CTV’s Express feels like anything but

Monday marked Todd van der Heyden’s debut at Express, the afternoon show on CTV News Channel with Amanda Blitz.

Because he’s from Montreal, because he’s a nice guy and because he’s a geek at heart, I wanted to be encouraging and wish him well in his new job.

Unfortunately, after sitting through the first three-hour program, I was left frustrated, both at what CTV seems to be doing with its all-news network and at how that industry is changing in general.

When it launched in 1997, what was then called CTVNews1 was licensed as a continuous 15-minute news wheel, repeating the headlines four times an hour. This was to distinguish it from CBC Newsworld, at a time when all cable channels had genre protection.

But as the CRTC came to realize that cable news was healthy enough to warrant direct competition, restrictions on the CTV network became relaxed, and now the two are effectively head to head in terms of format. This is a good thing.

What’s not good is that rather than focus on more news to keep people better informed, CTV seems to be relying more on pointless, time-wasting banter that just wastes viewers’ time.

Coming up, more chatting

Express’s format seems to be mainly discussions with reporters about news stories, punctuated about half a dozen times in each day by discussions between the anchors about the news. These chats throw out personal anecdotes or reminders of history or sentences that start “it’s interesting because…” – the point is probably to have more “analysis”, but it comes out as anything but. Like people at a water cooler talking about a big story but neither person being fully informed about it.

It’s not to say either anchor is uninformed. They clearly have a solid grasp of the news. But reporters are brought in to talk about stories for a reason. Anchors deal with so many different topics in a day that they can’t become an expert in all of them.

On the local supper-hour newscast, anchor banter is a way to fill leftover time and get the newscast to the top of the hour. Endearing personalities to viewers is a side-effect to just having a flexible filler whose length can be adjusted on the fly. Because some anchors have been doing this for years, they make it seem natural, filling five, 10 or 30 seconds and making it seem as if they just happened to run out of conversation at exactly the right time.

But on Express, this banter is an integral part of the show, and I can’t imagine why. There wasn’t a single one of their chats that left me more informed about a topic.

I didn’t do an exact count, but even though Express is three times the length of CTV Montreal’s 6pm newscast, there were maybe half the stories discussed in it. I don’t recall seeing any packaged reports at all, and some segments were simply repeated in their entirety.

A waste of four minutes

Let me give you a more concrete example. At one point during the show, there was some “breaking news” about a soldier being arrested and accused of leaking secrets. They had reporter Mercedes Stephenson live to talk about this news.

This, in its entirety, is what was known at the time:

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces, Jeffrey Paul Delisle of Bedford, N.S., has been chaged with a breach of trust under the criminal code for passing secret information to a foreign entity. He was arrested on Saturday. The government says Canadian citizens are not at risk, and it is taking steps to mitigate the release of this information. The investigation began in July 6, 2007 and the alleged acts took place between Jan. 10 and Jan. 13 of 2012.

I just timed myself reading that paragraph out loud, and it took less than 30 seconds.

The segment took a total of four minutes and 40 seconds, including an extended discussion between van der Heyden and Blitz, even though they had just learned of the story. The information listed above was repeated multiple times. There was speculation about what “foreign entity” meant. There was comparison between this and WikiLeaks or other cases of intentionally leaked information, even though they didn’t know what information was leaked, how it was leaked, or who it was leaked to.

I’m not faulting them for not knowing this information. It’s breaking news, they report what they have. And the RCMP wouldn’t give further information. But rather than spend 30 seconds or a minute reporting the news and then moving on to another story, they kept discussing how they didn’t know anything for almost five minutes.

I don’t understand how I’m supposed to be better informed by this. I don’t see how this isn’t just a gigantic waste of my time.

Rumours as news

Here’s another thing that bothered me. At one point an expert was brought on to talk about parenting, and she discussed how teens are finding ridiculous new ways to get drunk. It’s a popular topic among journalists who want to attract viewers by scaring parents and inventing “trends” based mostly on rumours.

She brought up one method, which is infusing alcohol into gummy bears and then eating them during class.

The other method she mentioned was how teens are soaking tampons in alcohol and inserting them vaginally to accelerate the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. She prefaces this by saying “I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a hoax”, which suggests she did some double-checking. But had she actually done some research, she would have found that a hoax is exactly what this is. Not only has there never been a single actual person who has admitted to doing this, but it just doesn’t work. Tampons don’t soak up enough alcohol to get someone drunk, they’re very difficult to insert once they’ve been soaked, and they hurt like hell once inserted.

The story goes entirely unchallenged, leaving viewers under the incorrect impression that enough teenagers are attempting this that it has become a “trend”.

This isn’t just bad journalism. Pretending that people are doing these things successfully will make teenagers believe that there’s a successful way of doing them. Instead of realizing after their first attempt that it was a stupid idea, they may try again, convinced that their technique must just need some fine-tuning because everyone else is doing it in a way that works. Pretending that it’s a scary trend is probably going to make the problem worse, or it would if teenagers weren’t just a bit smarter these days than your average TV pundit.

Anyway, this is a tangent, back to criticizing the show.

Second-hand news

Another segment was about the Shafia trial in Kingston, Ont. Reporter Merella Fernandez was brought in studio to discuss the latest developments with the two anchors.

Since the studio is in Toronto, I’m guessing Fernandez wasn’t in the courtroom. And since the proceedings aren’t broadcast, she’s getting her information second-hand. One assumes it’s from another reporter in Kingston, but this is never mentioned.

This bothers me because I’m seeing it more and more in cable news (I won’t go so far as to call it a “trend” without quantifiable evidence): reporters are brought in to talk about a story they’ve only gotten second-hand. I see it a lot on Sun News Network, but I expect more from CTV.

I understand how TV news works. Maybe they didn’t have a reporter out there and relied on Canadian Press for information. Maybe they had a reporter who was busy preparing a packaged report for evening newscasts and didn’t have a bunch of time for a live hit on News Channel. That’s understandable. But if a reporter is getting information second-hand, that should be explained.

Besides all that, a few technical problems and some name slipups, it went well. Hopefully it has nowhere to go but up.

They can start by making sure CTV News Channel has a bit more news.

Express with Amanda Blitz and Todd van der Heyden airs 1-4pm weekdays (Eastern time) on CTV News Channel.

12 thoughts on “CTV’s Express feels like anything but

  1. News Guy

    Reporters are encouraged to act this way.

    They ought to stick to facts instead of opinions.

    If you are expecting 3 hours of changing content forget it. It will be filler and repetition.

    Amanada Blitz speaks in paragraphs rather than sentences. Must be a complete shock to the system for Mr. Van der Heyden who is used to Mutsumi.

    You think CTV News channel is bad, just look at what happened to CNN Headline News.

  2. Anonymous

    Amen, brother!
    Don’t get me started about old YouTube videos I watched last year introduced by breathless anchors who “just found this on the Internet!”

  3. AlexH

    Steve, I am really getting to think you have a serious man-crush on your man Todd.

    There isn’t any news about ctv news channel, it hasn’t been all that good to start with, and continues to be not that good going forward.

    Perhaps you two should get a virtual room? ;)

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Yet strangely, you like talk radio.

      It really depends on the type of talk. When it’s interviews with newsmakers and informed discussion, that’s one thing. When it’s mindless chat, that’s another.

  4. Jimmy Jack

    For all it’s faults, at least Videotron is one of the few, if only, cable company that doesn’t make you subscribe to it. Now if only we weren’t forced to pay for CBC newsworld.

  5. Shawn

    I am surprised that Amanda Blitz is on National TV. I don’t see it in her personality, unless CTV was looking for loud and bubbly, or her looks.

  6. Montreal Critic

    After hearing Amanda Blitz speak for 5 seconds, I knew pretty much all I needed to know about her and that show. Her personal website is blitzingthrough.com, so that should also tell you something.

    As for TvH, apart for the more $$ he’s making in TO, this seems more like a demotion. He’s doing what seems like a mostly lifestyle news show with an annoying, vapid co-host, having to up the banter quotient, and sliding more towards American style “journalism” (as NewsGuy said, much like CNNHN).

    I agree with AlexH. Apart from Kai Nagata, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that CTV NC (and Canadian TV news in general) is doing this kind of crap.

    And, though TVH may very well be a nice guy in real life, I see him even less suited for this role, let alone a news anchor.

  7. Marvin

    I rarely ever post on forums, and I think this is the second time actually doing so in 5+ plus years only ever reading others posts. But, I just have to vent and agree with the blogger on this one. It is mindless banter that they’ve increased on the show to no real purpose other than fill time and gossip with each other because apparently they think Canadians are not smart enough to just hear the news and expert opinion and form an opinion of their own. This is one of the only channels I ever watched on TV because they just gave raw news all day long, even if it was repeats. Now I have to hear so much filler. I feel like I’m watching The View half the time now.

  8. Todd van der Heyden

    Hey everyone – maybe it’s time to revisit ‘Express’ now that I’ve been anchoring for 6 months…you might be surprised at how the product is not (to use the phrases above): ‘crap’ or ‘mindless’ – we’re actually doing some pretty solid stuff that airs nationwide. And the ratings are up…way up.


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