At CBC, Radical News Shifts Meet Viewers

The Canadian public broadcaster can’t move too quickly without risking losing its core audience but it’s also aggressively evolving to attract new, younger viewers, said CBC executives at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York City on Tuesday (Alyssa Wesley photo). Read a full report here and/or watch the video above.

As technology has evolved at a breakneck pace, broadcasters have had to consider how to remake and distribute their newscasts. It’s not an easy task — the news is always on and it’s challenging to recreate something in the midst of constantly producing it. But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s (CBC) main anchor and chief correspondent, Peter Mansbridge, retired in 2017 after 30 years leading the service’s nightly broadcasts, the public broadcaster was forced to take on the challenge.

“We had built up our equity in him over 30 years,” Michael Gruzuk, head of CBC News Studios, told moderator Michael Depp, NewsCheckMedia’s chief content officer, during the keynote session of TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York on Tuesday. “When he left his post [on CBC evening newscast The National], we had an opportunity to take that and to look to see where our rising journalists were. We looked to do more on-the-ground immersive journalism, more cinematic journalism, more pointed political journalism while creating more conversation amidst more accountability.”

In light of that, CBC made an abrupt shift from having just one anchor on CBC’s nightly newscast, The National, to having a panel of four. That move was quickly and roundly rejected by the audience, Gruzuk said: “The core audience did not take kindly to it.”

Five years later, The National is again led by one person — Chief Correspondent Adrienne Arsenault — but the program’s format remains changed. Instead of reading the news from a desk each night, Arsenault can often be found reporting from the field — and not just the field outside the office but far-flung ones.

“We’re invested in immersive storytelling,” Gruzuk said. “We need to constantly be living the promise to go there and be there. We go to hard-to-reach places in Northern Canada and Adrienne’s been back and forth to Ukraine several times. She stands there in her Patagonia puffy and her frizzy hair — and she would not mind my saying that, she would say ‘I’m in Ukraine, I don’t need to have perfect hair’ — and audiences embrace that very much. There’s a Canadian value around authenticity and no BS. People are really connecting with Adrienne right now.”

While the CBC’s flagship show ended up sticking with one journalist at the helm, the public broadcaster delivers that show — and as much of its content as possible — to as many platforms as possible, said Andree Lau, CBC senior director of digital news, publishing and streaming.


“There’s a reason my portfolio is not siloed but is just streaming, which includes social and digital. It’s all about the endpoint, which is reaching as wide of an audience as I can. That’s our mandate,” Lau said.

The other piece of the CBC’s mandate is to “reflect Canada to Canadians in the most accessible way possible,” she said. “We need to provide our content and our journalism to audiences wherever they are.”

What that means is that putting all your eggs into producing a 5 p.m. newscast no longer makes sense, since audiences are checking news all day long on whatever platforms make sense to them.

“We are not expecting young, diverse audiences to come to our newscast at a certain time,” Lau said. “We need to be where they are, and streaming is one of those places.”

To that end, the CBC in late November introduced its first FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) channel CBC News Explore, which includes original programs such as half-hour news summary show About That hosted by Andrew Chang. CBC News Explore is offered on CBC Gem, the CBC News App, and the Roku Channel with more platforms to be added.

CBC also is looking at launching more FAST channels and recently debuted a channel on TikTok, where CBC journalists answer viewer questions as subject-matter experts.

“CBC TikTok takes questions our audience is asking and leverages our journalism producers to answer them,” Lau said. “We have an internal team that owns the channel and one full-time person dedicated to it.”

While changes have been made at the CBC, the service continues to focus on evolving.

“It’s fun to do new stuff, but we haven’t taken any of the old stuff away,” Gruzuk said. “Live matters and it connects us to viewers in multiple places. On-demand increasingly matters as well. The mushy middle that we continue to inhabit is with doing things like end-of-day stories that don’t have any legs and don’t do well based on data, yet we continue to assign those kinds of stories every day. We still have to fill newscasts and those kinds of packages are being created, even though they expire at midnight and have no use again. That’s the mushy middle that’s taking up a lot of resources.”

Part of that so-called “mushy middle” is continuing to program linear networks as they were 30 years ago when viewers had few choices and were conditioned to watch the evening news at 6 p.m. Instead, news operations have to consider what content creation and programming choices look like when viewers are completely decoupled from broadcast schedules.

Said Gruzuk: “We are actively talking about devaluing that connection to appointment viewing, and that’s a radical conversation to have.”

For more NewsTECHForum 2022 stories, click here.

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