Earlier this month, staff at The Gazette got an invitation from our new neighbours: Global TV. In order to save money (and face the reality of a declining staff), The Gazette reduced its footprint at 1010 Ste. Catherine St. W. and moved its marketing and reader service departments. Canwest in turn moved Global Quebec from its previous home at the TVA building at 1600 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E. into the vacated space.
I couldn't pass up an opportunity to attend an open house for a TV station (I went to CFCF's open house in May and I saw CBC's Montreal studios when I was an intern there in 2004), so I went downtown on my day off and brought my camera with me.
The location isn't all that's changing. This summer, Canwest got the OK from the CRTC to change the license of CKMI from a Quebec City-based regional station to a Montreal-based local station. (The history is a bit complex, but in a nutshell Global bought CKMI, which was a Quebec City station, and turned it into a regional station covering Quebec, with bureaus and transmitters in Montreal and Sherbrooke. Over the past few years, the presence outside of Montreal has essentially vanished - now only a reporter at the National Assembly - to the point where it's already a de facto Montreal station.)
The main advantage of this change is that finally it will gain access to local advertising, an important source of revenue, and one that has basically been dominated by CFCF-12.
And so, on Sept. 1, Global Quebec officially becomes Global Montreal. Those ads you may have seen with anchor Jamie Orchard telling us what she loves about Montreal are part of this.
Global's studio is a small room with only a desk and lots of green. It's a "virtual" set, which is apparently all the rage in Europe. Everything outside of the desk, chair and anchor, is computer-simulated. The glass wall, flickering computer and TV screens, giant TV showing graphics related to a story, are all inserted digitally. Camera movements are controlled by computer which adjusts the animation accordingly, giving a smooth, realistic background that really does look like a studio.
On one hand, this means sets are cheap to produce and can be changed across the country in an instant. On the other hand, it can give the impression of being fake sometimes. And it brings up an ethical question: If photo manipulation is so scandalous in print, why is such video manipulation considered OK in television news? Isn't it dishonest to show a newsroom behind an anchor's desk that doesn't actually exist?
The problem extends further than the virtual set. The weather and sports anchors are based in Toronto and Vancouver, respectively, but give presentations from a Montreal perspective that imply they're in Montreal (no mention of their actual location is ever given). It's a slippery slope from there.
If you look at the floor here you'll see a box marked out with light green tape. This is the zone anchors must limit themselves to for purposes of lighting and focus. On the wall on the top right, a small mark notes where they're supposed to look when chatting with what appears to us to be a TV screen showing their sportscaster in B.C.
One of the things about dealing with far-away producers is lag. There's a two-second delay round-trip between Montreal and Vancouver, which means Orchard has to start introducing the next story just before the last one has finished. This took quite a bit of getting used to, she said, but now it's second-nature. The odd, awkward silences you see with substitute anchors just after a packaged report has completed is explained by this effect.
This is what you'd see at 6pm if you were Jamie Orchard. Two computer-controlled cameras, two monitors, a laptop and a lot of bright lights. Because this is a repurposed office, getting proper lighting in here was tricky. Ceilings in TV studios are usually much higher. They had to strip the ceiling right up to the beams, and install more lights than you'd usually find. But it works.
Not only are the cameras computer-controlled, but they're controlled out of Vancouver, which handles most things that used to be done out of local control rooms. The people in Vancouver handle the cueing of prepared packages, add the super-imposed graphics that identify who's speaking, direct the anchors and all the other stuff involved with news production.
The idea behind this change was to maximize reuse of staff. Instead of a control room handling only a single half-hour or hour-long newscast a day, they do four or five. Taking advantage of the different time zones, Global needs only four control centres (Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver) to direct newscasts across the country.
Of course, this meant a significant loss of jobs for technical staff, which the union is still trying to fight. It tried to argue at CKMI's license renewal hearing that because it's produced out of Vancouver, the local newscast no longer qualifies as a local production, and therefore the station is violating its terms of license. Canwest countered that all editorial decisions are made in Montreal. The CRTC allowed the station its one-year renewal and said it would revisit the issue.
This is all that's left at master control, partly as a result of the centralization in Vancouver and partially because everything is now electronic.
The station attached to this monitor can be used for things like downloading interviews or other video shot in other cities, which can be edited into local packages and are then sent back to Vancouver for broadcast.
The lineup, being an editorial matter, is done out of Montreal, then sent to Vancouver for the staff there to turn into a newscast. Short items are added at the end of the newscast that can be dropped if it goes too long, though most of it is very meticulously timed.
This microphone is used mainly by reporters doing voice-overs for packages. I'm told it's directional enough that it doesn't pick up noise from adjacent rooms.
The makeup room has two chairs, more than enough when there's never more than two people in studio at the same time.
Not much to say about the editing booths, where reporters package their stories. One thing I found interesting is that, because it's all electronic, producers can monitor packages as they're being produced.
The advertising and sales people always have it better. Case in point: this spacious office is where promotions are created. They're usually voiced by Orchard or by Global's national voice man, who's dubbed the "voice of God"
By any standard, CKMI's newsroom is tiny. There are less than a dozen desks for reporters, and that includes national reporter Mike Armstrong and entertainment reporter Natasha Gargiulo.
Global's actual staff is very small. The station relies on many regular freelancers to fill its newscast.
I was a bit surprised how clean reporters' desks were. Then again, they were having guests over.
Wish I could offer you something scandalous about Jamie Orchard's desk, but it's just too neat.
I saw a few of these cards scattered around. (I've also seen them at CFCF.) Haugland died this month on the job in a helicopter crash. The local anglo media community being as tight-knit as it is (Orchard's husband, for example, works at CFCF), the loss didn't just affect people at CTV.
That is one massive clock.
I'm a celebrity
Though I was taking pictures with what could pass for a professional photojournalist's camera (one or two people originally thought I was a photographer for the paper), I went through the tour mostly inconspicuous.
I was about to grab some free food and leave when Orchard walked down the hall in my direction.
"Are you Steve Faguy?"
Shit! I've been discovered! Run!
Actually, we had a pretty good conversation, and she was quite cordial, even with all the things I've said about her station (and her). Through that conversation I learned that I'm read much more among local media types than I'd originally thought. (Hi guys!) That realization happens quite often, and yet it surprises me every time.
A bad situation
Like any good leader, Orchard argued the case for her hard-working reporters and staff, saying that they're doing the best they can. I actually don't disagree with this, and I explained to her (as I'll explain to all you now) that I don't blame the station's troubles on its staff. It's clearly been dealt a bad hand ever since it launched in 1997:
- Until now it has had no access to local advertising.
- It's not carried on satellite, which is particularly problematic in Quebec because of its above-normal satellite subscriber base. Many people who live here couldn't watch the newscasts if they wanted to.
- It entered a market long dominated by a CTV station with exceptionally high viewer loyalty. It's the third station in a market of less than a million anglophones.
- Ratings numbers don't accurately reflect how many francophone viewers watch the station, artificially deflating its viewer count.
- Its budget is far too small to be able to counteract any of these problems with a large amount of high-quality programming.
Some of those can be blamed on Canwest. Others on the CRTC, satellite companies or bad decisions made 12 years ago. And while the station is not totally blameless, it is working with one hand tied behind its back.
Feeling a bit guilty that I had perhaps judged the station and its new green-screen studio too harshly (Orchard said she too was skeptical but eventually came around to the idea as a way of being able to focus a tight budget on local programming), I watched the newscast that night at 6pm.
At about 6:15, suddenly I saw a Toronto city life show begin. Did I miss something? Had the newscast been cut in half? Did they not have time with this open house going on to produce a full 30-minute newscast?
After what seemed like an eternity but was actually just under five minutes, the program abruptly cut to Orchard who apologized for the error made at master control. The lost time cut the newscast significantly, from its usual 24 minutes to about 19:30. You can see the complete newscast here, with the offending program cut out but with Orchard's apology intact.
Once again, this was a matter of the local station suffering for a problem that wasn't its fault.
I wondered, looking at that, whether it would have happened in the same way with a local master control. Sure, someone could have flipped the wrong switch or pressed the wrong button, but would it have taken four and a half minutes for a local master control to realize there was something wrong?
The ultimate betrayal
Though Orchard made it clear that she didn't hold a grudge and she accepts criticism, I also learned that people can get the wrong impression from my criticisms sometimes. I know everyone works hard, and they do their best under the circumstances to put out good programming.
I try to keep my criticisms constructive (or at least amusing), but even then I'm willing to accept the kinds of errors and missteps that happen on a regular basis. (I've made enough of them myself.)
But there's one thing I can't accept, and it goes to the heart of viewers' trust in this station:
Your eyes are not deceiving you. That's a Bruins mousepad, and a Bruins puck under the monitor, and CKMI reporter Domenic Fazioli on the left.
I asked Fazioli later by email about this disturbing paraphernalia, and he was unapologetic:
Proud to be a bruins fan.
I have no words to describe the outrage I'm feeling, so I'll leave it to you: Is this a firing offence, or should he just be suspended until he reorients his loyalties?
Global Quebec's Evening News airs every day at 6pm, with a one-hour News Final every night at 11pm (half an hour on weekends). Focus Montreal, a weekly interview program with Jamie Orchard shot mainly in the same studio, airs Saturdays at 6:30pm and repeats Sundays at 8:30am. You can subscribe to the weekday evening newscasts and the weekly Focus Montreal show through your RSS reader.
Global Quebec becomes Global Montreal on Sept. 1.