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ALAN HOLMAN: Make ‘The National’ more news, less show


The Pastor has left the pulpit. It has taken a long time, but Peter Mansbridge has finally stepped down as the anchor of the CBC’s The National, and chief correspondent of the CBC News Service.

His leave-taking occurred during a July 1st broadcast from Parliament Hill celebrating the country’s 150th birthday. For some viewers it was difficult to tell whether the broadcast was about the country’s sesquicentennial, or about Mr. Mansbridge’s 49-year-career at the CBC.
He spent 29 years of those years as host of The National where
his avuncular presence prompted the Globe and Mail’s television critic to label him, The Pastor. He wasn’t just a newsreader, as chief correspondent he had a great influence on the news service and the stories that made it to air on the CBC’s primary newscast.
In the many stories and critiques of his role at the CBC, few have noted that under Mr. Mansbridge, The National went from being the most watched television newscast in the country, with a nightly audience well in excess of 1,000,000, to now, with only a half million viewers, The National is the least watched of the country’s three major television newscasts.
This failure to hold The National’s audience does not rest entirely on the shoulders of Mr. Mansbridge, but given his influence within the news service and with CBC management, he played a role. Using the effect of the internet as an excuse for this loss doesn’t hold a lot of water given that the nightly newscast on CTV still attracts nearly a million viewers a night, and Global television went from no audience to more 600,000 viewers a night.
Unfortunately, inept CBC management allowed Mr. Mansbridge to become more important than the news of the day. The newscast tried to do too many things. Among others it became proliferated with panels, all moderated by The Pastor.
The decision to replace The Pastor with a cast of four co-anchors can be seen as an exciting new format (the CBC’s preferred view), the inability of one person to fill Mr. Mansbridge’s shoes (the popular view) or CBC management’s failure to determine just what it wants The National to be.
Peter Mansbridge told the world he was retiring last September, that his last broadcast would be on July 1. Yet, with all that lead time, the CBC didn’t announce his replacement(s) until Aug. 1 and the four-host newscast doesn’t start until Nov. 6.
For many Canadians, summer ends after Labour Day and the beat of their lives changes when school opens. One might have expected the CBC to recognize this and try to plug the new newscast into this changing rhythm. By delaying, it runs the risk of people tuning in and seeing the same-old-same-old and tuning out. Given the time it’s had, this two-month delay is inexplicable. Or, perhaps it is a sign there is still uncertainty about the new format.
It is likely too late, and a sacrilege to suggest, that in this the vaunted digital age, the CBC - instead of looking to the future for the creation of its new show - it should look to its past when it was the leader in the broadcast news field.
Look back to the time when the newscast was a tight half-hour compilation of what happened that day. Back when the anchor actually sat in a studio and introduced the reports from reporters in the field. Back to when there were more thought and resources devoted to the gathering of the news, than to its presentation.
Even in this, the digital age, many people who use their computers to keep abreast of the times utilize what are termed, ‘aggregators,’ such as National Newswatch, an aggregation of news stories lumped together in one site.
The CBC should strive to make The National a tight half-hour newscast that becomes the public’s ‘aggregator’ of choice, both in its on air, and in its digital format.

- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at:

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