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A better news hour on CBC Television

I appreciate CBC News. CBC News could be better.

A television news video camera. Photo by Bicanski:

Empirically speaking, as a 20-something Canadian, most of my peers don’t care about television news. That’s a shame, in my opinion. The television newscast, while an imperfect platform, offers an opportunity to learn and think about one’s community, country, and world in an increasingly rare distraction-free context.

I accredit my gravitation toward TV news over the past few years to our ever-overwhelming media landscape. Endless information sources pry for our attention — there’s simply too much to take in. As someone with creative goals, there’s only so much consumption I can fathom. As it turns out, following every conceivable news organization on Twitter and doomscrolling for hours each day has not proven to be a healthy or sustainable habit!

By contrast, a television newscast is a condensed and efficient format. It allows one to set aside their mobile devices and social media platforms, if only for a short while. Most importantly, it enables one to schedule their news consumption to a fixed block of time rather than be consumed by news.

Of Canada’s national evening newscasts, my favourite is easily CBC’s The National. Our public broadcaster strikes an effective balance between short reports on top stories, longer investigative pieces, and features that explore how our reality affects actual individuals. Its anchors reflect Canada’s diversity and are authoritative yet human and familiar.

I appreciate CBC’s news style. I also believe its television news presentation could be more effective. (While existing in what feels like a polarized society where people and groups are labelled and herded into allegiance with one fixed affiliation or another, it feels empowering to breathe these two seemingly contradictory statements into existence. Try it! This should be normal! Nothing is entirely right or wrong, and we need to start living with this belief.)

CBC’s Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, ON. Photo by Jeff Hitchcock:

How can CBC Television’s news coverage better serve Canadians?

First, eliminate advertising during news content on CBC Television. I’m not the first person to suggest this, and for good reason: many other developed countries’ public broadcasters are nearly entirely ad-free or plan to be soon. Perhaps CBC will one day achieve this goal. In the meantime, news, as a public-serving and democracy-bolstering service, would be a great place to start.

(While not directly related to my argument, I would also like to note that free pandemic era access to CBC News Network, the public broadcaster’s paid 24-hour news channel, ended on June 30. The fact that News Network typically requires paid television service or a CBC Gem subscription is laughable — Australia’s ABC News and the United Kingdom’s BBC News are broadcast over-the-air at no charge.)

Next, shorten news broadcasts on CBC. Currently, most local CBC stations devote 90 minutes each evening to news content, including commercials. The National, the broadcaster’s flagship news program, airs from 10 pm to 11 pm, followed by 30-minute local newscast.

With advertising gone, is 90 minutes of news necessary? Probably not.

I propose a 60-minute news format: 40 minutes for The National and 20 minutes for local news. These figures aren’t all that different from current actual airtime minus advertising.

My biggest concern while considering this time allotment was, “is 20 minutes enough time dedicated to local news?” Even as a big proponent for local news — though I won’t go into why I believe it’s so important here — I’d argue that 20 minutes is plenty. I watch CBC Ottawa’s local newscast often. During its current 22 minutes of actual airtime, the program often repeats The National segments from earlier in the week to meet its runtime. Shaving off two minutes shouldn’t hurt.

Finally, push the start time of news coverage from 10 pm to 10:30 pm. There are practical advantages to this. For example, it would free up an extra half hour of primetime space for original Canadian content. During the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, game coverage would be less likely to interfere with The National’s scheduled start time.

Furthermore, the 10:30 pm start time may put The National in a better position to compete for viewers of CTV National News who may enjoy the extra time to watch other content in the evening before the news comes on. Plus, by overlapping CTV National News’ 11 pm start time by 10 minutes, those already tuning in for The National may be less inclined to change the channel. Those who prefer an earlier start time would still have that option by watching the premiere broadcast on CBC News Network.

(Of course, ratings aren’t everything. Conservative pundits who continue to push the overplayed ratings argument in favour of defunding CBC clearly do not understand its mandate.)

The 1991 Broadcasting Act states the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation should inform us, enlighten us, and entertain us “by the most appropriate and efficient means”. Removing advertising from its news coverage and shifting to a more concise news package, delivered at a time that better reflects the modern media consumption habits of Canadians, would contribute to this ideal.

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