Last Monday afternoon – which is to say, precisely one week before the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation unveils the most radical remake of its flagship English-language prime-time television newscast in a generation, including a much-ballyhooed move to four hosts – the core team taking the show to air on Nov. 6 began to realize they hadn't yet tangled with a central question related to one of the key pillars of the new format.
As one way of increasing the metabolism of The National, CBC executives have added some new live elements into the revamped show, including occasional interviews with guests or newsmakers.
But during an editorial meeting at the CBC's Toronto Broadcasting Centre on Monday, as producers tossed around ideas of how they might report that day's news about the criminal charges brought by U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller in Washington, co-host Ian Hanomansing wondered about the wisdom of trying to do a live interview during the show with Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor. If the segment were allocated, say, five minutes near the top of the broadcast, it could mar the swift pacing. But giving it 90 seconds would present a different set of challenges.
"How is she live?" he asked the room. His co-host Rosemary Barton, whose two-hour former afternoon show on the CBC's News Network, Power & Politics, comprised lengthy live interviews and panel discussions, looked up briefly from her phone and said, "I've done her live. Yeah, she's good."
"For how long?" responded Michael Gruzuk, the senior director of CBC News content experience, who is helping to overhaul the show.
"See, that's the thing about doing it live," nodded Kate Scroggins, a senior broadcast producer. "Keeping it tight is tough."
Barton noted that, if Hanomansing prerecorded a 10-minute interview, they could pluck the key points for the broadcast and also post the entire interview online.
Someone else pointed out that pretapes are now easier to schedule, since The National has its own dedicated studio rather than having to share one with the local Toronto news operation, as it had for years.
Others chimed in.
"This is my first time to ask all of you this," Hanomansing explained. "This is helpful for me."
While Canadians have been focused on the unprecedented decision to name the foursome of Hanomansing, Barton, Adrienne Arsenault and Andrew Chang as collective successors to long-time anchor Peter Mansbridge, the new National will rise or fall based on hundreds of other decisions that have been made over the past few months – and, indeed, are still being made.
The last time CBC Television overhauled its main newscast, in 1992, merging The National and The Journal newsmagazine into a 9 p.m. broadcast titled Prime Time News and naming Pamela Wallin a co-host with Mansbridge, ratings plummeted. But there were comparatively few places for Canadians to get their TV news, and two years later, when the changes were largely reversed, viewership slowly recovered.
Today, with viewers trickling away from nighttime newscasts that often simply repeat what they've already seen on their phones during the day, the public broadcaster has moved to re-engineer The National from the inside-out in hopes of making it not just appointment viewing for a new audience, but also the new brand of its sharpest online journalism.
Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, says the show's overhaul began with a handful of basic questions: "'What does a destination program have to do, in a continuous news environment?'" she asked rhetorically the other day during an interview at the Broadcasting Centre, where she was accompanied by Gruzuk as well as Jonathan Whitten, the executive director of CBC News, depth & context; and Caroline Harvey, The National's new executive producer. "'How do we make The National more digital? How do we push the story forward, rather than just respond to the day? And how do we evolve or modernize our storytelling?' That was the charge."
Whitten noted that the architecture of The National's first half-hour, like most evening news programs, has remained essentially static for decades: six or seven packaged reports, each running roughly two minutes in length, interspersed with a handful of briefs – video clips over which an anchor would read explanatory voice-overs.
"It was a validation of the day that was, right?" McGuire said.
But just as most newspapers long ago abandoned the goal of being papers of record and pivoted to offering readers original journalism as well as greater context of big unfolding stories – a strategy that works well online – The National will be more selective of what it will cover.
The new model, Whitten said, will see the show drill down on "three, four, sometimes five stories that we can take a look at and we can add value to, and push forward in the evening. So it's about still being rooted in the news, but not feeling like we have to capture everything that's happened, because we know that people have a different way of getting that.
"We think increasingly the audience is going to demand more at the end of the day. Some may think we're jumping too fast into a world where we're abandoning that six or seven, two-minute news item [model], but we think that's what the positioning for the future's about."
The new show opens much faster – in 15 seconds of quick-cut still images and a handful of words onscreen flicking at the day's main stories, rather than 45 seconds or more of sometimes ponderous video clips and sound bites. (A mock opening for Monday's newscast jumped from "The Indictments" (Mueller) to "The Allegations" (Kevin Spacey and Anthony Rapp) to "The Crumbling Movement" (Catalonia) and then into rapid-fire stills of the four hosts.)
While the new approach was necessitated by the digital-news ecosystem and its 24/7 flood of headlines, Whitten noted the revamped National is also partly inspired by the capacity of digital outlets to go deep on subjects.
For years, as the CBC's TV and radio operations aimed to capture the day's events as they unfolded, its digital news branch "was always looking forward, always looking for different angles," he said. "So this was taking that digital ethos, and moving it into broadcast."
With four hosts who are also working reporters, The National hopes to be able to parachute its marquee names more often into the few files on which it chooses to go deep.
On a story such as Quebec's controversial niqab-banning Bill 62, one of the hosts might fly to that province "and spend an afternoon with three women who have varying opinions on what this means for their lives," Harvey said. It would be "very focused, very personal, very story-driven, very tape-driven."
That segment might lead into "an accountability interview with somebody in the government to talk about how they can justify what they're doing. So we would do a variety of treatments on that story that might extend for six or eight minutes, and it would all be owned by one of the hosts."
The CBC has been doing that for decades on radio, with shows such as As It Happens. But technology and persistent beliefs about limited attention spans have precluded the same approach on television.
The National revamp is also aimed at those who don't even watch TV: The CBC will be increasing the amount of video posted to social media, and marking far more online news content with The National brand. "So that when you see 'The National,' you connect it to depth and context around CBC News journalism, not around the TV show," Gruzuk said.
In fact, he said, inside the CBC, the TV show is sometimes called "The National Tonight," to distinguish it from the expanding editorial operation that will push out more and new forms of content (and also compete increasingly with newspapers' online operations): There will be a newsletter, podcasts and deeply reported and well-written online features known as long reads.
"Those will be branded as The National, and they may come out in the middle of the day, at noon, when there's a bit of a traffic peak," Gruzuk said. "As new audiences connect with The National, they're starting to see it as this source of information and journalism. Hopefully, they'll watch the show as well, but if they don't, they're starting to feel a connection to the identity of what the show is."
On Monday, toward the end of the editorial meeting, there was an uncharacteristic moment of silence when Caroline Harvey asked if anyone had an idea for "The Moment." That's a new signature piece slated for the end of each show, during which the hosts will ad lib about something in the news.
"Sometimes it will be funny, sometimes it will be sad, sometimes it will be serious, sometimes it might just be a photograph," Harvey explained later. The hope is that it will "lend some personality and opportunity for [the hosts] to speak more personally than they might about a traditional news story. Just to give us some range."
Not everyone will appreciate the personal tone, or the other changes, of course. Certainly, the CBC's core audience (and professional critics, too) will let their displeasure be known.
"I am preparing the team for the onslaught, because you can't expect to innovate and move the audience somewhere and expect that there's total buy-in on Day 1," McGuire said.
"But you also have to be able to respond and iterate and change things that don't work. So it is a balancing act, and for the first four months we'll be playing with that stuff. You'll see things that don't work that we'll stop, you'll see us evolve things that are working well and we'll do better, and you'll see us stick to our guns on some things that people are going 'Mm mm mm [no]' about, because we haven't changed their habit yet."
Will the TV ratings matter to her? "I will watch the TV ratings, as I always do," she said. "If they go down at the start, am I going to panic? No."
And then McGuire, who normally holds her cards close to her chest on such matters, made a prediction: "A year from now, I expect the ratings to match or grow from what the show is."
In today's chaotic media world, not going down is the new up.