Susan Bonner
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The Right Staff

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In the battle far station identification, Toronto' s local newscasts depend on image and personality

She is attractive, young and engaging, her slightly bouffant hairstyle and classic pearls a touch old fashioned. He is suave and handsome, well groomed and polished, his bright silk tie complementing his jacket puff. They could be the perfect couple on the perfect evening, and in a sense they are. She’s Gail Smith, he’s Tom Gibney, coanchors of CFTO’s World Beat News, the supperhour news show that has been sitting proudly in Toronto’s first place rating slot for the last 15 years.

CFTO’s lead is no small feat, especially in the Toronto market, which; thanks to an extensive cable system, offers four local stations, several more area ones, and at least three American signals. Torontonians have more choice when it comes to early evening news than almost anyone in North America. There is potential for fierce competition. But a study of the local news market reveals some surprises: Toronto stations are not involved in a full-scale ratings war – in fact, they are a long way from being in the tigerish state of some of their American counterparts, which have been known to hire, fire, plan and replan on the basis of half a percentage point change in the ratings.

The BBM Bureau of Measurement is one of the main industry bodies for delivering broadcast ratings in Canada. Up to seven times a year the BBM informs the television stations that subscribe to the service how many viewers are watching their programs. The BBM survey released last fall didn’t reveal any surprises. World Beat News remained out front, pulling an average audience of 183,000 of a possible 3,900,000 18-and-over viewers in the survey area, which extends west to Hamilton, east to Oshawa and north to Uxbridge. CityTV’s CityPulse News was second, with 153,000 viewers, and CBLT’s Newshour trailed with 122,000. Global’s First News, which airs between 5:30 and 6 p.m. drew a dismal 61,100 but the audience for 6 O’Clock Edition jumped to 122,000.

With these numbers, advertisers can determine the cost of advertising with a particular station based on the number of viewers and the station’s fee. But Toronto advertisers are quick to point out that although the number of viewers is important, the type of people watching a particular show is equally so. This means that interpreting the ratings has become a very sophisticated process as advertisers pore over the stations’ audience profiles looking for just the right audience to sell their products to.

And it is these profiles that reveal the almost contented way the news programmers have consistently carved and served their markets. While the size of the servings is not equal, there are no losers. The Metro Toronto region is big enough to allow four different approaches, four miniature markets.

Of course, ratings are still a major concern of Toronto’s news directors, and much of the television news seen in this city is still the product of an endeavor to retain, if not increase, those magic numbers. But each of Toronto’s stations has its own style, which stems from what it perceives its segment of the market to be. Each has found an audience, is not disappointed with the ratings that audience produces, and is, therefore, happy to serve that audience to the fullest. In a way, the news programs have become almost parodies of themselves. And the news directors, when analyzing their goals, reflect this.

CFTO relies on glitter and gimmicks. It offers what the ratings indicate the viewers want: short news stories, upbeat musical themes, creative graphics, visual variety, a professional set and a gorgeous staff. Ted Stuebing, CFTO’s vice-president of news, is happy with this approach: “TV news has never communicated better. It is wonderful to see it communicate so well.”

CFTO, of course, is communicating with the largest audience for early evening news, and defines its target market as simply all adults between the ages of 18 and 49. Stuebing says that these watchers don’t belong to one social or economic group but come from all communities in Toronto.

One of the things these viewers may have in common is that CFTO’s evening news has become a part of their family’s evening tradition. When asked to explain the station’s success, most observers mention this theory. CFTO has been doing the same news, in basically the same style, for 20 years. As one news director put it, “It’s formula journalism.”

This fall the station extended its news programming to one hour and moved the already popular late-night news anchor, Gail Smith, to the early news desk. Any other changes in personnel would be hard to notice, as all the reporters have the same look: young, wholesome and white. It works.

While CFTO’s format is firmly based in tradition, Global adopted a new approach last fall and now claims to be offering alternative news programming. It presents three half-hour segments beginning at 5:30, broken into local, regional and national/international coverage. The whole idea is based on the premise that the three shows be independent of each other. They are not. On the first two shows, the more interesting stories are followed by teasers that promise another look or more details on the upcoming show. It comes across as local news striving to be national in The Journal mode, but ends up looking not much like either. It may be trying too hard for too much and ending up with too little. When asked about the changes, Raymond Heard, vice-president of news and current affairs, said, “The trouble with TV is that it is a mass medium. The Globe and Mail has a specific audience. It is harder with television.” Anchor Peter Trueman, whom Heard says is “extremely important” to the Global image, seems to disagree with his boss on the direction the show has taken. He doesn’t think it will work. Trueman is frank: “It’s no secret that lam not happy with it.”

The $5 million Global invested in moving to the three part approach was an attempt to broaden the news show’s appeal. The station has historically attracted the 25-andolder upscale men and women of Ontario. The half-hour of local news that now airs at 5:30 is aimed at people at home; the 6:30 national and international segment anchored by Trueman is directed at a different audience. Although the network won’t reveal the operating budget for the 90-minute segment, it says there is an annual $8.5 million budget for Newsweek, News at Noon, the 5:30 to 6:30 segments, the late news and any news specials. News from Ottawa, including the Trueman report, is funded from a separate budget of approximately $1.4 million.

CityPulse News targets a much more specific audience. The evening broadcast is directed at a young-18 to 40-group, mostly people who live in downtown Toronto, including the ethnic population in the city’s core. The show is an obvious attempt to present City as the station that cares. Its reporters get involved in stories and issues, and anchors tell you they are really concerned about the stories they’re reading. They do all this with the distinct air that they’re having a great time pulling it all off. Managing producer Steve Hurlbut is the first to admit that City tv produces a type of participatory journalism. “Our style is very, very important for TV. Through people’s identification with the reporter, they understand the story better. They experience it with the reporter.”

At CBL T the emphasis is on serious journalism, at least in theory. Newshour is not as glamorous as the other shows and there are not quite as many pretty faces. In keeping with much criticism aimed at the corporation, CBL T has been labelled inefficient, boring and ignorant when it comes to the profitable game of marketing. But Howard Bernstein, the executive producer of Newshour, argues that CBC sells journalism above anything else, and that it manages to do this quite well on the relatively low budget of about $3 million a year that CBL T has for all news operations. It is a certain type of viewer who buys the sales pitch. Newshour attracts, on average, an older audience-most in the 40 to 50 range. These viewers have a higher education and income, on average, than the viewers of most of the other stations. And when it comes to news, they have different expectations.

Bernstein says the viewers are attracted by experience rather than image. His anchors, he says, prove this point. Bernstein boasts that CBL T is the only station in town that has “two journalists each with 25 years experience doing the news.” One of the two veterans, Fraser Kelly, explains the anchor role as he sees it. “In this age of information explosion it is important that the people who deliver this information have credibility. 1 think they get the credibility by experiencing the news, seeing it and delivering it in a way that says, ‘l know what I’m talking about.'”

The news anchors play an important role in attracting the right viewers to the right station. They are carefully picked to suit the audience their station has pegged for itself. The news directors recognize that the credibility, entertainment value or just plain likeability of a station’s news anchor is often one of the biggest drawing cards for the evening news. Toronto’s anchors are paid in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year. Their jobs are high pressure and high profile. As far as job qualifications go, the anchors are, not surprisingly, as diverse as the portions of the market they address.

The men and women who deliver the evening news do not all have backgrounds in journalism. In fact, very few do. Tom Gibney was once a game show host, Dini Petty a helicopter-based traffic reporter and Global’s executives discovered Martha Howlett on an exercise show. The anchors’ experience is not really that important, at least not to some news directors. As long as the anchors do a good job and are well received, they are a success.

Toronto’s news directors have widely differing views about the importance and technique of anchors. Global’s Heard considers the anchors as “the second biggest factor in news-the first being news.” His show’s latest package is a curious mixture of anchors, beginning with personality and ending with the mundane yet sensible voice of experience: The playful yet concerned air of Martha Howlett and the three nice guys-Mike Anscombe, John Oawe and Bob McAdorey-in the first section is a startling contrast to the sombre tone of Peter Trueman in the third. Jan Tennant falls comfortably between the two extremes. It is hard to believe they all work under the same logo. But there is one thing these anchors have in common: when the red “on-air” light turns on, so does that hard-to-define television presence. These Global anchors deliver, and, for Heard, there is nothing in the ratings to tell him differently.

Heard is critical of the role newsreaders play at City. “An anchor is a guest you invite into your living room every night,” he says, “and no one comes in your front door and does a somersault.” But City’s anchors often cartwheel and backilip their way into Toronto’s homes. There seems to be endless chatter at the news desk, and the anchors contribute to the fun, wow, celebrity-style journalism that has come to be City’s hallmark. Says Dini Petty, coanchor of CityPulse: “City has a slight irreverence and that is why people like us. They know we’ll laugh at ourselves.”

CityPulse producer Hurlbut is amused when the importance of ratings is mentioned. He says there is no question about the aim of television news: “Well, of course it’s going for ratings. Everyone is going for ratings, even the CBC. Think about it. It all comes down to whether you are effective. If nobody is watching you, you are wasting your time.”

At the other end of the spectrum is CBL T’s Bernstein, who, when pushed, will admit to being just as interested in the ratings as any other news director. “Everyone watches the ratings. You’d have to be a fool not to.” But he’s quick to take the journalistic high road that is expected of a public broadcasting service: “I don’t want to do a show for ratings. I want to do a good show and hope the ratings come in.”

Ratings are paramount because they bring in the advertising. A 30-second commercial spot can sell from anywhere between $700 and $1,500. CRTC regulations allow 12 minutes of commercials-24 spots-for every hour of programming. Each of the local news programs, with the exception of Newshour, runs the full quota of commercials. (Latel y the CBL T show has been carrying between five and eight minutes of ads.) With their stable, satisfactory ratings and attractive demographics, the Toronto stations certainly make money on television news.

As a result, any changes in their formats will probably be very slight. The stations are like amoebas, quietly assuming whatever shape they can in the space available to them. The situation in Toronto is such that each station’s market share is virtually ensured. The ratings are important enough that no station can risk major change. Because of the relative satisfaction of the stations with their share of the ratings, the shows have become self-serving.

Speaking from behind the number one news desk, Tom Gibney sees a basic problem in television news: “We are so busy serving ourselves to the point of saying, ‘Didn’t we look good?’ that we forget that it is the people out there that count. We don’t count.”

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