Andrew MacDougall: CTV needs a better explanation than a Clairol clash
Given the reality of TV news today, does a "star" anchor and the structure of a nightly newscast still make sense?
By: Andrew MacDougall
You would think operating in a world of spin would make news organizations the masters of it. Or at least familiar with its uses and utility. But you would be wrong. Horribly wrong.
Exhibit A: the week-long (and counting) clusterfuck surrounding the (not-so) sudden departure of CTV National News anchor Lisa LaFlamme. Given they’ve had months to plan it, CTV PR has handled LaFlamme’s sacking as well as the Catholic church handles the kiddie-fiddling brief. Even Justin Trudeau could teach this gang a few things about surviving scandal.
(Disclosure: The mother of my children works for CTV National News but I am not privy to any internal machinations. This is my opinion alone.)
Was LaFlamme booted because of her age? Did Vice President of News Michael Melling really not like the colour of her grey hair (which had been grey for 18 months before he took over and remained grey ever since he assumed control of the newsroom)? Is he, as has been implied via anonymous sources, some sort of allegedly ageist, misogynist cock? Was there argy-bargy over news budgets? Was there genuine tension over the future of the broadcast, and which platforms to serve first? Is the fallout from CTV’s apology to Patrick Brown to blame? Or was it some or all of the above? We still don’t know because CTV isn’t saying.
Not that it’s stopped the commentariat from running with the various bits and bobs leaked to the media by the aggrieved parties. While a few journalists are committing journalism on this major news story, many more are opting for their preferred narratives on platforms like Twitter. As a result, no matter what CTV PR says now, a large section of the country will forever think LaFlamme was canned because she wouldn’t budge on the use of Clairol. It’s a horrible place to put a broadcast that relies on trust to keep viewers tuning in, especially if it isn’t true.
Here’s what we do know. For years, the news business has suffered a tremendous period of change. Revenues have been hammered and newsrooms are getting (much) smaller. TV newsrooms are no exception, certainly not CTV’s (which is a net drain on Bell corporate). What’s more, appointment viewing is on its way out and on-demand and real-time viewing is in. And while the ratings for CTV National News appear to be holding steady, they haven’t grown appreciably during LaFlamme’s tenure, despite the population of the country increasing by a few million people. Those who like their nightly news like it a lot but, and as the profile of the ads aired during it attest (step-in bathtub, anyone?), those people are old and won’t be getting younger. After years of futzing about, news organizations have a small window to find a way through a worsening demographic morass.
Given the reality described above, does a “star” anchor and the structure of a nightly newscast (and its attendant costs) still make sense? These aren’t easy questions to contemplate, especially for those who’ve grown up (and prospered) under the old way of doing things. Watching your ecosystem be usurped is a deeply uncomfortable experience. It’s not hard to imagine someone of an older school bucking in the face of this new reality — and anyone brought in to bring it about.
Enter Melling. Another thing we know for sure is Melling’s profile and mission. Here’s the relevant bit from Karine Moses, Senior Vice President of Content Development and News, in the press release announcing Melling’s appointment:
“Michael has been a dynamic presence at CTV, leading the growth and digital transformation of CTV News Toronto, CP24 and BNN Bloomberg. As audiences want to consume news on different devices, wherever they are, Michael has been instrumental in developing our multi-platform approach, paving the way for the future of news in Canada.”
Now I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like someone whose job is to preserve a LaFlammian environment until the TV-watching boomers pack it in. Indeed, the writing was on the wall. Other networks are further ahead of CTV on the digital front. Quoting from the same release:
“As part of his new role, Michael will help lead Bell Media’s digital transformation strategy to ensure CTV News remains the highest-ranked broadcast news source in Canada, and is well-positioned for the future in an evolving and competitive environment.”
In other words, a change was inevitable.
Of course, the desire for “digital transformation” doesn’t necessarily mean the existing anchor has to be defenestrated. But the news business isn’t exactly ego-free. Once newsroom power is amassed it is rarely surrendered. No anchor worth his or her salt would simply acquiesce to wholesale change. Viewers might also look sideways at the TV if their trusted friend suddenly started performing new tricks, like showing up on YouTube, an app, or CTV.ca before 11 p.m. on the main network. Perhaps a change at the top was needed to pull it off.
Whatever the case, I’m sure all of this was discussed at CTV more than the merits of bloody hair dye. I’m equally certain it was the source of more tension in the upper echelons of the newsroom. For everyone’s sake, the third-party review ordered by management in the wake of this PR debacle would be wise to uncover the full range of issues at the heart of LaFlamme’s firing. If the newsroom is going to go full revolt, it ought to be over the corporation’s actual problems rather than someone’s post-facto agenda.
Either way, watching these two parties slap at each other in the media would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. Trust in media is at an all-time low and the need for high-quality journalism — the kind that holds powerful people to account — has never been higher. The world is facing multiple existential disasters and it won’t find its way through without the fourth estate. That CTV wasn’t able to manage this transition successfully will hurt it until it puts forward the full case for change and how it intends to pursue it.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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