CBC’s innovative enterprise in question with launch of The New National

On Opening Night for our public broadcaster’s most significant initiative to redefine its relevance, there wasn’t much to support the expectation.

The succession to the Peter Mansbridge era on CBC’s The National gambles on a multi-host show of far fewer stories and far more discussion with reporters. It is far too early to pronounce, but nothing about Monday night was sufficiently inventive to enhance the brand or attract a much-needed audience.

Much is at stake: not so much its public appropriation of $1.1 billion (at least under this government) as much as its place in the public sphere as a television network transforming to digital.

A strong CBC is an important element of Canadian well-being, particularly in an era of institutional and political challenges to journalism as a cornerstone of democracy. But, like other traditional media, it can’t think it doesn’t have to constantly make its case. It can’t afford to wither with Canadians, or else its business model will further falter.

Where radio forms its backbone and truest connection to the country, with few exceptions the TV network largely struggles with ratings. The nightly newscast – while considered the journalistic standard-bearer in Canada – has for nearly two decades now finished well behind CTV’s.

It has been apparent for some time that a crucial factor in reinforcing its public support, particularly its drive to de-age its audience to be sustainably valued, had to involve renewal of its flagship information program.

Mansbridge announced his departure a year ago, the network has had at least that time to research and implement a more innovative format to regenerate its audience, but there was nothing Monday to demonstrate a dramatic rethink.

It begs the question: Is the format no longer adaptable? Or even worse: Is CBC no longer adaptable?

Perhaps it was the go-safe execution Monday that was the issue.

Its four hosts – Ian Hanomansing, Adrienne Arsenault, Rosemary Barton and Andrew Chang – were all bafflingly studio-bound in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. They are destined by mission to rove, they are capable field journalists and not just hosts, so why not demonstrate that versatility on the first night? 

Why, for instance, have Vancouver-based Chang interview a reporter at the tragic scene of the police killing in Abbotsford, rather than be at the scene an hour away?

Arsenault fronted a typically terrific mini-documentary mid-show about the carnage of Raqqa, Syria. Why not send her back to Syria, rather than station her at a desk, to deepen the discussion on what she saw?

Barton has emerged as a tenacious host in Ottawa, so why not let her loose on the Paradise Papers story instead of presenting a muted report followed by a detailed briefing by Gillian Findlay of the fifth estate?

And why all the talk with the reporters, anyway? Is that going to be the intrinsic value of the program? Where were the newsmakers? Where were the accountability interviews with officials? Where, indeed, was the argument for why there is a newscast around which we should make a national appointment?

We will get a better understanding of the intentions in coming days, and one has to hope for CBC’s sake that it argues its position better than it did in its first hour. The field work from its hosts and the wider team seem crucial in this regard, so it will be interesting to see if CBC has invested properly in what is a laborious and costly commitment for value-added journalism.

There are some nice touches: a lovely set of creative graphics makes for a prettier show, a lot of production work makes for more elegantly packaged top stories (this one out of Texas at the gruesome church shootings). And there is a nice commitment to B.C. inside the format: Chang will update stories from Vancouver, a welcome departure for Toronto-based shows that rarely restripe once the eastern time zone’s edition airs.

But if this were the first night of a new network newscast, it would be difficult to contemplate making it a habit. Thankfully this is the CBC, with eight decades of history on its side to reassure us that it might get better.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media