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Arts CBC’s The National acknowledges missteps and looks to retool — while pledging to keep its four hosts

The National has failed to attract more viewers since Peter Mansbridge's final season.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Almost two years after Peter Mansbridge’s departure led to a radical overhaul of The National, CBC executives acknowledge the show is still struggling to find its rhythm, with viewership down now almost 24 per cent in that time. But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, the head of CBC News said she believes producers can turn things around with a boost from the fall election, staff changes and a renewed focus on reporting by the newscast’s four hosts, to whom she insisted the public broadcaster is committed “for the foreseeable future.”

“We’re pleased with some things about the state of The National. Are we pleased with the overall state of The National? I think the answer is no,” said Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News. “We still see it very much as a work-in-progress.”

The public broadcaster’s flagship national newscast has attracted an average of 401,000 viewers (aged two-years-old-plus) nightly on the main CBC-TV network over the 2018-19 television season, down sharply from the 525,000 average number of viewers who tuned in for Mansbridge’s final season as news anchor.

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He signed off on Canada Day, 2017, freeing executives to shake up the show’s format for the first time in decades.

They appointed four hosts – Toronto-based correspondent Adrienne Arsenault, former Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton in Ottawa and the Vancouver-based anchors Ian Hanomansing and Andrew Chang – whom they envisioned would head into the field to report. They also experimented with a mix of longer reports, non-traditional story lineups and pacing, and new features.

Despite a decline among 25-54 year-olds, viewership in the 25-34 year-old demographic has grown since the launch of the new format.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

And while CBC trumpets that the show’s viewership among adults 25-34 years-old has grown 16 per cent since the November, 2017, launch of the new format, the show’s older core audience has begun to desert it: Viewership among 25-54 years-old was down 9 per cent this TV season. In that respect, The National’s struggles reflect those at the news divisions of the other major broadcasters, who are trying to develop an approach that attracts new viewers – especially using content that works well on digital platforms – without alienating traditional fans.

(Data for the current season, which capture viewership from Aug. 27, 2018, to April 7, 2019, were provided by CBC’s communications department, from the ratings agency Numeris.)

CBC also claimed a weekly average of 24,000 views of The National on Gem, up 125 per cent from the previous year before it began pouring marketing dollars into that streaming service and building up its library.

“It means that the content choices, in terms of how we’re imagining the show to resonate with a younger demographic, is working,” said McGuire, who spoke with The Globe last week by phone, accompanied by Michael Gruzuk, the senior director of CBC News content experience, programming and innovation. “We think there’s more to do in terms of what I’d say is the Achilles [heel] of the show. We’ve gone maybe a little too far, in terms of how the traditional news audience feels about the show.”

“The nature of television is that it’s a ritual,” Gruzuk elaborated. “When the show works really well, it’s when there’s a certain order to it and it’s clear that hosts are in different locations and working on different stories.

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"We had a show like that a couple of weeks ago, when Adrienne was in London because of Trump being there, and Rosie was across the river [from Ottawa] in Gatineau because of the report that came out that day about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. When those shows work, there’s an order to it that brings a certain kind of ritual to a nightly newscast.” Achieving that six nights a week, though, “has proved to be more of a challenge than we expected.”

In April, Caroline Harvey, a producer who was well-liked by colleagues and had been named executive producer of The National prior to its relaunch, was removed from the show; she has since left the CBC. “If I can use a sports metaphor, we’ve seen really capable talented coaches be shifted to create a different dynamic in the context of the team, and I think that’s how we frame the changes that we made,” McGuire said. “Certainly, Caroline wasn’t the only change, or will be the only change that we’re making.”

Still, McGuire insisted CBC is not intending to alter the primary cast: “For the foreseeable future, we’re imagining we have [these] four hosts.” But she noted that some elements of the original vision of the show haven’t yet been fully realized, such as deploying the hosts for reporting assignments. “We imagined it happening with much more frequency than we’ve been able to organize.” Audiences may soon see some of the hosts more often reporting from the field rather than reading from a Teleprompter in a studio.

Viewers, as well as employees at the CBC, are still trying to figure out the show.

CBC

To achieve that, Gruzuk says producers are in the process of “building more dedicated teams around the hosts, so that they have a real engine behind each of them around the work they’re doing. … It’s new leadership, it’s a lot of new ideas based on new learnings, because of what we’ve done over the last two seasons.”

Viewers aren’t the only ones who need educating on the program’s approach, he says. “I’ll be really frank: Inside the building, this is hard for people to get their heads around something that hasn’t existed before. But the team’s engaged in trying to make sense of it right now.”

McGuire acknowledged that, in the coming months, “We will be more consistently opening the show from Toronto. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be the same person who opens the show every night.”

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And, as of the fall, the core audience can expect familiar touchstones. “We expect hopefully they’ll be coming back during the opportunity of the federal election, when we know we excel,” Gruzuk said. “We hope that we can see some of the recovery of that audience with the return to that kind of political season this September.”

The show’s continuing development comes amid increased scrutiny from within the corporation. This month, a long-time CityTV reporter and executive, Francis D’Souza, joined CBC as managing editor of news programming, overseeing a collection of programs that includes The National. (Meanwhile, Jonathan Whitten, a CBC veteran who had been one of the brains behind the show’s reinvention, left to become the news director of CityTV Toronto.) And both the new executive vice-president of English-language services, Barbara Williams, who joined CBC last month from Corus, which owns the Global Television Network, and CBC president Catherine Tait, who is about to celebrate her first anniversary in the position, have said the show’s success is a priority.

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