News went out to CTV Montreal staffers early Wednesday morning that evening news anchor Debra Arbec has been poached by CBC Montreal to co-anchor its 5pm newscast, replacing the departing Jennifer Hall as Andrew Chang's co-anchor.
Hall is leaving for personal reasons, returning with her family to southern Ontario.
"It's been an amazing ride at CTV," Arbec told me on the phone today, describing the job at CBC as "a great opportunity." She says her contract there begins July 1 (though she suspects she'll get that first day off).
Though this is hardly the first change of stations for a local TV newscaster (CTV recently picked Kai Nagata from CBC to fill its Quebec City bureau, weatherman Frank Cavallaro was hired by CBC after his contract at CTV expired, and Global's evening news anchor Jamie Orchard worked for CTV before she got the bigger job at the smaller station many years ago). But it's a bit odd to see someone of Arbec's profile quitting the highest-rated station in the city to go to the No. 2.
For Arbec, who said she's "not really a numbers person," the issue was more her placement on the schedule than her placement on the dial. "It's obvious that a supper-hour show wasn't in the cards at CTV. Mutsumi (Takahashi) is very much loved in Montreal and will be for a very long time," she said, with no apparent hard feelings for the city's most veteran English-language TV news anchor.
Arbec has been hosting CFCF's 11:30pm newscast since 2003. Though it's 35 minutes long, only about 15 of that is news, which is a very small amount of daily airtime. CBMT's supper-hour newscast, meanwhile, is 90 minutes from 5pm to 6:30pm (even if it is a bit repetitive).
Still, ratings are an issue, and Arbec said she knows "a challenge will be to continue to grow CBC's numbers," which have just about doubled since the expanded newscast started but are still not even in the same ballpark as CFCF.
"I didn't make the decision lightly," Arbec said. She's been working there for 13 years, and "I love the people there."
That would obviously include Brian Wilde, who she met at CTV and has been married to for five years. She said it would be different not working together at the same station (they worked the late newscast together last week, which she said was fun), but she doesn't expect any major changes in their personal lives, except for the fact that she can now spend her late evenings at home.
Before joining CFCF in December 1997, Arbec worked a few years at The Weather Network (Frank Cavallaro and Tarah Schwartz also have TWN on their resumés) and before that she was at CJAD, according to the CTV biography that will probably disappear eventually. In addition to hosting the 11:30pm newscast, she did "My Montreal" segments on the city's cultural communities. She also had an election notebook on the 6pm newscast during the most recent campaign.
Jed Kahane, the news director at CTV Montreal, said it was too early to say what the station plans to do now, or whether there will be a job posting to replace her. Paul Karwatsky will be doing the 11:30pm newscast for the rest of the week, and Kahane said other regulars who substitute for Arbec will probably also fill in while they take their time figuring out a permanent replacement.
Though he spoke in a monotonous voice - not angry, but not terribly excited either - Kahane said the split was amicable, that Arbec did a "fantastic job" at the station and that they wished her well.
Don't expect to see much talk of her on air, though. Situations like this usually call for a big media splash from the poaching station, but not a peep from the victim. Arbec has already been pulled off the air - her last show was Tuesday night.
Neither side would comment on what negotiations, if any, were made to keep Arbec at CTV.
CBC Montreal news director Mary-Jo Barr called it a "seamless" process, and said her station was "very fortunate" that Arbec's desire for an opportunity at 6pm coincided with Hall's departure.
"Jennifer's departure left us with big shoes to fill," Barr said. "Everything came together at the right time."
From CBC's side, the move makes sense. The biggest challenge for Hall was that she had little connection to the city when she was hired. Arbec was born here, raised here, educated here and worked here, and her experience at CTV not only gives her the ideal skill set to take this job, but CBC can hope for a modest following who might switch with her. (It's unclear that Cavallaro brought any significant numbers to CBMT, so I wouldn't expect too much impact in the ratings department just from this.)
Barr said she was "looking foremost for a really strong anchor," but that Arbec's knowledge of the city and the trust she has built with viewers are definite assets. She said the two have known each other for a long time.
Chang, who's going to be co-anchoring with Arbec, said he was "excited and sad" about the news. Sad because Hall's departure means he's "not just losing a co-anchor (but) losing a friend" - but excited because he's looking forward to Arbec, who he described as "rock solid."
No big changes are planned for CBC Montreal to coincide with the new anchor, though Barr said she is considering having both anchors focus just on the supper-hour newscast and bringing in a third anchor to do the 10-minute late night newscast at 10:55pm currently hosted by Chang. Having to stay late means Chang's shift starts in the afternoon, leaving him little time to shape the 5pm newscast.
It's too early to say what kind of marketing push will be made to let the population know of Arbec's hiring, Barr said, though "we hope we can make a bit of a splash."
At the very least, they're going to need new fridge magnets:
Meanwhile, fans on Twitter are expressing their shock and wishing her well, including fellow TV journalists Stéphane Giroux and Kai Nagata of CTV, Global's Mike Le Couteur and CBC's Michel Godbout and Andrew Chang.
In Twitter photos, Stéphane Giroux captures Arbec making off with the supermarket checkout counter divider with her face on it, while Arpon Basu captures her almost-
baron barren desk at CTV.
Arbec was interviewed by Mike Finnerty on CBC Daybreak Thursday morning. She told Finnerty that while she had no complaints about her treatment at CTV, "I just felt that I was not able to grow any longer," she said, pointing to the fact that there wasn't any hope of her getting a supper-hour show at CTV and that her contract there had expired.
UPDATE (June 22): CBC has posted a promo video: