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:

Monday, December 26, 2005


Christmas week, and especially Christmas Day, are long known as "slow" news days - that is reporters and their editors coast to their days off with plenty of year-end reviews in the can, the obligatory Santa, weather and shopping mall stories dominating what passes for coverage, and reporters and columnists trolling for stories of human despair and hope, whatever makes the front page or gets on the air.

But yesterday may have been the last time we will see the long-standing Christmas truce between Winnipeg newsrooms hold.

All-out war is about to break loose in the local TV market in the coming ratings period, because of a shift in the schedule that will see all 4 local newscasts compete in the 6 PM slot for a dwindling viewership.

And as we all know, in every war, there are winners, and losers.

Last week Global revealed that in March, they will flip-flop their news block, moving their national broadcast with Kevin Newman to the 5.30 PM slot and the local newscast to 6 PM.

It is no surprise that Global National is being moved to the 5.30 slot which is, of course, when all the US network newscasts start. It makes Newman look like he is a viable alternative to the American anchors and Canwest look like they are leaders in journalism.

No one should underestimate the collateral effect of the move, which creates an opportunity for the Aspers to take a head-on run at the coveted #1 dinnertime TV crown long held by CKY. They're not building a brand-new media centre off Portage and Main to hold the number two station.

The now-rebranded CTV evening newscast has held the top spot ever since CBC's disastrous shift to 5.30 in the mid-90's, which greased the skids for every CBC anchor since. Despite a hasty return to the 6:00 o'clock slot, viewership fell from over 100,000 to 17,000, far enough that A-Channel (now-rebranded as City-TV) was breathing down the Corpse's neck when the lockout killed off whatever momentum host Krista Erickson had built.

Meanwhile Global held a solid if distant second at just under 50,000, and slowly built a roster and style they feel can take a chunk out of CTV's 140,000 plus viewers.

A CTV insider spoke to The Black Rod about the prospect of going head-to-head with Canwest and sent a message:

"Tell Channel 12 to bring it on."

With that in mind, we took a close look at the evening newscasts on Christmas Eve and analyzed whether the front-runners are over-confident, if Global really has what it takes, or if this 4-way dance will bring genuine changes to the numbers and thereafter, to the newscasts themselves. (Well, truth be told, we missed CBC's show because it aired at 5 PM due to hockey, but we've watched plenty lately anyways, as our regular readers can attest.)

Generally CKY's newscast is a plodding affair. Anchor Janet Stewart has a perpetual scowl and in her holiday absence, co-host Gord Leclerc acted extra-grim.

By comparison Global's broadcast moves more quickly and Derrick Oliver seems more personable. Their reporters try to inject some style into their reports (with varying success) and if there is one person who may become a star player in the run for first it's Mike Brown.

We're still laughing at the time he hunted down the elusive cabinet minister Tim Sale, who was hiding from the press while the Auditor roasted the NDP's "investigation" into the million dollar Hydra House scandal.

Brown prowled the halls of the Legislature seeking his prey, then literally staked out Sale's office and waited to pounce. Clever and imaginative. Brown's reports are literate, full of life, and look at angles the rest of the press corps don't grasp.

* But Global's Friday newscast was almost like watching a comedy. Not all of it intentional.

They led with a story about how travelers heading west were faced with closed roads due to dangerous ice - so of course Lisa Hrytsak was driven to Portage la Prairie to stand around and speculate about the fate of others. We were left to speculate why Global doesn't hire a reporter in Western Manitoba already.

Next up was Mike Brown at the airport looking at that end of the holiday travel story, capped off with a lame joke about people having to bear with it, with a visual of the Carebear now situated at the airport in the foreground. Ha ha ha.

Third was a holiday shopping story from the mall by fashionista Connie Tomoto, rendered as a poem. Uh, let's just say it was a little light but nothing we didn't expect given the time of year.

The fourth story was the obligatory "community brightens Christmas for a bad-luck family" story, about a Charleswood family and the hardships they have faced because of their teenage daughter's horrible illness in the past ten months, including temporary blindness, brain surgeries, financial ruin.

Truly awful stuff, yet here is what TV loves, a story with a focus and with great optics- her friends from high school led by a local radio station marching to the house with gifts, good cheer, fellowship...except the story didn't mention the station's call letters, any of the stations on-air personalities, hell we weren't even sure the school's name was mentioned either.

And after a break, Oliver read a brief about the previous days tragedy in Anola, that RCMP confirmed that it was a murder-suicide, the estranged parents dying, their 2 sons in the house. No details, no reporter.

* CTV, on the other hand had the Anola story as their lead item at 6 PM. And here is where CTV can claim to have an advantage in dinnertime news.

Crime Reporter Kelly Dehn may have outdone himself with his work in the small town Friday, getting lengthy, detailed interview clips from both the brother of the deceased father, and from a friend of the mother who had wanted to end the 17 year marriage.

Dehn had a family picture, got background from the boss of the woman who died, and produced a story that didn't exploit the tragedy but rather let the people close to the situation decribe the troubles which may have led to the final confrontation. Leclerc then provided details of the trust fund set up for the children.

This is why CTV feels it has the advantage over Global. They have a beat reporter who can blow away anyone else on the air when it comes to serious news coverage, anchors who are seasoned presenters, and they are cloaked with the mantle of being a major part of the community when tragedy strikes.

But otherwise their newscast is slow, bloated and sloppy. Dishonorable mention goes to Rachel Lagace who did a holiday shopping story that mentioned Wal-Mart was open around the clock---then failed to point out only the Regent Avenue Wal-Mart was experimenting with the new hours.

Her francais-ification of every name and town she encounters in a script results in viewers actually calling to ask what the hell she is talking about and where Saah Baw-ni-Fass is.

And unfortunately, CKY has made the weather- 2 specialists mind you, and about 10 weather segments a night- the real star of the hour.

If they continue to rely on that strategy, they may find that bored viewers will discover Global's Kate Stutsman and take a liking to her. Her reporting skills take her out of the studio and into the community with a fresh style. By comparison, KY's John Sauder and Sylvia Kuzyk come across like - well, yesterday's weather.

In the old days, the supper hour battleground was defined by news and sports coverage. When CBC downsized their sports, they gave up the news race to CKY and CKND. Now it's Shawn Churchill vs. old pro Joe Pascucci, and they spend most sportscasts interviewing Blue Bomber receiver Milt Stegall about fashion, rehashing the Moose game, honouring a local amateur standout, and really have given up on trying to attract sports fans as viewers. Now it's all about news and weather.

* That's why CBC comes up short in a big way.
Their only advantage is Krista who is stuck reading both news and weather - from behind a desk. The braintrust don't use her biggest strength - the in-depth interview, as exemplified by their total lack of capitalizing on L'affair Alcock. As for sports, if you blink you miss it and it doesn't draw a single viewer.

The only appeal of CBC News nowadays is the host. People tune in to see what Krista is wearing, what color her lipstick is, if her hair has gone blonder, and what hue of pink have the spotlights bathed her in today.

In fact, CBC's only chance to gain viewers in the coming war, would be to defy the Mother Corp. handbook and reformat the half-hour as The Krista Erickson Report. Give her a weather sidekick she can smile at, and let her out from behind the desk.

* Which leaves poor City-TV.
Once within fewer than 500 households of overtaking CBC , they sucked the life out of their newshour by hiring a former CBC reporter to be their co-host. You could count on the old A-Channel to be everywhere with a camera covering the city; their niche was they didn't try to break stories but they covered everything that happened in town that day. That was then.

Now you can tune in to City-Tv to see 2 anchors with no chemistry together, throwing to reporters with no polish, doing stories that have been done better on the other channels. Mind you they did a better story on the beleagured family in Charleswood, but didn't mention the radio station that organized the benefit-- FREQ 107.1 FM -- either. That wouldn't have happened at community-friendly A-Channel.

Co-host Glen Kirby is an albatross around the neck of a game Lisa Saunders, who showed she could do the job with the best of them when she was doing it solo. If you tune in to the middle of the news, you see Lisa and weathergirl Adrienne Silver and think, this is a team that works. City should think about spinning off Glen Kirby a la Mike Brown, a more suitable role for him.

So here's our forecast.
Stormy times ahead.

CKY has the experience of how to draw viewers, but will have to do something dramatic to hold them. It's too bad that the weekday show doesn't have the same spark that weekend anchor Camilla Di Giuseppe and sportsgirl Leah Hextall have together on weekends.

Global is being exposed to a brand new market - the 6 PM crowd- and will certainly make gains from the other stations while no doubt holding most of Newman's lead-in.

Channel 8 has the most to lose because their momentum stalled and City-TV viewers are most likely to go to something that has the energy that A-Channel used to have.

CBC has a loyal audience and those viewers who switch will feel real-l-l bad--- for about 4 weeks --- about missing Krista's new trademark brown leather outfit. The only thing that could win the viewers' attention during sweeps, would be exclusive footage of the rumoured impending nuptials between Krista Erickson and her freshly-divorced fiance, senior Crown attorney Bob Morrison.

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