Astrid Van Den Broek

Missing the Big Picture

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How Prime Time Magazine's documentaries have lost the wider vision of The Journal

I’m Pamela Wallin. Tonight on our magazine, theRyerson Review of Journalism will look at how documentaries have changed at the CBC evening news show, and why Canada should care. With the killing off of The Journal, the esteemed current affairs program, we’re going to examine how its replacement, Prime Time Magazine, is living up to its big sister…or isn’t. That’s later on our magazine.

A fantasy script, obviously. Wallin wouldn’t be caught dead comparing “her” magazine with its predecesor on air. But comparisons are inevitable. In retrospect, The Journal, the golden current affairs program glittering with foreign documentaries and high-profile interviews, that for a decade followed The National five nights a week, does seem like the successful and beautiful big sister, heaped with money and praise. And Prime Time Magazine (PTM) does seem like the not-so-pretty sister – painfully earnest, prone to criticism, and with little of the cash lavished on her sibling by Mother Corp.

The Journal was babied from the start. Much hype surrounded its birth in early 1982. From there on, it was blessed with an annual allowance of, estimates range, from $10-$14 million. The show attracted many bright and talented journalism stars, some say the best in the field, producing top documentaries that would eventually be shown in more than 20 countries.

But in 1992, both The National and The Journal were abruptly ousted in a round of budget cuts (The National has since moved onto CBC Newsworld). In their place came Prime Time News, formatted on the successfu BBC model of mixing documentaries and news throughout the hour. There’d be no clearly defined slots for either news or documentaries. As part of the repositioning shift in the entire CBC television schedule, the show moved back to 9 p.m. in hopes of attracting a younger, larger audience, and added co-host Pamela Wallin for long-time solo anchor Peter Mansbridge.

After two years of fumbling, spotlighted by brutal media and public criticism, the show returned to 10 p.m. last September, and to a format clearly reminiscent of its predecessor. Wallin was pushed across the studio to her own desk to host, and obviously separate, the back half of the show, PTM.

But the content was not like its predecessor’s and the critics, if anything, were more disparaging of PTM’s interviews and documentaries. “The banishment of Pamela Wallin to the magazine serves only to reinforce the impression that the interview/documentary segment of Prime Time News is a pale shadow of The Journal,” wrote Mike Boone, in the September Montreal Gazette.

Something is missing from Prime Time documentaries. Gone are The Journal’s panoramic, sometimes offbeat analyses. “The Journal is more than a good beyond-the-headlines interview show in the Nightine mode, thanks to its documentary unit, known for the excellence of its foreign reportage,” wrote Martin Knelman in a 1985 Channels magazine article. “The Journal is at its best when it takes dramatic risks, often with long documentaries on subjects that are not topical, such as Vichy, France and questionable cancer treatments.”

Gone too are such in-depth ventures as sending The Journal’s Eric Rankin to Amman at the beginning of the Gulf War to examine Saddam Hussein’s rising popularity. Viewers rode with a cabby who passionately spoke of his love for Hussein, and listened as a young man explained in his broken English why he hated Israel and America: “Can you tell me if anyone comes and occupied your house or your country – do you like him?” the young man threw back at the camera. “And you know well that someday he will toss you out from your country or he has already tossed you out. Do you like him? And do you like anyone [who] helps him?” Pause. “I don’t think so.”

On PTM, most often you’ll see Wallin lead off with a double-ender interview (two people staring into cameras, conducting the actual interview through phone lines). Or “The Canadian Debate,” consisting of a roundtable discussion or a packed townhall – a handsome showcase for her but not doucmentary fare. The rest of PTM may consist of one or two brief mini-docs (TV slang for “documentary”) or a a report – it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which. Full-edition documentaries, devoted to a single, pithy, and often thought-provoking subject, have all but disappeared.

Telling a good story and taking the viewer within is the key to good documentaries. A superior doc is clear, insightful, and visually rich. Ideally, it is also full of passion, with a strong feel and texture, and it attempts to make an emotional connection with the viewer – be it sadness, delight, or anger.

But the story should be told through visuals and sound, rather than simply piecing talking heads together with a voice-over – which happens too often on PTM.

“The documentary traditionally is done without an on-screen interpreter,” says Peter Flemington, director of programming at Vision TV, who has been in the business for more than three decades. As well, “documentaries tend to be a little more deliberative.” What Prime Time Magazine makes, says Fleminton, are not documentaries. Instead, he and fellow documentarians think that the CBC is doing straight current affairs – elongated news clips.

True documentaries offer a different spin on issues – more depth and a greater sense of reality by taking you to the subject – vastly different than what a studio interview offers. “In a studio, you see the same deep thinkers,” says Tom Alderman, a reporter from The Journal who is now with PTM. “Good talking heads, but you’ve seen them before. It’s not like getting out into another world, like docs do for you.”

Like Studio 2 did on its premiere show this year. The new TVO current affairs program (created by one of The Journal’s architects, Peter Herrndorf) featured a segment on a lesbian dinner party “filmed vertiginously by a single handheld camera,” wrote Tony Atherton of The Ottawa Citizen. “The kind of classic TV experiment we used to get on The Journal before the imagination of CBC’s current affairs producers was subjugated by Prime Time News’ deadly earnestness.”

The “deadly earnestness” that irritates critics apparently doesn’t drive off many viewers. In the first four months of PTM’s 10 p.m. reincarnation, the average-minute audience was recorded at 806,000 viewers – not dramatically less than the 850,000 viewers in the same four months of The Journal’s final season, which in turn was down from 932,000 in its second-last season. (Overall, these numbers might suggest a growing disenchantment with the news hour.)

In any case, the current regime – largely the same group of documentary makers who produced The Journal – seems more preoccupied with lack of cash than lack of viewers. Executive producer Tony Burman says the magazine is working with approximately 400 percent less money as a result of the 1990 slash-and-burn budget cuts handed down by Tory government. And the 1995 budget has taken another large dip into CBC funding, perhaps affecting the flagship show once again. In its final season, The Journal worked with $120,000 per week, with $90-95,000 going toward documentaries. PTM, with a budget of $70,000 per week, spends approximately $50,000 on documentaries. And since the show tries to shoot documentaries for around $20,000 each (obviously that varies with subject, location, and complication), viewers are seeing considerably fewer of them.

Documentaries live or die on cash,” says William Cobban, a Prime Time documentary producer. “With news, no one has to say, ‘Shoould we send a reporter to Moscow and buy a satellite feed for him?’ It’s already there. So that money is already spent.” But a documentary sitting on a piece of paper starts from zero, he says. “No money has been spent, and there’s been absolutely no commitment made to it.”

Current funds certainly don’t permit plane-hopping across the globe for a story anymore. Right after the first edition of The Journal on January 11, 1982, host Barbara Frum bragged to the audience that The Journal’s documentary cameras were already on four continents – Peter Kent in Uganda, Leslie MacKinnon in Toronto, Hugh Winsor in Ottawa, Susan Resler in Washington, Ann MacMillan in London, Linden MacIntyre in the high Arctic, Ann Medina in Israel.

An intense amount of work went into putting those event-oriented Journal docs together during the two years the show was being designed before airing. Ideas started with a mini-research team called the “insight unit,” says then-Journal reporter Peter Kent – ideas for full-takeout, full-edition, topical shows on themes such as medicare, taxation, and Canadian security intelligence. “Big picture docs,” says Kent says. Post-mortem meetings critically picked apart each previous night’s docs. “They were the most brutal, bloody, curel, soul-destroting meetings and we had people leave intears from some,” Kent recalls.

Nevertheless, he and others remember those as stimulating times, especially under executive producer Mark Starowicz, whose vision and style left an indelible stamp on The Journal. “The documentary unit was seen, of course, as the elite and the privileged,” says Suanne Kelman, a former producer with The Journal who is now teaching broadcast journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University. “Yes, these were high-prestige jobs. And at the beginning, there was a lot of money, which then translated into a lot of freedom to do what you want.”

Those freewheeling days are gone, perhaps forever. “We have to make choices now,” says Prime Time’s Burman. “We can’t do everything. We just don’t have the luxury of going after stories we feel are too chancy. In other words, we have got to be clear as to what our objectives are. There’s far more of a domestic focus to our documentary making now.”

Now, viewers are more likely to see Joe Schlesinger in British Columbia trying to sort out Canadian multiculturalism, part of a continuing inquiry the show launched in September to “explore how much common ground there is amid the conflicting visions which Canadians have of this country,” as outlined in a PTM mandate memo. Or an examination of the Quebec controversy about young Muslim women wearing their traditional dress to school.

Documentaries are not only more domestic, but more often angled to issues of the moment, such as Terence McKenna’s “Voices of Quebec” doc that aired four days before the 1994 Quebec election. “The magazine…will emphasize more quick-response documentary and tape/talk treatment of what’s behind unfolding stories and topical issues,” reads PTM’s mandate memo. “There has certainly been a sense that we should tie the magazine to more current events,” says William Cobban. “So there are less features, that’s fair to say.”

Tying docs to current events can come across as topical – or as warmed-over news. But Daniel Gelfant, senior producer of Prime Time’s documentary unit (and described as one of The Journal’s star producers), makes no apology for the new approach. “We still have a lot of range,” he says. “Perhaps not quite the eclecticism of The Journal, but we still do psychics. We still do statistics. We still do basketball.” He says if anything, the budget cuts have helped Prime Time focus more tightly on the story.

With Prime Time’s financial constraints came “integration,” a controversial mixing of resources, bringing together the crews of news and current affairs – divisions that in the past had a line of masking tape laid between them. Now, reporters cross the line either way and do a documentary or a news report if they so choose, or if so assigned. Whether this produces better, worse or simply different documentaries is arguable.

Both The National and The Journal were so well stocked with staff (The Journal at one point has 10 units, four people per unit) that sometimes crews from each show arrived at the same event. “There was a kind of separate but equal rivalry that developed between the two halves of the program,” says one former Journal producer, now with PTM, who asked to be unnamed. “Now that it’s integrated, a bit of the edge has kind of been taken off things….I think that kind of competition was a net plus, at least for the audience.

The melding of crews raises another question: can a news reporter do a documentary- and, by implication, a good documentary-as in The Journal days when everyone was a specialist?

“Quite often, news people have a difficult time trying to do a long piece,” says Tom Alderman. “They’re just not used to it. Producers who have worked with news reporters on documentaries have to almost take them like they’re in kindergarten and explain to them what to do. And even then they don’t get it.”

But the wall between news and current affairs isn’t insurmountable for a reporter. Prime Time’s senior correspondent, Brian Stewart, is one who has scaled it often. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world,” says Stewart, who started with The National and later moved to The Journal. “Almost all news reporters underestimate how difficult it is. We tend to think of a documentary as just a longer form of a news story. it took me well over a year to learn how to make a decent documentary. It’s a very different beast than a news story.”

Perhaps more crucial to making quality documentaries in times of budget austerity is a clear vision, point of view, or “mind set.” Although great efforts must be made to integrate resources and planning, says Stewart, “there still has to be a separate mindset [for PT News and PT Magazine]. It’s very important that the separate task of each, the separate mandate, is understood and respected. The worst thing Prime Time Magazine could do is to think of itself as just junior son of the news department.”

Stewart adds that creative ingenuity can compensate for lack of money. Writing, editing, and craftsmanship have to be that much better. And if live footage is lacking in a story, graphics can be used instead to bridge the gaps, “getting you into places you can’t get into.” In Stewart’s recent documentary, “Autopsy of a Genocid,” about the slaughters in Rwanda, he not only used a graphic illustrative map, but a series of graphically composed “file folders,” one for each organization that failed to stop what was about to happen in Rwanda at the time.

This might be a grumpy old former CBC employee,” says Peter Kent, “but I think PTM is overproduced. “Slick graphics may give the impression of too slick a show, therefore forsaking the grittiness of live fottage.

Prime Time’s efficiency measures have also brought new production techniques. In the past, a documentary crew worked as a unit. Reporter, producer, cameraman, and soundman all had editorial say on what went into the piece. Now doc makers can pick up a clip from crews across the country instead of flying out to shoot it themselves. Obviously an effective money-saving technique, but does it sacrifice quality? Yes, says Anne Medina, one of The Journal’s reporters and now chair of The Academy, which produces both the Genie and the Gemini Awards. She thinks it is crucial that only one crew be used thorughout the making of an entire doucmentary.

“Continuity,” she says of The Journal’s doc units. “They knew the story. Their focus of attention would be a little different than if they were just popped in for a day. They were part of the story.”

Does any of this prove that PTM is “a pale shadow” of its predecessor or simply that it is different? Neither, according to producer William Cobban. It’s a work in progress. “The documentaries are getting longer and better, and much more like The Journal’s,” says Cobban. “In fact, people have said, ‘Let’s bring back those Journal documentaries.'”

Brian Stewart explains that “The Journal sort of set a standard for news/current affairs documentaries in the ’80s and early ’90s. That will continue to be the standard for many years to come.”

But does PTM live up to that standard? Does it even live up to its stated mission? In 1982, The Journal’s Starowicz said in a Maclean’s article, “Any program concept is ultimately reduced to a terrible simplicity. As It Happens was ‘reach them.’ Sunday Morning was ‘you are there.’ Elements of both ideas are in The Journal.”

If such is the case, Prime Time’s concept seems to be “explain it to them.” “The mission of CBC Prime Time News is to help Canadians understand the issues and events that matter to them most,” reads the first line of Prime Time’s mission statement. “Our method is to reveal, to explain and to provoke.” The trouble is, it explains more often than it provokes.

The tendency to present all sides and tread softly can be traced in part to CBC’s historic sensitivity to pressure groups, says Peter Kent. Even The Journal suffered to some extent from its fear of offending the nation, but the current climate of political correctness has further compromised the voice of PTM documentaries. “[The CBC] tends to water down points of view,” says Kent, “eliminate them entirely or add too many points of view so that a piece becomes mushy.”

Mother Corp. can be faulted to some degree for crimping the style of the “Not-so-pretty sister,” but Kent doesn’t buy the argument that docs “live or die on cash” and that PTM doesn’t have enough of it. “You know, the CBC is a very wasteful organization,” he says. “There’s always been what could be described as small ‘w’ waste. They’re a lot leaner than in the high Journal days but a lot fatter than any comparable news organization. Compared to BBC, PBS, RAI, they’re in the lap of luxury in terms of not having to face real cost accountability.”

What about public accountability?

“The point is, for the money they’ve got,” says media critic Rick Salutin, “they should be producing a hell of a lot better than they are.”


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