The date is fixed for Peter Mansbridge to sign off from the anchor's chair at the CBC, and as the veteran broadcaster himself once predicted, the scramble is on.
With the face of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's nightly newscast due to step down on July 1, tryout season begins in earnest as a host of broadcasters will jockey for position as potential successors. But as the authority of the desk Mr. Mansbridge inherited nearly three decades ago is steadily diluted in a crowded media market, it remains an open question whether the CBC needs a lead anchor who fits the current mould at all.
Perhaps more important, the news that Mr. Mansbridge, 68, is stepping down will focus and accelerate a long-simmering conversation in the CBC's executive ranks about how The National itself could be dramatically retooled. Many viewers have known the nightly news broadcast as the network's standard-bearer since the days of Knowlton Nash, and it still reaches a large audience across its networks. But it is structured around a notion of appointment viewing that appears increasingly anachronistic.
More than two years ago, the CBC lurched into a five-year plan to invert its hierarchies and put digital news at the forefront, partly at the expense of television broadcasts. But The National is still an influential force, and precisely how the CBC transforms the program will send a clear signal about the extent to which the CBC intends to remake itself in the coming years.
Since June, 2014, when the CBC unveiled its new strategy, The National's ratings have remained flat, at an average audience of about one million viewers – three fifths of them on CBC's main channel, the rest on CBC News Network. That routinely trails CTV National News by a wide margin, and the public broadcaster will be keen to seize on next year's transition as a chance to start closing the gap.
Mr. Mansbridge's decision to stay on until Canada Day buys CBC leaders time and presents a blank slate for a redesign spearheaded by Jennifer McGuire, the general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News. Previous efforts at revamping The National have tended to begin with a blue-sky phase before being whittled down to something more practical, according to CBC sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ms. McGuire declined to discuss specific plans for The National's next phase, but said in an e-mail that she sees this as "an opportunity to reimagine the program."
"We will absolutely look at digital as an opportunity. The show is already positioned digitally, but there is absolutely more we could do," she said.
Though speculation and gossip about succession plans have been widespread for years, the blueprint for Mr. Mansbridge's departure remained a tightly kept secret inside the CBC – even some staff close to top CBC executives were brought into the loop only on Monday afternoon.
One source stressed the CBC has never had an heir apparent to Mr. Mansbridge. But Ms. McGuire has said in the past that the CBC did early planning to identify people, inside and outside the public broadcaster, who could step into some sort of successor's role.
That draft roster is no doubt in need of revision after the the CBC lost two of its most recognizable hosts last year.
The broadcaster first fired political host Evan Solomon over allegations he used his journalistic contacts to broker art deals that earned him lucrative fees. Then, within months, senior business correspondent Amanda Lang left for a job at Bloomberg LP. Ms. Lang had been caught up in conflict-of-interest allegations over paid speaking engagements – an issue that also dogged Mr. Mansbridge – and though an internal review cleared her of wrongdoing, the CBC banned on-air hosts from paid work outside the corporation.
As a result, the door could be open to a number of younger, less well-established contenders. Where anchors have tended to be desk-bound authority figures who shaped the day's news from the centre and built bonds with viewers, the CBC's stated ambitions for digital storytelling – which is expected to receive the lion's share of the $150-million in new funding promised by the federal government – put a premium on journalists who are well-versed in online media and comfortable filing dispatches around the clock on every platform.
And after the last major shuffle in the ranks of national newscasters brought Dawna Friesen and Lisa LaFlamme to the anchor's chairs at Global National and CTV National News in 2010 and 2011 – the first two women to hold the national anchor's title in Canada – diversity among candidates could weigh heavily in the CBC's deliberations.
The ultimate decision will rest with executive vice-president of English services Heather Conway, who is known to work closely with Ms. McGuire, but was unavailable to comment on Tuesday. Ms. Conway has a clear mandate to disrupt the ways the CBC reaches its audience, and now, a rare chance to rebuild its most treasured pulpit.
The National's audience: notable numbers
16.5 million: The total number of Canadians who watched The National during its 2015-16 broadcast season, accounting for some 47 per cent of all potential viewers.
3.4 million: The total number of viewers who tuned into election-night coverage of the 2015 federal vote across CBC's networks, anchored by Mr. Mansbridge, as the public broadcaster called a Liberal majority. Average CBC viewership on election night was 1.89 million.
6.8 million: The total number of unique online visitors to CBC's election-night coverage across its apps, mobile and desktop webpages, or roughly twice the broadcaster's peak TV audience for the Oct. 19 vote.
1.6 million: The average audience for The National the night of the attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, as there continues to be evidence of spikes in viewership around major news events and interviews.
Source: CBC and Numeris