Five months after the heavily promoted relaunch of The National, ratings for CBC Television’s flagship news program are down about 10 per cent from last season’s average, but executives with the public broadcaster say they are unconcerned because they had anticipated a period of churn after its overhaul last fall.
And they are pointing to increasing numbers on digital platforms such as YouTube as proof that they are on the right track.
“The numbers we’re seeing on television are well within what we expected the numbers to be at this point in its evolution,” Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, said in an interview. “Is it as high as I want it to be? No. But am I panicked? No.”
Still, with the NHL playoffs kicking off this week, The National is expected to lose traction and goodwill over the next two months, as it endures its annual springtime game of hide-and-go-seek with viewers, on some evenings appearing in its entirety or as an abbreviated version of its one-hour edition on the main network, and other nights only on CBC’s News Network.
The show has been pulling an average of 460,000 viewers on the CBC’s main network since its overhaul, which included the introduction of four reporter-hosts replacing Peter Mansbridge, and a shift to providing deep context on a few key stories rather than a faster-paced review of the day’s events which typifies evening newscasts.
That audience number, provided by the CBC’s research department from the national TV ratings agency Numeris, has held steady over the past five months.
But it is down from the 525,000 average viewership of the 2016-17 TV season, which concluded at the end of last August. And it is off sharply from the CBC’s own projections provided to advertisers, which forecast viewership at a more robust 532,000.
But McGuire says she is pleased with the show’s continuing evolution. “Are we delivering the show we imagined? I would say it’s still a work-in-progress. There’s lots of good, but we’re still iterating.”
“I’m quite pleased with the hosting dynamic,” she noted. “We threw together four people who have different sensibilities, even in their journalism. They came together in quite a roller-coaster ride and have great on-air chemistry, and a great working relationship dynamic. I think the audience sees that.”
However, she acknowledged, “we’re still defining [the show] a little bit: On any given day, where does it go with the story of the day, and how does it push the story forward?”
Jonathan Whitten, the executive director of CBC News, depth and context, agreed that the show has yet to find its rhythm. “We’re still experimenting,” he said. “Some nights I think we knock it out of the park, and other nights we drift back to what would be a more traditional National in many ways.”
“A lot of us are still pulled back to that kind of [traditional] newscast – the sort of rapid-fire news – so it’s hard some nights to say, Look, let’s just spend a little more time on this than we normally would. When you watch it, you can see the kind of back and forth between ‘Should we get to things quicker, should we spend more time on X?’” he said. “As time goes on, I think we’ll get a better sense of the rhythm of it. But we’re still learning, still watching, still trying to understand what works.”
He noted that executives and staff are especially pleased with the digital performance of some of the medium-length pieces – neither quick-hit news-of-the-day nor long-form magazine-style documentaries – which give viewers wider context on important stories.
A 9 1/2 minute report by Paul Hunter that looked at arguments for and the backlash against the southern border wall proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump, which aired last December, has racked up close to 3.3-million views on YouTube.
“Those were the stories that we wanted to focus on, and those are the stories that have had huge uptake in digital,” Whitten added. “That’s been a real win for us – showing reporters that, when they get out, when they do original stories, that’s what’s going to pop for them off digital. That’s what a digital audience wants, as opposed to some of the stories we may have done more of in the past … [reviewing] the day.”
Viewership numbers for The National’s live stream on YouTube and Twitter are also increasing, according to CBC research, with audiences regularly numbering about 20,000 on each platform. YouTube, Whitten said , represents “an opportunity for CBC News to connect and build relevance for new audiences – a prime goal of our public service.”