Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Tale Of Two Continents

A few days ago I mentioned that there was something that the CBC was doing in their Winter Olympic coverage that I wasn't entirely comfortable or happy with. It was something I thought I needed to think about and having thought about it I'm still neither comfortable nor happy about it but at least I have some small modicum of understanding about why they did it.

So what did the "Mother Corporation" do to spark such ambivalence in me? They've propagated a fraud. Well not really, it's more like an open secret but they've haven' exactly been bursting down any doors to tell anyone about it. Of the three main hosts of CBC's Olympic coverage - the people who toss it to the various event locations - only one is actually in Italy. Ron MacLean is anchoring the afternoon coverage (evening in Turin or Torino) from the network's base camp at Palasport Olimpico, the main Ice Hockey venue for the games (the Olympics calls the game Ice Hockey to differentiate it from the game that the rest of the world calls Hockey and North Americans and other northern peoples call Field Hockey - there are a lot more of them than us). Morning host Terry Leibel and primetime host Brian Williams are working out of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre at 250 Front Street Toronto. (Williams was in Torino for the Opening Ceremonies along with Peter Mansbridge, anchor of The National but returned to Toronto from Torino in time to host his primetime show the next day.)

The publicly stated reasons for handling the coverage in this manner is cost. According to an article in the Toronto Star the move will save approximately $1 Million. A significant portion of this saving is in the number of people who aren't in Torino. Under normal circumstances - that is to say the way the CBC has covered the Games since Albertville when they got the rights back - the Corporation would send a team of about 255 people to Torino for about three weeks. That means housing them in hotels in the Olympic city with its overinflated room prices, not to mention bringing equipment and building a broadcast facility for the event. Instead the network is running its coverage out of their own main facility where 150 technical staff handles the feed from Italy. That's staff who go home at nights and sleep in their own beds - at no cost to the CBC.

There are other advantages as well. When the coverage needs as special analyst - say Kurt Browning or Brian Stemmle - for the prime time portion of the broadcast when everything is on tape and has been seen before they're available as needed without having to fly them to Italy for the duration. Don Cherry can come in from Mississauga to spend ten minutes talking to Brian Williams about the hockey game and let's face it, anything that keeps Mr. Crankypants from causing an international incident is a bonus. That statement (about Cherry causing an international incident) was facetious but it brings up another point; what if there is a major breaking story - like the Atlanta bombing - at the Olympic site or in Turin? According to Executive Producer Terry Ludwick "In some ways, it will be easier to anchor and marshal all our resources there. We can have world reaction, local reaction, we can jump around and we'll be plugged into the Canadian angle, too."

As far as the actual coverage goes, it's hard to tell the difference between Toronto and Torino. Proof of that is that Terry Leibel's morning shift in Toronto runs directly into Ron MacLean's afternoon coverage from Palasport Olimpico. It doesn't hurt that both anchors are operating in front of a rather bland background that gives no hint as to where they actually are. This in itself is a change for the CBC. As late as the 2000 Olympics in Sydney (and possibly in Salt Lake City although I don't have any clear images of that) the CBC shunned the International Broadcast Centres for purpose built studios that they found on their own. In Sydney they built a studio on the roof of a school which overlooked Sydney Harbour and provided a great backdrop which gave visual cues as to the time of day. This didn't occur during the Athens Olympics and while it isn't stated I suspect that post September, 11 2001 security concerns have caused organizing committees to want to keep broadcasters either at the IBC or in a secure facility like Palasport Olimpico.

The decision to operate out of Toronto has curtailed to a great extent one CBC tradition - interviewing Canadian medal winners in studio during prime time coverage, but according to Ludwick this would have been a problem anyway. Many of the Olympic venues are up to two hours away so interviews on the day of the event would have to be conducted by satellite hookups anyway. In such a circumstance it doesn't matter if the show is being done out of Canada or Italy. Other broadcasters are taking notice. According to Dave Mazza, NBC's senior vice-president of engineering, "The CBC has done a great job with this. It's much more affordable. With rising rights fees, everybody's looking to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of coverage." For their part NBC is trying this in a small manner by having the commentary team for their curling coverage in the United States rather than Italy.

While cost is a factor, the fact is that these Olympics represent something of a financial windfall for the CBC. It's estimated that these will be the most profitable games for the CBC ever, thanks in part to the amount that CTV spent to get the coverage rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics (in Vancouver) and the 2012 Summer Olympics (in London). According to another Toronto Star report
"there's a theory that advertisers figure prices will be so high when CTV takes over in 2010 that this could be their last shot at the Olympic rings." The quote ad buyer Eli Paper: "They (the CTV-Rogers consortium) spent copious amounts of money getting those Olympics and I don't expect they'll want to pick up the bill." They'll expect the advertisers to pay the bill. People may be thinking this is the last Winter Olympics for some time I can reasonably get into." Even though viewership for the evening show are down by about 45% from the levels they were at for Salt Lake City, ratings for the afternoon coverage are up 36% from 2002 (and both are comparable with ratings for the 2004 Athens Olympics). The reasons for the difference should be obvious - finals for events in Salt Lake City occurred during prime time while the prime time show this year is made up entirely of highlights and recaps of the day's events.

I have a problem with all of this. I can see the cost savings after the CBC strike of last summer and at a time when the new Conservative government is bound to want to remake the CBC in an image more in line with its ideas about the public broadcaster (some of the more conservative elements of the Conservative Party would like to shut down the place or at least turn anything that makes money - like Hockey Night In Canada - over to private broadcasters). On the other hand I'm reminded of a commercial from a few years back. In it a widely travelled corporate executive was showing off pictures of his travels to someone who turns out to be the company's IT nerd. The nerd tells him that with installation of this new software (Lotus Notes I think it was) he'll never have to go on the road again. The problem I saw immediately in that commercial (and why I was convinced that the software would be a bust if sold on that basis) is that just because the technology works doesn't mean it will be effective. In the case of the software, clients like to work face to face with human beings. In the case of the Olympic coverage having the hosts on the ground in Italy gives the event a certain amount of importance while not detracting from the newsworthiness. I'm not saying that the coverage is bad - for the most part I rank it higher than the NBC coverage - but not having Leibel and Williams there in some hard to describe way lessens the event by not immersing them in the atmosphere of the thing. Somehow it just seems wrong.

No comments: