The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Sunday, August 21, 2005


His boss at the CBC called him "larger than life, a take-charge, can-do, go-to guy, experienced and decisive, with boundless energy and enthusiasm". He was the "golden boy" come to lead the national broadcaster to glory.
On Wednesday, he called it quits, but the local media barely noticed his exit from the national scene.

But not The Black Rod.

Slawko Klymkiw's journey through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is almost movie-of-the-week material, the kind he himself would commission for the Mothers Corps.

And if you believe that, then you will also believe the many accolades bestowed upon the man whose decision "to accept an invitation to take up a new, exciting and very different professional opportunity" happens to coincide with the current lockout that many say is the death knell of the CBC as we have known it.

Or, about the same time senior brass decided the NHL method of labour negotiation, a.k.a. starve the bastards out, was the only alternative to even more years of decaying revenues, self-centred programming and downward-spiralling ratings.

Or, a.k.a. exactly what Klymkiw had delivered in his 9 years as Executive Director of Network Programming for CBC Television.

Slawko was the big star at Winnipeg CBC's 24 Hours in its local heyday, even if he never appeared on-camera. You remember, the days of Marv Terhoch, Sandra Lewis and Kevin Evans, when the nightly 24 Hours newscast drew upwards of 135,000 viewers. When CBWT Winnipeg was the jewel in the public broadcasting crown, the only city in the country where CBC was top station.

How do they do it? pondered the Toronto brass. And the answer came back --- it's the Uke.
Slawko built his reputation on "award-winning" documentaries, back when people cared about documentary-style television.

Before departing for the centre of the universe, Slawko had one last gift for Winnipeg; he created the I-Team. His image was not tarnished when the first I-Team story was scooped by Gordon Sinclair (say, whatever happened to him?) and the Free Press upstaged the heavily publicized debut story. Luckily for Slawko, he left just before the documentary bubble burst.

Hmmm. He always had a knack for knowing when to leave.

Slawko was brought in to work his wonders in The Big Smoke. He couldn't work a miracle though and failed to bring the Toronto CBC news back from the dead.

He helped create CBC Newsworld and served as Head of News Specials, Senior Executive Producer of Programming, and later as the head of the network. His biggest accomplishment was keeping CTV's Newsnet out of the breaking news business and out of competition for 10 years.

News on CBC went down the toilet in the Nineties. After being toadies for the Tories during Meech Lake (the local service being the lone exception), they angered Mulroney by being scrupiously objective during the Charlottetown referendum debate. He cut funding in '91 and the CBC began a series of dumb moves which sent the network into its current death spiral.

They adopted a "regional" perspective (which in Manitoba meant ignoring Winnipeg), they moved the National to 9 p.m. and started 24 Hours News at 5:30, confusing viewers who were not about the change their viewing habits; and they went through a "diversity" phase where every story was about some affirmative action program, dissaffected minority, or a feel-good, do-good, aren't we wonderful pollyannic tearjerker.

We'll have to wait until CSI: Front Street to find which ideas had Slawko's fingerprints on them, but he had motive and opportunity for the fatal cuts of 2000 which cut local newscasts in favour of a supper hour national cast. For by then, Slawko had become head of network programming which meant he called the shots on entertainment shows, and he needed money to play.

Slawko was never at a loss for ideas. As Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President put it, "He truly was the architect of the schedules that embodied the transformation of the network over the past several years."

And how we remember:

In 2003 it was "guerilla programming" where they unravelled "five seasons" of programming in a row: television, comedy and drama series, holiday programming, news series and specials, and hockey playoffs.

In 2004 it was "high impact programming" which apparently consisted of TV movies, The Great Canadian contest and a mini-series.

OH, you don't remember. Sorry.

Canadians continued to tune out in record numbers. But "ratings alone are a lousy measure of how well a public broadcaster is fulfilling its mandate" said Klymkiw. CBC shows had to "serve a public purpose":
"Our role is to host the Canadian conversation. To give voice to Canadians in all their diversity, telling our stories, celebrating our heroes and educating our kids through news information and high impact distinctive programming."

Unfortunately for Slawko fewer and fewer Canadians felt CBC wanted to hear what they had to say and CBC increasingly finds itself talking to itself.

The "purpose" of his leadership resulted in the speed of sound descent of CBC's Canada Now. The 6 O'clock newscast went from No. 1 in the 80's, to No. 2 in the 90's, to No.3 with barely 17,000 viewers and hearing the footsteps of the revamped CITY-TV news with Lisa Saunders, who seemingly is not finding her lack of award-winning recognition or a leather wardrobe to be an impediment to delivering a newscast Winnipeggers want to watch more than seeing what Hurricane Krista is wearing tonight.

Oh, and did we mention that the great programmer turned down the huge comedy hit Corner Gas? yep, who needs 2 million viewers ? Let CTV HAVE them, we got um, er, eh, uh, ... Slawko's mantra was "momentum, momentum, momentum". Ya, that's it, momentum.

He lost it and he quit.

He wanted the job to replace Harold Redekopp as vice-president. He didn't get it. Stursberg did. And as an insider, Klymkiw knew about the planned lockout for months.

Not that you'd know it by reading the local press, but Klymkiw has been appointed as Executive Director of the Canadian Film Centre.

Oh and a curious sidebar. Stursberg said "I also think his new employers are very lucky to have him". That's a bizarre statement considering the CFC website lists Stursberg as -- yep, on the Board of Directors of CFC and therefore, the distinction of being Klymkiw's old and NEW employer, simultaneously.

Klymkiw left because he knows this is the end for the CBC. Just like he left the Peg when it was the end for documentaries. But like an addict to a North End alley, he will not really kick the CBC habit as CFC students and films under his "leadership" will end up being foisted on the taxpayers when the public broadcaster hires Slawko's next generation of "award-winners" and pays to air their films that no one would pay to see in the theatre.

People are already giving feedback. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, they love listening to CBC FM without announcers. They're willling to try a CFL game with no colour analysts even if the CFL can't wrap their head around the concept (first tried by NBC in a Jets - Dolphins tilt year ago).

Nobody is organizing to force the government to end the lockout. A poster on said it best.
"Uninterrupted music from little-known entertainers is superior to endless chatter from urban socialists, academia nuts and cultural elitists who view their unfettered access to the public trough as a God-given right."

It's like nobody cares.

But we do. The Black Rod is not joining the pile-on CBC crowd.

We see this as an opportunity for CBC, maybe its last opportunity, but an opportunity to change and regain its place in broadcasting. People in the media are mystified that CBC is not fighting. No attempt to put on a national news broadcast. No use of available feeds. Not like in the old days of ACTRA wildcat walkouts, the strike by cameramen, etc. in the 90's.

As Maclean's put it:
"Media observers said Tuesday they're stunned the CBC hasn't tried to provide any kind of news package from non-union staff or from all the incoming feeds that are available in any broadcast newsroom."

Why the surprise? CBC are mama's boys. They've always run to government and been taken care of. No competition will do that to you.

They don't want to be the "bad guys" and fight their employees. They don't want to be Gary Bettman and be hated. So, nothing. But nothing - means the end.

On the picket line the betting line is that the lockout will last 3 months.
Even the strikers have ideas. Some are talking about a Canadian Media Guild - approved webcast of news shot and edited by the strikers to compete with CBC-TV and of podcasts for the radio crowd.

And has a list of CBC worker blogs. There's already about ten.

(Speaking of those who are locked out, anchorman Peter Mansbridge joined the picket line yesterday. And no, we don't know if Krista is walking the line here or in Toronto. We think Toronto, but expect her back here soon. The CBC just cut off the dental benefits of its lockout out employees, and we don't expect them to pay for Krista's hotel room now that she isn't filing hard news stories like people standing in line for 24 hours for Rolling Stones tickets, the move to use energy efficient lightbulbs in Chinese groceries- and no we are not making this up, your taxes paid for that.)

Which brings us to opportunity. CBC has spent five or more years trying to be hip. Trying to attract "youth". Trying to be "cutting edge". And failing at every turn, ZED-TV's 46,000 strong web community notwithstanding.

Now they can do exactly what they said they want to do. Because obviously the public does NOT want a return to the status quo.

The paradigm shifted in January with the tsunami. Suddenly people could go to the web and find video of the disaster. They didn't have to wait for it to be delivered to a TV station, edited, voiced over. It was raw and immediate. Hell, even the cable news networks relied on the new technology to bring the story their old technology could not react to fast enough. That's the future of news.

CBC can be in the forefront.

No viewers nowadays? Why? Because youth get their news on the computer?
So webcast your shows. Let young viewers tap in whenever they want, day or night. Let them give feedback about the accuracy and honesty of the casts just like blogs and make changes where warranted.

No reporters? This is the era of citizen reporters. Create VLOGs.
Invite people to post video of events they feel deserve coverage. The Folk Festival. Bad roads. This weekends implosion of the old Ogilvie Mill. The video comes first, then the reporters are assigned to put it in context. We live in a participatory culture.

That's what Klymkiw said he wanted, conversation, right?

No cameramen? Give every reporter a Sony cameraphone.

Think it won't work? Just last week, James Lileks wrote:

"In a sense, blogging is so 2004. The next big thing will be videoblogs. You can fit a rudimentary TV studio in a suitcase -- a laptop, a camcorder, a few cables, and a nearby Starbucks with
Wi-Fi you can leech onto to upload your reports..."

That's guerilla programming, Slawko.

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