Talking TV: CBC’s ‘About That’ Elevates Explainer News For Streaming
For the past few years, streaming has been TV news’ safe space. Stories there can be more freewheeling and longer, sets and on-air journalists more dressed down. Streaming has become the de facto R&D lab for TV news experimentation, where newsrooms can chart out their future insulated from the scrutiny of broadcast viewers and their conventional expectations.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has entered that space with CBC News Explore, a FAST channel launched late in 2022 that veers noticeably out of its broadcast product lane. Among the channel’s original offerings is About That, a half-hour weekday explainer series hosted by Andrew Chang, who was until recently a host of the network’s flagship nightly newscast The National.
About That is a major shift for both Chang and the CBC itself. Each episode generally devotes itself to a single topic. Chang has traded in his anchor’s rigidity, suit and tie for a fashionable hoodie and more palpable ease in his own skin. He rolls up his sleeves and gets elbow deep into stories that demand more unpacking than a minute-thirty will allow. And it’s the way that he — and the show — let those stories unfold that shows the real power of About That.
In this Talking TV conversation, Chang explains how the show is bringing its own take to the explainer format and looking to engender greater viewer trust in the process. He shares how About That manages broadcast-quality production values while working far more leanly than his on-air peers. And he frames out how the show is, in its own way, trying to chart a path for the future of news at CBC overall.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: CBC News Explore is a FAST channel launched by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation late last year. The channel looks to take a deeper dive into news stories, drawing on news, video and longform reporting from across the organization, including some original news shows.
About That is the new channel’s flagship program, a weekday half hour that delves into stories with a markedly different tone than a typical newscast. While the show’s production values are high and its veneer is polished, its tone is unhurried, conversational, inquisitive. About That takes its time to consider subjects, and it follows a very transparent track in the newsgathering that it does along the way.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV. Today, I’m with Andrew Chang, the host of About That. Immediately prior to this job, Andrew was one of the hosts of The National, CBC’s flagship nightly newscast. He’s an award-winning journalist based in Toronto who has worked out of Montreal and Vancouver, and he’s just as comfortable holding a camera over his shoulder as a multimedia journalist or video journalist, as they’re called in Canada, as he is at the anchor desk.
Today, a conversation with Andrew Chang about what he’s aiming for with About That and how even in its early days, the show is engaging many of the characteristics U.S. video news organizations are pivoting towards: authenticity, transparency, context and relatability. We’ll be right back with that conversation.
Welcome Andrew, to Talking TV.
Andrew Chang: Hey, Michael, really nice to be here with you. Thanks for having me.
Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to have you. Andrew, what are you trying to do with About That? What’s its function?
That’s a great question. That’s a big question, too. What are we trying to do? I mean, at the heart of it, when I think of About That, I think we’re essentially an explainer show, right? So, you know, we’ll look at the media landscape and we’ll look at what people are talking about, and we’ll try to listen and zero in on topics that, in our estimation, are either difficult to follow or have become convoluted because of the sort of ever-changing nature of the story or any story that just sort of seems easy to misunderstand because of its complexity.
We try to take those stories and not just break them down, and I don’t think of ourselves as an investigative show, but in some way we are because we take not just the news nugget of the most recent thing to happen in a story but try to try our best to assemble as much context around it. And sometimes that can mean going back a few weeks, going back a few months, or even going back a few years to try to approach a new understanding of that story.
I can give you an example. So, an episode that we did very recently was about a company called Medicago, a Quebec-based Canadian biopharmaceutical company that was making COVID vaccines. All of a sudden, late in the week, the news dropped that it was shutting down, that its parent company had decided to wrap up operations. Now, if we were covering that story in a sort of a pretty conventional sense, just for a newscast, we might look at that announcement and we might ask the parent company, why are you shutting it down? And, you know, it turns out that, in their words, that the vaccine market had changed substantially, and that the business was no longer viable. And you might look at who’s affected by the shutdown. Right. There are hundreds of people who work there, and that’s a legitimate story.
But, you know, I remember from years of covering the pandemic that this was a company that was really on the cutting edge of vaccine production in the sense that it approached it by making vaccines from plants. It was a really novel idea and unique in the world. And I also remember that the government had invested almost $200 million to get this company really going to give its R&D a kickstart to help build its Quebec-based manufacturing facility.
And so, we took that news nugget but built out the whole story of Medicago with the intention of answering the question, how is it that the federal government could invest $173 million into a company that just shut down? And that was the foundation for the episode.
So, I mean, that gives you a sense of what we’re trying to do — take the stories that everyone is sort of talking about out there and place it in its proper context to give people a different understanding of it.
I saw that episode. It was very conversational. There’s a lot of context there, a lot of history around that. And then you brought in a colleague to take the story a little bit forward. As I mentioned at the top, you were previously one of the anchors of The National, CBC’s flagship newscast. There’s a pretty big tonal shift between your role there on the desk and the version of yourself that we encounter now in About That. How are you approaching your role differently on the new show?
The approach is different because the show is different and because the platform is different and because the audience is different. When we were first talking about a streaming channel and a streaming program and living in that universe, the very first question that we had to ask ourselves is who is watching? And it doesn’t take long to figure out and to realize that the people who are watching are sort of people like me, right? Sort of, you know, let’s call it, you know, mid-20s to early 40s, that kind of demographic, where in a lot of cases they don’t just get their news from one source. Increasingly they’re getting it from a variety of sources.
In a lot of cases, they are content creators themselves. So, they can see through the artifice, if that makes sense. They can see through kind of the act, they can see through the BS and they’re not really interested in that, but they kind of want something that’s going to be concise, that’s going to be informative, that’s going to help deepen their understanding of the stories that they’re already in tune with because they’re getting the headlines, but they want someone to engage with them like a human being, not talk over them, not talk at them, but talk to them.
And so, we were thinking about how do we approach this? How do we really level with people? This is what came out — sort of an ability not just to tell the story, but to smile and to have some fun while we’re doing it. Because, you know, contrary to the headlines that you often see, the world can be a pretty fun place.
In the persona now that you bring out in this show — I mean, the way you’re dressed, you’ve got the hoodie, albeit a posh hoodie, but you know, you’re not in a suit. There’s not the rigidity. Your body language is more relaxed. Your sleeves can be rolled up and you just seem very at ease in your own skin. It’s going to be a lot more fun in a way, I would think, to anchor this than The National.
Sure, it’s more fun and in a way it’s a lot easier too, because you don’t have to worry about a lot of the artifice that’s just part of the convention of TV that’s sort of been built up over time. But I say it’s easy, not just because I don’t have to, you know, remember how to tie my tie every day, but because there’s a naturalness that that comes with being transparent and that comes with being a little bit rough around the edges.
And when you can discard that a little bit and focus more on the story that you’re telling rather than how you look or how you’re perceived or those sorts of things, everything just kind of comes easily. And I don’t know, I do think the audience appreciates that, again, just kind of transparency. No BS Just tell me the story. And I’m happy with that.
I want to come back to those dynamics in a few minutes. But first, TV newsrooms have had some interesting approaches to doing news on shows that are bespoke for streaming. Generally speaking, they felt freer to experiment, to try out new kinds of formats and narrative approaches. But generally, also, so far, they’ve been pretty shoestring in their budgets, and their production values are not the best. Now your show is very polished. You’ve got high resolution, very cinematic photography. You’re using drones and GoPros. Sometimes there are national broadcast quality graphics, data visualizations, animations that you’re using. And now from what I’m told, you’re putting this show together with a staff of three people. So, how the hell is that possible?
First of all, it’s not quite three people. I would say we have a core team, editorially, a little over half a dozen people. So, you know, we’re talking about me, obviously, our senior producer, our executive producer, a sort of stable of really smart, really resourceful producers who have to be able to do anything and everything at the same time. But the more important thing about the size of the team—because that is still a very small team to pull off all of the things that you just mentioned—the important thing to remember is that none of this would be possible if it were literally just us, if it were just this core team.
We live within an ecosystem of a much larger corporation, right? The CBC. And so, it’s not unusual at all. In fact, it’s quite common for us to kind of pull on different aspects of the corporation to help us out on a case-by-case basis as we build stories.
You raise drones, for example. We don’t have a dedicated drone pilot or team. I wish we did. That would be a lot of fun. But CBC certainly does have a dedicated drone team, which gets deployed in all manner of ways, spread across all manner of shows at different times of day and different days of the week. And so, we can tap into that.
That’s on the story where we most recently used a drone. This was a story that we did about Ontario’s Green Belt, just sort of this vast tract of land in this province that has legally been protected as green space to stave off the ever-encroaching housing developments that that we need more of, honestly. But there was a provincial plan to kind of throw that on the back burner and say, yeah, we’re actually going to build houses there because we need housing. And, you know, getting that that together wasn’t just our team’s dedicated shooter because we do have one of those. But also, we pulled in videographers from the system as well to help shoot that.
We had two drone pilots on the scene. Our producer, Drew Nguyen, was sort of the mastermind architect of the whole thing in terms of sort of pitching the story, envisioning how it would play out, making sure the execution was rock solid. He was doing shooting, too. And, you know, all of those shots in the van that you can see in the story, that is a whole story unto itself, how to get something like that off the ground. And it does take time. It’s not easy to do. It’s not a one-day turnaround, that’s for sure.
It has the appearance of being a day-turn story. It all happens within the course of a day. I’m glad you landed on this this particular episode because I want to delve into that a little bit more closely as an example of how you’re able to pull this off on a streaming news show. I mean, in 24 minutes, you cram in a lot of historical context about this watershed area. There’s a sideline explainer about the complexities of urban development in there. You’re shooting in multiple locations. It’s a daylong road trip with outside reporters there kind of carrying the narrative along. Can you talk in more detail about how that particular thing came together, why you decided to have two outside reporters, for instance, kind of telling you the story in this dialogic kind of way in the van as we’re driving to the site?
Those two reporters, I mean, my hat’s off to them. They were the backbone of the whole story. And our segment that we built on our program was built off the foundation that they had done in their own journalism. For us, it was a no brainer. I mean, they’ve been on this story, following all of the developments of the Green Belt, for years. For us, it was a clear decision. These are the two people who we want on this story.
You point out that the narrative looks like it’s really shot over a day. It actually was shot over one day because that’s just the way it had to unfold. But the whole process from start to finish, I think we started seriously looking at it in mid-November, and it wasn’t until close to two months later that the story aired in its final form.
Now, that’s not to say that the story took two months to do, because the other thing about having a small team is that you can never have any one person only working on one thing. We’re all we’re all juggling at least three things. Just the other day, I was shooting interviews and segments for five different stories in a single day and, you know, had everything to do with, again, vaccines and housing and gun law in Canada and the buyback. There’s just so many things. But that’s all of our lives. We’re all doing that at the same time. From inception to final product is two months.
We always start with a an absolutely crippling amount of research because we know from the get-go what the topic will be. And we might even know what question we want to try to answer. But if you’re ever going to approach a point where you can really concisely and efficiently and effectively explain something as complex as the Ontario greenbelt and all of the history and the legal context around it, if you’re ever going to be able to do that to an audience, you better make damn sure that you know that story inside and out. And so, we start with research.
And on that story in particular, I mean, our first go at it, I remember we were having a big team meeting and there are so many elements that were in place and it had all the makings of a great story. And a few of us just looked at it and said, you know what, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I don’t think we have it all. I think we actually just still need to spend more time figuring it out before we shoot even a single frame. And so that planning process might have took place over the course of one week or two weeks with lots of other things bubbling in the background because we are a daily show.
Then comes the logistical planning. I was talking to my producer, Drew, who again was the architect of all of this, and I was asking him, the shot in the van — how much planning does that kind of a thing take? I knew we had to do something in the van because it literally takes an hour to get out there. So, you want to have some kind of conversation and turn it into a journey.
But he looked at our vehicle stock at CBC, and none of them were really big enough for the kind of rigging that we needed to do to get all of the different camera angles because we’re three people talking in the van. You need a bit of space to have a truly dynamic conversation. So, he had to rent a van. And then and then once you rent the van, you’ve got to figure out, okay, so how do we actually rig these cameras in a way that that makes sense, but also in a way that we can power them properly, like even when the car is off, that they’ll be reliable for hours at a time, essentially for the whole day, because we’re going to be shooting all day. That work alone took half a day to sort of figure out all of those logistics.
And then there’s the drone shots and the location shoots. And, you know, when you take all of the editorial and you take all the research and planning that goes into it, all of the technical planning involved. I won’t lie. It’s it is a big, big job that you can only really pull off when you have exceptionally talented and enthusiastic people, which we’re very lucky to have.
Well, the word daunting keeps ringing in my head. I think we need to show people a clip of this particular piece, so let’s look at that here.
It seems like the way you’re making this tractable is you have multiple stories going on at once at various levels of conception or production. This is not a do one, finish it, move on to the next. It’s not a linear crawl through five days of stories. It’s really forecasting out almost months in advance to get this done. What are the criteria that are starting to emerge for you, for how you select stories to work on? What seems to lend itself best to the kind of approach that you’re developing?
It’s funny, I still remember this old rule that that I learned all the way back when I was in university, as just a fledgling baby journalist. And it’s called the “SIN” rule. And it’s not what it sounds like. It has nothing to do with sin as such. It’s just an abbreviation for: Is the story significant? Is it interesting and is it new? And that’s sort of like basic news judgment, right? And so, we take that. But also, when we’re looking at stories, I guess there are a few other criteria that we consider.
A big one is whether it is national in scope. And it’s funny that we just talked about the Ontario greenbelt because you could argue that well, no, it’s more local, regional. But the implications of that I think are quite national in scope. The idea that a government could protect a parcel of land and then with sort of a swoosh of a pen decide, well, no, actually, we’ve changed our mind. That protection can be compromised.
Well, there are strong intimations in that story that they’re colluding with developers.
There’s certainly a back story there as far as how the provincial government arrived at specific parcels of land and who may or may not have been involved in those discussions about which ones would be up and the sales and transactions that preceded the announcement that housing would be built on the greenbelt. There was a complicated backstory there. But national interest, something that people are actually talking about.
We cover stories all the time, and sometimes I think it feels like we cover them because we simply feel like we ought to cover them because they’re sort of institutionally important. No knock on covering those sorts of stories, but I think we also just try to ask ourselves, especially in a streaming environment where people aren’t necessarily going to watch you just because you’re on.
When I think of television, it is somewhat more of a passive medium, right? Where you turn on the channel, you watch your favorite show and you’re sort of there, right? For the most part, people channel surf, but you’re sort of there. That’s what you sign up for. Streaming is different and any on-demand, digital viewing is different because — and I’m guilty of this myself — if you lose my interest for, you know, even five seconds, hell, if your thumbnail and your title is less than groundbreakingly attractive, then I just might not give you the time of day.
Making a note to myself to have a really good thumbnail choice.
Yeah, get my good side, please, I beg of you. It ties back into what I said at the outset of this interview, which was, you know, when we were thinking about our program and what value we could actually deliver to the audience. Because of my sensibilities and what I’m interested in, it seemed like a really straightforward and no-brainer of an idea to go with an explainer-type show.
We are always looking for those stories that we feel like are being either fundamentally misunderstood or where there is so much rich context just underneath the surface that if only we could just bring that out just a little bit, we could really give people an enhanced understanding of what’s actually at play. And doing that is not easy. I mean, it requires a ton of diligence and a ton of research and rigor. But that’s the goal. That’s what we’re trying to do.
And to that point, to come back to transparency, which we touched on earlier … in the clips, you see other members of your team, including your photographer, on camera. We watch you literally gathering the information as the stories are unfolding. How are you thinking about that deliberately, constantly, as you’re putting these pieces together? How is that something that’s a conscious effort to include?
I think it goes back to this idea that our audience, they don’t just want to be told things, right? They don’t want to be lectured. I mean, who does, right? And so, the idea is to try our best. I’m not going to pretend like I have this all figured out. We are still very much a news show and we still consider ourselves to be in the piloting phase in a manner of speaking. So maybe if you asked me this question tomorrow, I’ll have a different answer for you.
But I think bringing people along for the journey, it helps them understand not just the facts that you’re spitting at them, but how you arrived at that. And that very much fits into what I think is a real sort of failure of the current media and information landscape where it is just so exceedingly hard to get good, credible information.
I think back in the day, it was easier for us as journalists to do the legwork and then to present the story. And people were more likely to take that at face value. I don’t think that’s so much the case anymore. I think for a lot of people, their instinctive reaction is to challenge and to question because whatever information you’re presenting may not fit in with their already established worldview, which is fine.
But it means that for us as journalists, we have to work doubly hard to, again, not just present the information, but to show all of the hoops that we have to jump through so people can judge for themselves whether that information is credible. And then hopefully if we’ve done a good enough job, then they will come to that conclusion.
But, you know, when you talk about our effort to bring in producers onto the program, that that was also a pretty intentional decision because they’re just bloody smart people and they do so much of the legwork on a story. Often, the producer will know more about the story than I ever could. But it was also just a bid to be different to decouple and detach ourselves from what we typically see on a conventional television newscast. And to signal to the audience that you are going to get a different kind of program here where we’re much less concerned with whether everyone is prim and proper and has their makeup and their hair done and more concerned with just having a real conversation.
Because, again, we don’t want to talk at you. We don’t want to talk around you. We want to talk to you.
Well, as you said, it’s early days, but people also like to know what where the mistakes have been. What have been your missteps so far? Where have you had to course correct even from the beginning?
Yeah. So, I mean, I would say a big challenge for not just for us, but for any show sort of this ilk is timeliness and trying to get our stories out in that perfect window where, you know, a big news event happens. We need to take time to research, to contextualize. It’s not like we can just do breaking news. Our purpose is not as explicitly do breaking news, but we need time to build the story. But we have to deliver enough of a product of value that goes deep enough under the surface that people who have already gotten from newscasts and from headlines on Twitter that they feel like there’s sort of real value there. But we’ve got to do it while they’re still interested in the story.
I still remember the slow burn of the Russia invasion in Ukraine. There had been this massing of tension along the border. And the moment the invasion started, it was clear that this was going to be something of world-changing proportions and that there would be so much to unpack. And yet I think it was within days or maybe a week, I felt like I noticed an observable drop off in interest in terms of the type of coverage that that outlets were doing, but also people’s capacity and willingness to stay tuned in to the story. That’s just our world now.
I mean, attention spans aren’t quite what they used to be, but the world moves so much more quickly and it’s hard to keep people’s attention. So, you know, is it enough for us to come back to a story a week later, two weeks later? Sometimes it is because if you freshen up the angle, I’m probably going to click on that story because I still remember the story. But hitting that sweet spot, you know, which I actually think is sort of next day, two days later, three days later at most, is really hard to do again when you are a small team and when you’re trying to add as much value as we are trying to add to stories all the time. That’s one thing that I think has been quite challenging.
Lastly, what are you hearing back from audiences so far? What are they telling you about what they think of the show and how are you measuring success here? What are your metrics?
That’s a great question. Let me answer in three parts. So, what am I hearing from folks? Overwhelmingly positive, which is which is really nice to hear in this media landscape where sometimes nastiness trumps other sentiments. I’ve been hearing a lot about how people like the vibe of the program and the fact that we can do more with a story than just, here’s a minute of set up and context and then here’s an interview that we’ll have. We’ll talk to someone smart about it. We really try to go further than that.
And the breadth of stories, I think, is something that people also appreciate, because, again, we’ve done stories about the pharmaceutical industry. We’ve done stories about cryptocurrency. And the crash of FTX not too long ago. And then we’ve done stories about grocery food prices and about Christmas movies and about nonalcoholic drinks. The range is huge and that’s something that’s actually been quite a joy to tap into, where I think on conventional TV and on a conventional newscast, the range of stories that you might cover might be a little more constrained and a little more limited. But we really do feel like the sky’s the limit. And it feels like audiences are responding.
The second part of your question about how we measure success is a good one. And I would answer that in two ways. The easy way is by numbers. That’s something that, you know, we always have to have at least one eye on, because if people aren’t watching your content, then why are you making it? I wouldn’t be able to give you a target number because I don’t actually know what a good target would be. And there are many people above what I do who give that question a lot of thought.
But look, our very first episode, we had, I think 150,000 views just on YouTube alone. And that doesn’t take into account our other distribution channels, whether it’s on social or online, through our apps or the actual live audience watching the FAST channel on their smart TVs. And we’ve had other episodes that that have performed similarly well. And those are pretty good numbers considering that we haven’t really done much of any promotion of the channel and of the program in a big, bold outdoor way. So, for a new program that’s still kind of finding its feet, we’ve been having a pretty good response.
But the other way I measure success and maybe the way that it’s more important to me personally is by the content that we produce. So, you know, if I compare some of the first episodes that we’ve done compared to some of the most recent episodes that we’ve done, I think there’s a world of difference in terms of the rigor that we apply, the depth to which we go in the stories, but also how much of a sort of experiential journey we try to make those stories so that it’s a watchable, understandable piece of journalism.
The CBC as an organization is in a very big, transformative moment itself, and you’re moving towards a kind of digital-centric future, or to some extent it’s already there in the present. I wonder if your colleagues on the linear side … part of the success, maybe another metric for success here is how much they’re leaning in and watching the way you’re tackling these stories, and that some of these ideas are adaptable to some degree to a linear broadcast.
They all are. Absolutely. And, you know, this was one of the most fundamental premises that was explained to me when I first signed on to this project. I won’t lie, it was a sort of bittersweet decision to leave The National in order to work on this program, a brand-new program that didn’t exist on a channel that barely existed. And, you know, the way it was framed to me and that I’ve come to believe is that this is very much trying to chart a path for the future of all broadcasting and journalism in our space, in this news space. And I have no doubt that that other folks are watching what we’re doing. They hopefully won’t make the same mistakes that we make.
This is very much a learning experience, not just for me, but for everyone watching. No one should be under any illusion that that streaming and digital and social … this is the future. This is very much the future. But the present is very much sort of where we’re at right now in terms of millions of people who still watch television and it is such an important resource and such an important part of our corporation.
So, you know, this is a part of the CBC that continues to thrive. And at the same time, we’re sort of trying to figure out, OK, so what is the future direction that we do need to head in and what are the lessons that we can learn, hopefully that that we all come out of it a little better and the audience having been a little better served because of it.
Well, in the U.S. you can watch About That as a live stream on the CBC News Explore channel on Roku and Tubi. It’s on at the same times in the U.S. as in Canada, Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. Eastern Time, live with repeats at 4 and 7 p.m. Eastern. You can also watch episodes on the CBC News YouTube channel, and I encourage you to do so. Andrew Chang is the show’s host and it’s been a real pleasure talking with you today.
A lot of fun to talk to you, too. Thank you, Michael.
You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on our YouTube channel as well as a TVNewsCheck.com, your continuously updated news source on the television business. We’re back most Fridays with the new episode. Thanks for watching and see you next time.
Project Truth says:
March 13, 2023 at 1:22 pm
CBC is propaganda garbage. I’d pity Canada but the US is no better.