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Lloyd Robertson, the chief anchor of CTV News who is retiring next year, welcomes his successor Lisa LaFlamme, at the network's studios in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Lloyd Robertson, the chief anchor of CTV News who is retiring next year, welcomes his successor Lisa LaFlamme, at the network's studios in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

How to hold on to one million viewers Add to ...

One of the first things Lisa LaFlamme must do now that she has been named Lloyd Robertson's successor as anchor of the CTV National News is come up with a memorable signoff. It's a part of the job she admits she's neglected.

"I just say, 'See you tomorrow,' " Ms. LaFlamme said Friday after being unveiled as the network's new marquee anchor. Mr. Robertson's signature signoff - "That's the kind of day it's been" - will be heard for the last time next year when he steps down after more than three decades on air at CTV and CBC.

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Ms. LaFlamme, who began working in television in 1988, inherits the anchor chair at a tenuous time for TV news, when ratings are under pressure and audiences are getting older. Her challenge will be to maintain the lead CTV has built for its nightly newscast, just as the competition is retooling.

Since the fall, Mr. Robertson has averaged about 1.3 million viewers a night, while Global National's Kevin Newman, who recently announced he will step down in August, drew just over 1 million viewers. CBC's The National, hosted by Peter Mansbridge, averaged roughly 685,000 viewers a night.

Global will announce its new anchor on Tuesday, while CBC has been working with a new format for the past year, aimed at reviving its ratings. To keep the upheaval to a minimum at CTV, the network decided on a gradual transition. Mr. Robertson, 76, will hand off to Ms. LaFlamme in mid-2011, though no specific date has been chosen. He will continue in other roles at CTV, including co-hosting W5.

"Any change is an opportunity for viewers to say, 'Hey, what else is out there?' " Ms. LaFlamme said. "But we have a year, it will be seamless: People will see Lloyd one week, and me when he's off. I'm hoping it won't feel like much of a change. Viewers will just say, 'Oh there's Lisa again.' "

Change can be jarring for TV audiences. When a new generation of anchors took hold at the big-three U.S. networks - with the likes of Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer taking over - it was disastrous for ratings. ABC, NBC and CBS saw a combined five-per-cent drop in viewers, according to a study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. However, whether that drop was entirely due to the new faces in front of the camera or a migration of audiences online is a matter for much debate.

"Television newscasts have to deal with the same issue that everyone else is trying to deal with in the media at the moment," said Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University's School of Journalism in Ottawa. "That is: What should we assume people know about the day's events before they come to your newscast?"

Mr. Waddell points out network newscasts remain a powerful draw in Canada. "I don't think you can down-play that these are still important broadcasts," he said.

But the significance of an anchor is changing. When venerable CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite declared the Vietnam War could not be won, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson remarked. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." With a proliferation of 24-hour news on cable, mixed with online news outlets, one network voice no longer carries such weight.

"I think people underestimate how much of a cultural habit anchors were," said Bob Calo, a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in California. "Now there's no one in the anchor chair in Canada or the United States who you could say that about. And maybe that's good.… It has a lot to do with a television culture that is now fraying like everything else."

Mr. Newman's departure from Global sparked rumours he was up for the job, but CTV News president Robert Hurst said the succession plan always focused on elevating internal candidates, such as Ms. LaFlamme.

"This is one of the most important journalistic chairs in the country because of the number of people that watch every night. And we knew that we would be able to choose basically whoever we wanted," Mr. Hurst said. "We had so much depth of talent inside CTV News that over the last eight weeks, we never even looked outside in a serious way."

The goal for CTV and Global as they switch national anchors is to avoid a ratings slump like their U.S. counterparts. In this sense, the "honeymoon" period will be important, suggests Joyce Smith, director of the Ryerson School of Journalism's graduate studies. "Yes, it's the same news story in some cases, but there's something about having that familiar face giving me the news, which makes a difference."

For Ms. LaFlamme, the time has come to perhaps start thinking about that signature signoff. "I'm a very straightforward journalist. There's not a lot of bells and whistles," Ms. LaFlamme said, joking that taking over from the country's longest-serving anchorman is a humbling experience. "I also know I'll never be the most trusted man in news - there's a few things I know."

 

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