Dick Snyder
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New Kids on the Block

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Tunes and roans make way for news and views as MuchMusic and YTV gamble on journalism

THEY DESCENDED ON LAST SUMMER’S TORY convention with a fury and spread out across the Ottawa Civic Centre like a crack battalion of Keystone Cops. It was the crowd from the nation’s music station, MuchMusic; newcomers to the political scene, a bunch of partiers in their 20s and 30s with no pretensions and a lot of energy. A motley crew, all hair and flash. But they weren’t alone. Another gang roamed the floor, hunting pundits, delegates, and politicians, trying desperately to make its presence felt. It was the crowd from the nation’s youth station, YTV; newcomers, too, in their eatly to mid-20s, with a lot of pretension and an irritating perkiness. Blow-dried, clean-cut, and wrinkle-free.

The rockers versus the mods, they met on the convention floor and battled it out with ENG gear, remote links and journalistic intent. Guess what? The rockers won. Let’s face it. Last June’s Tory convention was a bore-the event and the coverage. Oozing from the TV screens tuned to CBC, CTV, and Global, the longwinded analysis (courtesy of Tory stalwarts Pat Carney and Barbara McDougall, pollster Allan Gregg, and former Brian Mulroney advisor Hugh Segal) was fatuous, self-congratulatory and agenda-driven. Globe and Mail media critic Rick Salutin called the coverage “a day-long TV ad for politics as usual.” No wonder political apathy is so high and the esteem of the media is so low. Coverage like this creates an exclusionary atmosphere, surrounding politics like a suffocating layer of shrink-wrap. MuchMusic and YTV News were there to puncture it.

MuchMusic didn’t even have a regular news show when it decided to crash the convention. The occasional politician had dropped by its studio for a chat in between music videos, and earlier in the spring veejay Erica Ehm had filed reports from Jean Chretien’s campaign bus, but there was no forum for daily or even weekly current events coverage. YTV was a little more experienced, having produced the weekly YTV News, an earnest and upbeat half hour co-production with CTV, since February 1993. The convention gave these newcomers a wide-open playing field kind of like an exhibition game. It wasn’t breaking news, so there weren’t any serious deadlines, and it wasn’t critical news, since the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion. It was purely an exercise. If they wanted, they could blow it apart like Rolling Stone reporter Hunter S. Thompson did on the U.S. presidential campaign trail in 1972. They could interpret the posturing and politicking on radical new terms; their own. Well, MuchMusic took up the challenge. YTV News shrank from it.

MUCHMUSIC ZEROED RIGHT IN ON THE puffery of the Tory convention and gave its viewers an irreverent, behind-the-facade look at the event and its coverage. There was analysis of convention food (“Who pays for the sandwiches?”), an interpretation of convention-floor position jockeying (“It’s like colour war at summer camp!”), an incisive grilling of politicians (“Yo, Brian! Wha’s up?!”), and revealing investigative journalism (“There’s this [media] booth-envy thing happening. Let’s go compare some booths, shall we ?”). It couldn’t help but appeal to MuchMusic’s audience, 18- to 34-year-olds who like music, pop culture, and entertainment, and have a healthy disregard for the status quo. But media critics were almost unanimously positive too. An enthusiastic Hester Riches of The Vancouver Sun wrote: “MuchMusic’s unpolished and irreverent coverage (Take Me to Your Leader, they called it) was the most watchable.” Globe and Mail TV critic John Haslett Cuff says, “The fact that I watched it more than I watched any other coverage tells you something. They provided a credible alternative to the pompous, boring bullshit on the other networks.”

Including YTV. YTVNews wasn’t as frivolous…or insightful…or watchable as MuchMusic. Attempting to relate to and enlighten 12- to 17 -year-olds, YTV News provided interviews with youth delegates, analysis of political jargon, and panel discussions with teenagers and journalism students, all chaired by two clean-cut hosts in their 20s. Attempts made to be hip and entertaining-an astrologer spot and reports on convention food and fashions-were weak and self-conscious. The booth talk with young politicos came across like Prime Time News Jr .-would be cronies trying to impress each other with I’m-more-politically-aware-than-you-are talk (just like on the real TV stations!). Despite a huge CTV editorial and technical crew, the product was profoundly amateurish. As Toronto Star media writer Antonia Zerbisias bluntly states, “It was dull.”

Over the last year, both MuchMusic and YTV News have been trying, in their own vastly different ways, to bring a news shy young audience into the fold. So far, one thing is clear: when MuchMusic chooses to do news, it makes ¥TV News look like a puppet show. And today’s media-savvy youth don’t like puppets. Unfortunately, politics and news coverage are occupying less and less airtime at MuchMusic, and less and less brain time at YTV. Too bad. YTV should get hip or get out of it, and MuchMusic should keep on rockin’ the boat.

BOTH STATIONS BROADCAST COAST TO coast, out of Toronto, via basic cable service. But that’s about all they have in common. In September 1988, YTV started beaming programs directly at kids, from under-fives to teens. Cartoons, family sitcoms, reruns of low-rent shows like Doctor Who and Batman, and cute studio shows about kids and their fridge art have since become YTV staples. Oh yeah, and puppets. Lots of ’em. To its credit, YTV has garnered considerable praise for its original youth productions of drama and comedy programs.

Into this mix came the weekly YTV News because, says YTV’s producer Michael Quast, the station’s focus groups showed that “kids feel alienated by regular newscasts.” Quast wanted YTV News to explain events to kids “in a way that doesn’t pander to the audience or talk above them. We want them to walk away with something they can use and talk about with their friends.” Yet to do this, YTV chose a mainstream news format: half an hour of news with two hosts sitting in a bright studio, throwing to field reporters and network reports, all tightly scripted and flawlessly executed.

In contrast, MuchMusic has revealed itself as YTV’s older, garish, ne’er-do-well cousin (or evil twin). While YTV stays at home making sure the kids finish their vegetables and get to bed on time, MuchMusic is out till all hours, dressed like a tramp and looking for a party. The brainchild of electronic communications guru Moses Znaimer and sibling to Toronto station Citytv, MuchMusic hit the airwaves in 1984, playing rock videos 24 hours a day to an insomniac audience. This remained the station’s focus until January 1993, when Denise Donlon took over as director of music programming. She brought with her a reputation for producing issue-oriented music journalism on City’s The New Music-and a mission. She and Znaimer had decided to embark on a “drive for relevance”: using music to educate the rock video audience about issues and current events. Donlon’s reasons for doing this are simple: “I thought it was important.”

JUST HOW IMPORTANT THESE NEW NEWS efforts are has been decided up to now by the people writing the media columns. A few articles appeared about YTV News soon after its premiere last February, most saying with heart-warming optimism and longing that news will be getting a fresh new face. Globe and Mail arts reporter Christopher Harris wrote that the definition and reportage of news is “reinvented with each new generation,” therefore making “YTV News an interesting glimpse into the future.” Little has been written about it since.

Compared with the demure debut of YTV News, MuchMusic’s unconventional coming out “rattled newsrooms,” according to the Star’s Antonia Zerbisias. “Not because MuchMusic is a journalistic threat or even a ratings threat-let’s get serious-but because it reminded the news media that the times have changed and their journalism hasn’t.” Rick Salutin says that this unwillingness to change is the result of an out-of-touch, arrogant, boomer-dominated establishment. “The question really is, are the other news organizations doing journalism or is it propaganda? MuchMusic was actually reporting, rather than presenting what the Tory machine wants them to. I mean, look who the CBC brought in to the convention. Hugh Segal!”

Instead, the people at MuchMusic brought in rock stars to interview politicians. Refreshing, yes. Successful? Well…having an inane cutie-boy like the Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page tongue tripping his way through an interview with Kim Campbell is bad enough (nobody takes his lyrics seriously anyway). But having to watch him flounder to explain his frustration over Campbell’s deficit-reduction obsession was painfully boring and embarrassing and made me wonder-is this good for kids?

Broadcast Week columnist John Doyle thinks it was valid television. “When Page failed, you saw his naivete. He thought he would get a straight answer.” In other words, viewers could see themselves in that chair, asking the question and being confused by the response. “It put the politician in a different light,” Doyle says. And Kim Campbell blew the exchange, showing that she really couldn’t communicate with what was, after all, the streetlevel voter. Jean Chretien, on the other hand, sailed through it. He didn’t patronize and he avoided jargon. If nothing else, MuchMusic illustrated that by creating a casual environment, not only physically but also psychologically, people can communicate on a different level.

The pairing of rock star and politician was a risky maneuver. Greg Quill, television critic for the Star, credits Donlon with having “the courage to be awkward,” which is “part of the genius of broadcasting and performing.” Quill groaned when he first heard her plan. But after watching the results, he changed his mind. “It was a real nice gamble on Denise’s part. It worked.”

A highlight of her gamble was Rush drummer Neil Peart questioning Jean Chretien. “You said you will take a pen and write, ‘No helicopters,'” Peart said. “Would you consider writing ‘No handguns’?” It caught Chretien off guard; usually reacting with a quip, this time he fumbled. There was audible approval from the media hounds and the audience, 60 people from pre-voting age to their late 20s.

Granted, half of them were there just to be near the megastar musician. Donlon had counted on that. “It was a stepping stone into the process,” she says. And it worked for a teenage couple who had walked off the street and into the studio for the show. They told me they tried to read newspapers and watch regular news but found them confusing and impenetrable. It also worked for I8-year-old David Chew, who appreciated seeing politicians on the channel he watches, rather than the one his parents watch. “Some of the kids in my school became aware of issues from watching Much,” he said. “They wouldn’t turn on Prime Time.” By using pop culture and street language, MuchMusic was making a connection. Donlon doesn’t make it out to be any more than that. The onus is still on viewers to draw their own conclusions and, if interested, to look elsewhere for more information. Because, as Donlon says, “At the end of the day, we want to dance.”

For young people who place the popmusic ethos high on their list of priorities, MuchMusic’s straight-talking, hip, and videogenic veejays make appealing newscasters. But do they know their way around the news? Does it matter that they don’t have political science and journalism degrees? No. When Donlon first approached her staff with plans to go “relevant,” she got a lot of blank stares. But then, “Veejay Master T turned into a three-paper guy the next day.” And the learn-as-you-go attitude worked. The subtext beneath the Tory convention coverage was: What a triP! We don’t know what’s going on here, either. Come with us and we’ll try to find out. The message was that anyone can get involved, not just the experts.

Donlon told her veejays to forget about trying to come up with the most insightful policy question ever, and just be themselves. “That’s the big strength, being able to ask the question that the viewer wants to ask but can’t, and not feeling bad about it if you don’t understand something,” she says. John Doyle adds, “The veejays bring a fresh perspective. It’s a mistake to assume they’re ignorant or naive about politics. They’re not. MuchMusic people are very savvy.”

Former Canada AM host Gail Scott welcomes their approach. During the convention, while all the other stations, including YTV, filled their booths with “experts,” she says, MuchMusic sat back and let it all speak for itself: the inanity of a scrum with outgoing prime minister Brian Mulroney or an interview with leadership candidate Jim Edwards, who told Master T, “I’m chilled out, man.” Scott, now a CRTC commissioner, liked the fact that MuchMusic abstained from “fatuous analysis,” and wishes the others would practise the same restraint.

Doyle thinks mainstream media could learn from MuchMusic. “They should understand that young people see politics in the context of pop culture,” he says. “It’s part of music, media; issues sung in pop songs and dramatized in videos.” For Moses Znaimer, it’s more than that. According to him, the standards that are used to judge television today “come from a different time,” and just don’t apply anymore. His audience possesses a mind-set, not an age bracket. “Today, it’s more about state of mind-psychographics rather than demographics,” he says. “It’s about being informal, progressive, urban-that’s the new blend. Music is the soundtrack to all of that.” And music and pop culture are the link to the post-boomer generations.

OYER AT YTV, THE PREY AILING STATE OF mind is stubbornly opposed to Znaimer’s. YTV’s Michael Quast and CTV producer Jeff Preyra insist that their focus groups prove they’re on the right track. “We’re staying away from the rock thing because people are tired of it,” Preyra contends. (Donlon dismisses this statement with a “Huh?” and a terse: “You can make studies say anything you want.”)

Quast finds the rock- and pop-culture approach dishonest. “If you’re going to talk about politics, then do it. Is the purpose of music to pose ideas and questions to people who might otherwise not think about them?” Why not? As the Star’s Greg Quill points out, “To engage kids in big events in the world you have to involve them through their lexicon, which is pop culture. I never learned more than when I was 16 listening to Bob Dylan.”

According to YTV News, the answer isn’t in the music, it’s in the focus groups. But for all the studies telling them how to think, the producers disagree on some fundamental points. When the show was launched, Preyra told The Ottawa Citizen that he hoped YTV News viewers would eventually graduate to CTV News. This explains the cuts to the CTV News logo for the lead-ins after every commercial. It may also explain the show’s over-earnestness. Quast, on the other hand, doesn’t think his mandate is to prep kids for adult news. What he really wants to do is to put the news into context for anybody who’s confused by it by pitching it at the level of the “typical” I7-year-old. Either way, John Doyle, while applauding YIV’s efforts, is critical of the delivery. “They make the mistake of being a permanent public service announcement that this is good for you.” Being “upbeat” is a key strategy at YTV News, says Quast. The idea is to “let kids know they do have options; if they feel strongly, they can do something.” He says that the focus-group participants found the news too depressing. “Why watch it if it’s going to bring you down?” He believes you can present the exact same story as the mainstream news does, but leave viewers with an empowered feeling. “You can deliver the facts and give a message that life is shit, or you can give a message that there are possibilities and solutions.” How? Apparently by having hosts Janis Mackey and Marrett Green grin incessantly, leave the story before the really tough questions come up, and try to avoid mentioning death.

For example, the first item in a February show told the story of a teenage Kurdish immigrant whose family was being deported after eight years in Canada. A potentially good story, it brought up questions of immigration policy but didn’t take them anywhere. Instead of pressing an immigration spokeswoman to explain why the family was being kicked out of the country, reporter Rhonda McMichael docilely accepted the official’s line: “We need to make sure that our decisions are in accordance with the Immigration Act and the regulations.” Obviously there are bigger issues here. But despite saying at the top of the show that it would reveal the reasons for the deportation, YTV News doesn’t go into them. Following up two weeks later, the effervescent hosts say that although the boy was deported, he’ll be allowed back in September to finish high school. “That is good news,” one says, smiling. No details on the boy’s family or the persecution they may be facing in Turkey, and still no information on why they were deported in the first place.)

Also on the agenda was a puff piece on slang, probably of more interest to parents trying to figure out what their kids are saying. The viewer segment (a one-minute video commentary) was a series of interview clips with teens describing ways in which they are discriminated against nothing kids don’t already know. It wasn’t even a forum for discussion. Then there was the “kid achiever” piece, telling the story of a 16-year-old businessman (he says 16, the reporter says 17), a long-winded profile of hockey player Brett Lindros (ironically, the most in-depth of the lot), a lengthy piece on the Adidas fashion comeback, the filler “Time Out” segment of sports highlights and bloopers, and a commentary on the weather.

This is a classic YTV News show. It’s also similar to a faster-paced pilot Owl TV produced two years ago. Owl was going to sell a la-minute daily newscast to TVOntario and a 30-minute weekly newscast to YTV. The deal fell through and all involved are reluctant to talk about it. Owl used an audience of 11- to 18year-olds to get a feel for attention spans and interest levels. The findings were specific: Don’t tell kids things they already know, as in the slang, discrimination, and weather stories like the ones the YTV show featured. Kids don’t like weather stories, period. The focus group also said that entertainment stories didn’t belong on a news show. Features like the one about the Kurdish immigrant are good because they place news events in context. Kids also like to see people in their age group challenging authority. While the younger respondents in general had little interest in news of any kind, regardless of format, half of the 16- to 18-year-old bracket watched mainstream news regularly and seemed to be developing an interest in current events anyway.

Did YTV News miss the message of that early focus group? Younger kids would likely have tuned out at the beginning of the episode mentioned above, and older kids would have tuned out as the fluff began. Who does that leave to watch it? Adults, maybe, who have a high tolerance for repetition and material that resembles America’s Funniest Home Videos. Teens aren’t as patient as adults and their interests are constantly changing. Quill calls this bracket “demographic hell.” Attitudes and styles change every three or four months, he says, and a broad range just won’t appeal to them.

The key, according to Kathryn McFarlane, former creative director of TVOntario’s youth programming, is to involve the age bracket you want to reach in every aspect of the production. For Street Cents, a popular teen show on consumer and marketing issues, this meant bringing kids in to write, design, publicize, and consult on the show. “As we discovered,” McFarlane says, “the more you involve them the more they will pay attention. If you slick it up and present it as ‘good for you,’ they won’t like it.”
Michael Quast doesn’t think he’s presenting it like that. “This isn’t eat-your-greens television,” he likes to say. But though he insists young viewers are “sophisticated and savvy,” the content of the show consistently undermines that statement. Does YTV really understand the “typical” 17 -year-old? Quast says his staff stay in touch with teens through young interns, teenage family members, and people on the street who see their YTV logos and come up to talk. If that’s the case, I have to wonder what they’re telling him. David Chew, who was a typical 17-year-old when YTV News was born, says, “I thought it was aimed at eight- and nine-year-olds.”

According to one YTV insider, the show gets watched because of “parents going up and turning it on so kids will watch it. Teenagers don’t watch it voluntarily.” The station is turning off sophisticated teens by trying so hard to program to parents, teachers, and “tweens.” Tweens is a marketing term, says the insider, referring to preteens from affluent professional families who are “hooked intq mom’s purse.” Preyra mentions this group while boasting that “over 150,000 people” consistently watch the show. And, says Quast, making a curious admission for a producer of a young people’s news show, a significant number of them are adults. So it seems that ¥TV News has hit on a formula, but one that isn’t attracting its target group: today’s hip teenagers.

It’s a year since the Globe’s Christopher Harris wrote his optimistic review of ¥TV News. After studying a recent broadcast, he says now, “If the viewers are sophisticated, they would steer fairly clear of this show, I would think.” Perhaps the really savvy teens are doing their homework, or channel-surfing over to MuchMusic.

THESE DAYS, THEY WON’T FIND MUCHMUSIC’S coverage much more meaningful than what’s being produced on YTV News. Now that the Canadian news and political landscapes have reverted back to their naturally mundane stasis, politicians have disappeared from the MuchMusic landscape, and the station’s striving for relevance seems to have reverted to the drive for vapidity (talk bad, videos good). Fax, MuchMusic’s nightly entertainment magazine, often hits on news issues through entertainment events, but the connection is tenuous and the actual news value low. An extended series on Moscow’s music scene (which aired, perhaps, on slow news days), revealed glimpses of the underground economy and the struggles Russians go through to live, thrive, and survive. It isn’t in-depth journalism and it doesn’t pretend to be. But after MuchMusic’s success covering the convention and election, it’s disappointing to see it drop the ball.

There are no plans to highlight news in the near future, although Donlon would like to. “We were thinking of doing a couple of pieces on the budget and the deficit,” she said in February. “But we just don’t have the resources. We’re stretched too thin.” The station’s owner, the CHUM Television Group, is waiting for word from the CRTC on applications to broadcast a country-music channel out of Calgary and a middle-of-the-road music channel out of Vancouver. If they come through, the airtime taken up by these music genres would be cleared from the flagship Toronto station, giving Donlon more time to expand her quest for relevance. But what she really needs is a commitment of more resources from Znaimer and the rest of management.

It’s hard to say what YTV News needs. A name change more in line with its magazine format would be a good start, since the program carries little resembling news. A show that praises the sophistication of its audience should not run, two weeks after the event, an eyewitness account of the Los Angeles earthquake that concentrates on the plight of scared, homeless pets. They’re not fooling anyone.

At best, YTV News is perpetuating the journalistic status quo. At worst, it’s taking no risks and ultimately turning off a significant portion of young people who are presumably not being reached by mainstream news. In an era that’s seeing the media’s credibility sinking, forcing even the mainstream programs to try to break down the walls between themselves and .the audience, we need a school of journalism committed to working on a new curriculum. While not perfect, MuchMusic is at the head of this class.

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