What the CBC can learn from Paris Hilton

Sent to me from a reclining J. Frank Willis.

So the ratings south of the border are in, and it appears that no matter where they were broadcast, the stories of Paris Hilton broke through the ratings charts.

Before you say Yccccccccccch, I want to tell about the first time I heard Frank Magid called The Maggot.

It was one of those hot US summer afternoons with thunderstorms and tornadoes moving across the Midwest. Which meant there was a gate stop order at a certain large international airport until the storm passed, so everyone who were waiting for their flights home retired to the bar. Some of the top names in television news at the time were there, an executive producer of one of the Amnet 6:30 newscasts, a senior producer for a major US magazine show, a fistful of old warhorse network investigative producers, some gung ho types from CNN (still under the eye of Ted Turner at the time) plus a bunch of the top news directors from US stations in major markets, stations which did try, from time to time, to do solid journalism, and a tiny group of Canadians who had managed to wring budget money out of their bosses to attend the conference that had just ended that morning.

It was a couple of years after the O.J. Simpson case and at a time when the pressure for ratings was getting fierce. And apparently in those years in New York there was a term called “pulling an OJ.” Management at all the networks knew that the OJ case would pull in good ratings. But these men and women were dedicated to good journalism, so they decided to ride on OJ’s gloves, so to speak. One network senior producer said she made a deal with her boss, “One Palestinian for five OJ’s.” which meant, in crass commercial terms, that the profits from running five stories about O. J. Simpson were high enough that she could then afford to do a story on the Palestinians or some other vital issue or run an item that required time, effort and money.

Another person, nursing his second scotch, agreed. He always tried to run a significant story on a night when there was a major development in the OJ Simpson case, knowing full well that the audience would tune for the OJ story, catch what the show producer really wanted them to see, and so he could tell the boss the ratings were good for that item (because the lead-in was OJ).

I not raising this as an example for The National, which hasn’t been touched that much by the dumbing down (yet) but I am pointing to the supper hour shows.

One news director was from a Fox station, and he was the one who used the word Maggot (the first time I had heard it). And most of the people at the table agreed, nodding into their martinis, beer and scotch. As Americans in local television do, they mark their careers by how far and fast they rise in market size, from down in the high 100s to the top 30 or top 10. So this guy had made it. And his station brought in good ratings and he was richly rewarded for his efforts. And what he said was “You don’t have to fill the fucking show with every crime and fire that happens that day. It’s a waste of time having your staff chase them all because you’re scared the competition is going to have them all. Do you think the audience really gives a shit whether you have five crime stories or six that evening? You are going to get the big ones anyway. Forget about some second rate stickup and do some real stories. It’s not that it bleeds it leads, but what comes after that lead.” This guy pointed out that because he gave his people time to work on stories, he not only had good shows, but when the sweeps came, he always blew the competition out of the water, not only with his “I Team” but with other stories that he had given his staff the time to work on in the time leading up to sweeps.

And that’s the difference between someone who has actually worked in the business, who knows how television works and bureaucrats like current CBC senior management who have never worked in a newsroom and listen only to consultants, who probably became consultants when their climb up the market size ladder stalled or are number crunchers who wouldn’t know what to do if the biggest crime story of the year happened in front of their noses (these days they wouldn’t even see the crime because their noses would be stuck to their crackberries).

At the moment, the CBC supper hour shows across the country are wasting a lot of their talent by using the limited staff as ambulance chasers. Perhaps the CBC has to do a little of that to get the ratings back up after Rabinovitch gutted the supper hours when he first began his reign of terror. But we don’t have to emulate the worst of the Magid inspired Eyewitless news stations. The CBC is public broadcaster and the public expects more from the CBC.

So the lesson is this. We swallow our pride, run the story about Paris Hilton, and deal with the complaints (and there were lots of complaints about the stories the CBC did run about Paris Hilton) but why follow Paris with as my friend from Fox said, the “second rate stickup?” Put the CBC talent back on what they can do–good, solid TV radio and online journalism and blow the audience away with the story that comes after Paris.

best wishes from my deck

J Frank Willis


  1. Anonymous
    Posted July 11, 2007 at 4:21 am | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Judy, Judy, Judy … PARC isn’t “real”, it’s a device used by management to control, through mockery and humiliation, their underlings. It’s somewhere between a hazing ritual and Jonestown. When the senior managers catch someone laughing out loud at the proposition they know who is on to them and quickly move them aside. When they find people dull and sheepish enough to go along with something as plainly moronic as PARC they know they can make them do anything.

  2. Allan
    Posted July 9, 2007 at 9:08 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Isn’t that when you back-track while carrying a canoe?
    Yes, let’s have more Canadian fascination.
    Judy LaMarsh had a radio talk show in Vancouver for a while.
    She interviewed The Happy Hooker at about the same time I did.
    Neither of them ever worked for the CBC to my knowledge

  3. Judy LaHarsh
    Posted July 9, 2007 at 6:03 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    Better yet, blow the audience away with the first rate reportage that CBC news has staked its reputation on. Tuck Paris Hilton stories away somewhere later on and ONLY with a solid buttress of Canadian culture surrounding and contextualizing this cruff.

    There’s been a bit of a love fest with things American corp-wide for a while now, and it needs to come to a halt.

    Sadly, right wing a-holes have kinda ruined a concept of Canadian nationalism. Canadian Culture — and yes even the old cobweb covered ‘What is Canada?’ should actually be the backbone of hitting PARC targets, hiring of staff (ahem, cough, cough to you J. Frank), and of programmed content itself.

    Yeah, you heard it. An open ended forum on what makes this country what it is, in all its inclusive, nerdy, and genuinely curious glory. That should be the C in PARC.

    The folks at CBC.ca recently enjoyed a cake in honour of someone getting their citizenship. That cake, by all accounts tasted sweeter than any PMO farewell cake circa 2005.

    In short, what we can learn from Paris Hilton is that we invented the garbage bag. Hopefully we can fill that sack up with proposals from the likes of the Maggot and ship them over to Michigan where they belong.

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