station is about to have its morning meeting. Although she will break through the glass ceiling over her three decades at the station, even happy stories come to an end, and Smith’s is no exception.
For the last half-century, CHCH has offered award-winning local coverage to the Hamilton, Halton and Niagara regions, delivered daily news to over 1.5 million people and gained a reputation for homegrown programming and community involvement. Even most employees were local. When Smith, who was raised in Burlington and now resides in Hamilton with her family, started there, the station broadcast two half-hour news segments per day, one at 6 p.m. and another at 11 p.m. This allowed each reporter to focus a lot of time on his or her stories. And it’s a good thing, too, because in 1976 broadcasting was significantly more time-consuming. With fewer stories to chase, reporters could thoroughly research and develop their pieces, engage viewers and build relationships with their subjects and audience. This connection has been the foundation of CHCH’s local success.
Fast-forward to the present and there’s an average of six hours of news daily, leaving little time for reporters to nurture contacts and get involved in the community. The increased workload is only one of a series of cost-cutting changes—changes that could spell the end for employees, as well as the station’s regional identity. Patrick O’Hara, vice president of eastern stations at Canwest MediaWorks and general manager at CHCH Television, declined multiple requests for an interview. But when job cuts were first announced in 2007, O’Hara told The Hamilton Spectator that viewers wouldn’t notice. His reasoning: reporters and anchors would remain and all losses would be behind the scenes. Then, Canwest Global Communications Corp. announced last November that it would eliminate another 560 jobs from its 9,800-person workforce, one measure among many, to save $61 million annually. Smith was told that her anchor duties would end, and her SaturdayStraight Talk, a public affairs show covering local issues, would be cancelled. “The letter read that my anchor position was being terminated, and I said, ‘Okay, this is it. My time has come.’” Even then, she was thinking of her viewers. “They’re going to see their community station as [being] under attack.”
Even in the early years,the station was proud to be in Hamilton. On June 7, 1954, Jack Burghardt, one of CHCH’s original on-air personalities, said the first words ever broadcast on the station, then a CBC-owned channel: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Hamilton. And this is Hamilton’s own TV station on the air.” But in 1961, CHCH seceded from CBC and became a part of Niagara Television Ltd., a broadcast consortium. This move made CHCH the first independent television station in Canada. With no network affiliation, CHCH was able to focus on local programming and avoid the obligation to carry CBC content. The station became known for its own shows, including the fondly remembered Tiny Talent Time,The Red Green Show and extension courses offered by McMaster University.
In 1997, the station was renamed ONTV and its frequency extended to all of Ontario, under the new direction of the Western International Communications company, which purchased the station after a series of ownership changes. But in 2000, Canwest MediaWorks purchased ONTV, and in the fall of 2007, CHCH turned over management to U.S.-based E! Entertainment. Smith says, “As ownership changed through the ’90s, it tugged away at the station’s identity and will.” For Canwest, it meant glamming up a small community station with the flash-and-bang of international entertainment news.
The five CH stations became E! as part of Canwest’s ownership changes. But the news direction was unchanged: E! affected other programming and, unfortunately for some, job stability. And as a result of the agreement, Canwest planned to centralize control of its network, meaning for the CH stations (including Montreal’s CJNT) across Canada, local control rooms would be eliminated and re-established with fewer people and more technology. Local studios were closed and relocated to larger, neighbouring cities—for example, Victoria to Vancouver. It appears that CHCH will be the last of Canwest’s E! holdings to complete the control room transformation, but no company rep would verify this. Individual calls to all other stations confirm that they have already switched to digital technology. Warren Yanish worked as on-air director for CHCH News starting in 2003, and was responsible for making sure segments moved smoothly from the control room. “For the stations that have already switched over to the digital technology, it’s cookie-cutter news,” he says. News on all stations looks the same, and there’s no room for creativity. Yanish, 34, is one of the many production people in Hamilton who were told they would lose their job if the control room moved to Toronto. He has since been let go, even without the move. And without hard feelings or lingering resentments, he maintains that a problem with proposed “robotic cameras” and an unstaffed local studio is the potential for delay and mistakes. “You have people in Vancouver controlling people in Victoria, for example, and with virtual technology, things can go really badly, really quickly,” says Yanish.
For Smith, now 54, Canwest’s purchase of CHCH was a bittersweet transition time. With Canwest came the opportunity to be part of a strong national network with global corporate ties that back in 2000 had plenty of money to spend. But there was also growing pressure to marry its prime time programming with the news—using the news segments to endorse programs coming up in prime time. “Our news fulfils our mandate for CRTC, but prime time pays our bills,” Smith says.
Still, according to Nick Garbutt, a CHCH microwave-truck operator and local president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unit, Canwest seemed more fiscally responsible than past owners, and with that came more resources for the newsroom. For example, Canwest launched Morning Live, a weekday morning news segment airing 5:30 to 9 a.m., and it has since become one of the most successful programs at CHCH. In 2000, Canwest allowed the station to return to its roots—Hamilton, Halton and Niagara—becoming the best version of itself once again. Smith was named Halton Woman of the Year in 2004, and earned an Exceptional Public Awareness Award for the 2003 documentary Elizabeth’s Hope, the story of a local woman’s fight with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Until fall 2007, Canwest exerted limited influence over news coverage and reporting. That was true even after E! became involved. The good times were bound to end.
CHEK in Victoria, B.C., was one of the first examples of Canwest applying its ownership powers, when it announced in fall 2008 the transformation from a full-service control room in the Victoria studio to a digital control room in Vancouver. John Pollard, general manager of CHEK, was promoted from senior account executive after the control room switch. According to him, the move to the digital system allowed CHEK to be quicker—it could share stories across the country and didn’t have to wait for feeds. But the shift hasn’t been smooth. Minor technical glitches have cropped up: for example, audio that is slightly off, making anchors appear to be lip-syncing. Pollard says, “It’s tough at first but not impossible.” And, he says, it makes the station cheaper to run.
Finances are a major consideration for Canwest Global, which reported a $33-million loss last November compared to a profit of $41 million for the same period a year earlier. Canwest stated at the time, contrary to earlier announcements, that any plans to invest, including the move to digital, would be put on hold. Instead, 14 full-time CHCH staff were let go, and the station closed its Halton bureau, cancelled four shows and reduced its News at Noon program by half, to 30 minutes.
These changes indicate the slow demise of the station, but for now, viewers are getting diminished quality news and less coverage. The remaining employees have been asked to absorb the workload of their laid-off colleagues, and since there aren’t enough reporters to cover all local news, there’s less time for the surviving reporters and videographers to research and polish their broadcasts. Kurt Muller, professor and coordinator of the journalism program at Mohawk College in Hamilton, believes in order to provide in-depth coverage of the local community, the station needs bodies. “When you cut back on the number of journalists that get that news,” he says, “there’s no doubt the coverage will suffer.”
And it might not end there. In November, Canwest president and CEO Leonard Asper told The Canadian Press that the company intends to do whatever is necessary to improve its financial performance. But with the depressed economy and a considerable debt from its acquisition of Canadian papers from Hollinger International Inc. back in 2001, “whatever it takes” turned into a desperate attempt to slash its operating and capital costs. Canwest was thinking about divesting non-core assets. In February 2009, it put its five E! stations up for sale as it faced a seemingly insurmountable principal debt of $761 million, with a $30.4 million interest payment due in early April. If Canwest cannot sell the CH stations, it may close them down entirely (at press time, CHCH was still operating). Even before this, in late fall, Smith was offered a choice between a de facto demotion—return to a reporter position—or leaving the station. Dan McLean was also in negotiations to save his job. Both personalities are the most recognizable on-air figures in Hamilton and have called CHCH home since the 1970s. Losing these faces could cost the station more than it was hoping to save. Muller says, “When people see TV anchors and personalities they grew up with moving on to other things, it’s like losing a family member.” Garbutt agrees: “I think viewers develop a bond with the on-air people they’ve come to know and trust.” He believes the person delivering the news is just as important to the viewer as the news itself.
Whether it’s news or anchors, change is hard to handle, and disappointment with local media is spreading among its loyal audience. Wendy Mans-Keddie, president of Mountaineer Movers, a small local business, describes the problem at CHCH as one where a local station is being gobbled up by the big, bad conglomerate. “They’ve lost some of that small-town feel,” she says, “and that’s what made them who they are.” Mans-Keddie has lived in Hamilton all her life and has been watching CHCH for 40 years. “I’ve grown up with CHCH and I’ve seen it evolve over the years.” Although she loves the Morning Live segment, she wants to see the community aspect brought back into the news and more of an emphasis on volunteer groups and local farmers.
After the early 2009 decision to put CHCH up for sale, Mans-Keddie joined the Facebook group “Save CHCH News.” Says the group page: “The viewers … need to take a stand and let our voices be heard…. First we lose our long-time anchors Dan McLean and Connie Smith and now we may very well lose our entire station.” The group has over 13,500 members and supports the proposal to make CHCH News community-owned and controlled. This model would operate like a hospital, governed by a local board of directors. It would focus mainly on local content and would air no American programming. This Facebook group is an example of the passionate viewership’s commitment to the station.
Not all viewers are willing to fight for its survival; some viewers have just moved on. For the Hamilton chapter of the Greater Toronto Lions Club, the annual dog walk, a fundraising event in May, has benefitted from community involvement and exposure from the local media since its inception in 1983—local media, of course, being CHCH. But that coverage stopped three years ago. “In the past, anything to do with the Lions, they were there. Now they’re not,” says Mark Gunby, vice-district governor of the Hamilton chapter. This isn’t just sour grapes on Gunby’s part: the Lions Club counts on volunteers, so when the local news station no longer covers its events, fewer people know about the organization and fewer of them sign up as volunteers. “They’re not the local news station they used to be,” he says. Gunby no longer watches CHCH Channel 11. His go-to station for news is Cable 14, a local specialty channel.
But some like the changes. Rick Zalitack has been watching CHCH for 30 years and likes Morning Live and the traffic helicopter introduced in 2007. “My mom likes to watch entertainment after the news, and I love how the helicopter shows the traffic on the local highways.” Zalitack doesn’t see why E!’s involvement with the station would be an issue. According to him, American programming is the “best,” and if Canwest’s agreement with E! allows for access to that, then it was a great deal.
After weeks of quiet deliberations, both McLean and Smith decided to end their affiliation with CHCH. The two anchors are leaving behind a combined 69-year legacy with the station. Smith sees her departure as a financial decision: “Dan and I leaving was a desperate bid to change some numbers on a ledger page,” she says. News at Noon on November 28 last year was Smith’s final broadcast. In her farewell, she thanked her viewers and the station for taking a chance on her. “Thank you for allowing me into your hearts, into your homes, for sharing your stories,” she said.
“Dan and I were there through thick and thin—two Gulf wars, 9/11, major political stories. We covered a lot of history together,” she says over the phone, days after that final sign-off. Viewers have been writing to theSpectator, voicing their sense of loss over Smith and McLean. As they say goodbye to their beloved anchors, viewers may just have to bid adieu to CHCH as well.
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.