CBC suspends local TV newscasts amid COVID-19 outbreak

Updated April 15 with some 11pm newscasts returning.

Local news is vital. It provides an essential service, especially in times of emergency. People rely on local broadcasters to provide them up-to-the-minute information told by local journalists.

So what does the CBC do during an unprecedented public health crisis? It shuts it all down.

The public broadcaster announced Wednesday that effective immediately it is “consolidating” its TV news coverage, and replacing the 6pm and 11pm local newscasts at all of its stations (except CBC North, which provides news in Inuktitut) with CBC News Network.

According to a memo sent to staff this morning, the decision was made because of a lack of staff at CBC’s Toronto Broadcast Centre, which handles master control (why it has a lack of staff is not explained), as well as “much stricter newsgathering protocols.”

Why stricter newsgathering protocols would require centralizing TV news but not radio and digital is also not explained.

CBC News Editor-in-Chief Brodie Fenlon gives a bit more detail in a blog post:

A story of this magnitude — one that changes by the hour — places incredible demands on our staff and our infrastructure in order to get the most accurate and up-to-date information to audiences. Television is especially resource-intensive, and many jobs are difficult to do at home. Our systems are overtaxed, and we had to make adjustments as a result.

So, we made the difficult decision to temporarily lessen that load and consolidate production to ensure we can continue providing an essential service to Canadians.

I summarize the memo and some reaction to it in this story at Cartt.ca. And this Day 2 followup.

CBC Radio is unaffected, and local newsrooms will still be pumping out news for their digital platforms. Radio-Canada tells me it has no plans to suspend newscasts for its 13 local TV stations.

But needless to say a lot of people are pissed about this decision. That includes PEI Premier Dennis King, since PEI does not have local newscasts on private television stations. (CTV and Global cover it out of New Brunswick.) He issued a statement on Twitter demanding the government intervene.

I asked the heritage department if they plan to intervene. Its response stressed that CBC is an arms-length organization, but the minister did speak to the corporation.

Also issuing statements were:

It’s unclear if the CBC is even allowed to do this. The conditions of CBC’s licence, last renewed in 2013, require it to produce 7 or 14 hours a week of local programming, depending on market size, and “each station shall broadcast local news seven days a week each week, except holidays.”

The CRTC has not made an exception to those conditions (which is possible — a similar exception was granted just this week for the Olympics later this year). Asked to comment, the commission says it’s “monitoring the situation” and urges Canadians to follow local news through radio and digital means.

CBC’s head of public affairs Chuck Thompson says the CBC has “been in touch with the CRTC” about the change.

Meanwhile, CBC Montreal anchor Debra Arbec says she is “deeply sorry to let our viewers down” but reassures viewers she’s still on the job:

In fact, Arbec hosted a 15-minute local newscast that was broadcast solely online, making me wonder why they couldn’t have just aired that on TV instead. Similar newscasts were put together by CBC Manitoba, CBC Nova Scotia, and in a less polished way by CBC Windsor. Ottawa and Toronto also did mini updates, and Saskatchewan had a portrait-mode version.

CTV News also wanted to reassure people that it remains committed to local news, issuing this statement:

Local and national news is critical in a time of crisis and CTV News is continuing to deliver. In response to COVID-19, we have enacted a number of different measures to protect the health of our journalists and crew, including social distancing in the workplace, enhanced technology, and working from home where possible. Contingency plans responding to many different scenarios are in place that will allow us to continue providing news and information to Canadians without compromising the health of our employees.

When centralization breaks down

Despite all the people I’ve heard from, it’s been hard to pin down exactly what the cause of all this is, but here’s what I’ve been able to piece together:

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a surge of live events. Press conferences from premiers, the prime minister, public health departments, businesses and others. Multiplied by 10 provinces each doing their own thing, plus the federal government.

On the other side you have the Toronto Broadcasting Centre, which routes traffic for CBC’s English TV stations. At the same time as it’s overloaded by video traffic, it is facing constraints because of absences due to quarantines. At some point it reached a breaking point, prompting this decision.

This wouldn’t be an issue if CBC hadn’t centralized so much of its technical operations. If local stations truly controlled their own broadcasts, they wouldn’t need Toronto. Under normal circumstances, centralization saves money and staff and works well enough. But when a crisis happens, this system has a huge vulnerability.

CTV, Global and Citytv have also centralized production to varying degrees, but none of them have made moves anywhere near as drastic.

Day 1 a failure

I watched the first day of the CBC broadcasts, and was not impressed with what I saw.

At 6pm, viewers in Quebec and Ontario were treated to Vassy Kapelos in mid-conversation with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. She welcomed the central viewers and then completed the interview.

Next was 5 minutes of a press conference from B.C. that ended suddenly when the feed went dead. Then a check-in with CBC Toronto gave us two and a half minutes of Toronto/Ontario news, followed by 90 seconds of Montreal news with Debra Arbec.

After a commercial break, we were back to the B.C. press conference, during which a question was asked (and answered!) in French but CBC didn’t have translation ready for it. Finally, an interview with a physician took us through the end of the half-hour.

So Montreal viewers tuning into their 6pm local newscast got a total of 90 seconds of local news. And Ottawa viewers got a grand total of zero.

For the 11pm newscast, they didn’t both checking in with local anchors and just replayed The National, even though that’s what airs from 10-11. The only nod to local information was adding the on-screen console graphic that scrolled through local news headlines, weather and traffic.

Fenlon promised that “this News Network programming will be live, in the moment, and it will reflect the latest local headlines.” Except a rerun of The National is not live or in the moment, and only has local headlines in the literal sense of having some text on screen. The broadcast had no local news stories.

I understand we’re in an exceptional situation, but CBC has staff in newsrooms across the country who are eager to meet the challenge the situation brings. Instead of trusting its newsrooms and local staff to find solutions to keep their newscasts going, CBC management has made a national decision to pull the plug across all 10 provinces.

Hopefully they will quickly develop a way to bring local news back. Because the last time CBC tried replacing local newscasts with a national newscast that they sold as a hybrid, it did not end well, and drove thousands of viewers away.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has started a petition to get the heritage minister to overturn the CBC’s decision.

CBC starts re-integration

Whatever the CBC needed to do to bring local news back, it looks like they’re ready to start. On March 24, six days after the sudden suspension, it announced what appeared to be a timeline: Starting March 25, CBC News Network will offer “expanded” 30-minute local news segments. And “over the course of this week and next, we will make every effort to have all of the dedicated local shows back up on the main network.”

CEO Catherine Tait told The Current the news would come back Tuesday, leading to some anger online after that didn’t happen.

Three anchors wait their turn on CBC News Network and CBC Television: Nova Scotia’s Tom Murphy, P.E.I.’s Louise Martin and New Brunswick’s Harry Forestell. Each one got three and a half minutes for local and regional news.

Over most of the first six days of the national/local system, CBC made use of time zones, and regionalized CBC News Network content depending on which one was at 6pm: First, news from Newfoundland and Labrador at 4:30pm ET, then the Maritimes at 5pm, then the next hour from Ontario and Quebec (Ontario at 6pm ET, then Quebec at 6:30pm), then Manitoba, then Alberta and Saskatchewan. In each case, local or regional news was delivered by local anchors, and most lasted about 10 minutes.

By the time Vancouver reached 6pm though, it was 10pm in the Maritimes, so it was time for the first run of The National. Rather than run a non-local newscast out west, CBC restored Vancouver’s local news first.

The National, which also replaced local 11pm newscasts across the country, did not contain any specific local news segments.

UPDATE (March 25): Newfoundland got its local 6pm newscast back on Wednesday, while the rest of the country except B.C. and the North still had to settle for local segments piped through CBC NN. (B.C. had 20 minutes of local news before joining The National in progress.) PEI’s Compass has promised to return as of Thursday.

UPDATE (April 6): All but four of CBC’s stations had local 6pm newscasts again by April 2, with Windsor still piggybacking off CBC Toronto, and Saskatchewan and Alberta served through CBC News Network, which ran about 15 minutes (total) of regional news every night at 6pm MT. CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson told me the plan was to get the rest back early in the next week, aiming for Monday, April 6. And indeed, all the remaining stations had their newscasts back on Monday.

UPDATE (April 15): Last night saw the return of 11pm newscasts in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

29 thoughts on “CBC suspends local TV newscasts amid COVID-19 outbreak

  1. Andy Reid

    I am still ticked they cut in half the length of the 4 & 5 PM radio newscasts. They should never have been allowed to do that. I mailed my MP and minister of culture. Never heard back from my MP and the minister fluffed me off.
    Guess the government doesn’t care how they spend their allotment.

  2. Sandy Fraser

    CBC shoots themselves in the foot…again. Why do we pay for a public broadcaster who flees in a time of crisis. CTV, Global, CBS, CNN, world class broadcasters seem to manage to stay on the air. I guess CBC News isn’t in the same league.

    1. Anonymous

      They’re all in the same commercial boat Sandy. I stopped thinking of the CBC (who still gets our tax money) as a public broadcaster a long time ago.

  3. demetrios

    This virus scare hits deep. No surprise that it’s brought out the best and worst in people. You would think that Mtl news staff would be honor-bound to their public to keep local communications open.

  4. Rob Braide

    The CBC seems so irrelevant today. Not only in general, but today. Just when it is needed the most and in a time of crisis and uncertainty it turns its back on its local audiences. All that extra funding was clearly good money after bad. Their Montreal staff is bristling with talent. Why are they not using them? Shame on them.

    1. Frank Cavallaro

      Rob, I agree with you. Never understood how the geniuses in Toronto make decisions for the rest of Canada. Quebec is a plethora of news every day, yet CBC Montreal was chosen to produce a 30 minute local newscast, when there are smaller markets doing one hour at supper time.

  5. Richard G

    And what about CTV Montreal ? They had the CTV News Channel feed last night at 11:30 . Are they off too ?

  6. wem51

    This is pathetic, short sighted thinking. What is the point of the CBC if they can not provide news coverage?

  7. Sam Santos

    They should have master controls at all local newsrooms. In Ottawa, the only local news car is CTV Ottawa News for a while. One question? Is it true that the Radio 1 Master control is in Toronto like CBC music?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Is it true that the Radio 1 Master control is in Toronto like CBC music?

      Radio One is controlled out of Toronto for national broadcasts and out of local stations for local ones. Essentially control is given to local stations for their local programming only.

  8. Dilbert

    The real issue here is that local stations are no longer stand alone units. CBC Montreal apparently cannot put anything on the air without big brother in Toronto getting involved. In times of emergency, they fail.

  9. Jack Nathanson

    CBC screws it up again. With contemporary digital technology, CBC could broadcast its News Network on a sideband of every CBC transmitter in Canada. But that would be too nice to the viewers. So it’s better to take away than to give.

  10. Mario D

    As f they were not waiting for the perfect timing to do so. Afterwards they will say that it works this way so why come back to the old formula ?

    At such a desperately gloomy era when working from home can be done and a telecast can be easily arranged with skype or facetime, when local content keeps us connected to what is happening outside our doors ,the CBC is pulling a cheap move on us .

    For those who complain throughout the year that our taxes pay for this and issue doubts about their choices , this time , i have to agree. Shame on the CBC.

  11. Paul Monty

    The Canadian Association of Broadcasters once wanted the CBC to get out of local and regional broadcasting and to leave it to the private broadcasters. At the time, the CBC staunchly defended its role and responsibility in local and regional service.

    The Broadcasting Act states:

    3 (1) It is hereby declared as the broadcasting policy for Canada that

    (l) (m) the programming provided by the Corporation should …
    (ii) reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions.

    How will CBC Television regain the public’s trust in local and regional television news? Before this, the public has turned to the CBC in times of crisis.

    Paul Monty
    CBC retiree

  12. Peter & Catherine

    This is not a snowstorm. It could last many months, or longer. Staff need to be available down the road should others start to fall ill. Inevitably they will. In this respect I understand the reasoning behind this decision. Too bad nobody really watches CBC. Not the best newscast to follow for anything developing. I

    Anything is better than the garbage on City tv. I was surprised it was still on the air when I stumbled upon it last week.

    It is time to get rid of shows like The Social, Your Morning and to cut all the filler from our newscasts. Nobody wants to see those perched too high for their own good airheads.

    We are not going to work, travelling, driving, commuting, betting the kids ready for school, etc. – we do not need these long-winded weather reports. Spring is on the horizon. IT IS SUNNY WITH A CHANCE OF VIRUS.

    CTV Montreal, Global Montreal time to cut the fluff.

      1. Peter & Catherine

        It relates to it because the Toronto vs. Montreal argument has nothing to do with this historic juncture in history. That is how. Nothing will return to the way it was. Impossible. The new discourse not yet evident. Stay safe. God bless you all. I look forward to a day when old arguments could be still relevant…..

  13. Anonymous

    This is so funny, that’s it’s not funny.
    If they are trying to prove that they are irrelevant to the Canadian public, it’s by their own hand.
    Take a bow, shut off the lights, put the key in the door.
    Go home, and don’t come back.
    You’re done.

    1 – They should have added the CBC News Network on their x.2 sub channel for the over the air stations.

    2 – Local news should have been maintained. They only really have about a dozen real local stations left throughout the country. And all are in major cities, or part of larger markets, expect for several such as Yellowknife, NT, and Charlottetown, PE.

  14. Dana

    There is no precedent for any of this. A lot of these comments , criticisms , semantics sound petty given the severity of this pandemic. There is nothing local about this. Stay home wherever you are. Be kind. Be well. I cannot imagine anyone asked to ride this out with loved ones is displeased about it regardless of their industry. The Toronto bashing is tired. Nobody in Boston bashes New York or LA where the majority of their media head offices are located. Stay home. CBC did this to most markets. Worry about fomites as much as social distancing. Say a prayer. Everyone doing their best.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Nobody in Boston bashes New York or LA where the majority of their media head offices are located.

      Walk through Boston with a New York Yankees cap on and see how long until you change your mind about that. But seriously, America is built on a disdain that “heartland” people have for the “coastal elites.”

      1. Dorothy

        Your are so wrong, Steve.It’s the coastal elites who “disdain” flyover (“heartland) country,or as Hillary refers to them: “deplorables.” In other words, Americans who believe in family, G-d and country.
        America has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation ever has; It’s built on the principle of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone wants that, including Canadian snowbirds, Canadian students who study there and Canadians who leave this country for better opportunities south of the border.

      2. Dana

        Half my family is Bostonian. You are correct. Makes sense that media headquarters would be in larger city centers is all. Debra Arbec is very active on social media with likely as many followers as CBC Montreal has viewers.

  15. Darren Rosario

    Since the virus is now the new recession I have to think about the 3 considerable implications in the financial short term.

    1. Once the virus slows down between weeks or months, what happens if returning to local newscasts will be somewhat a bit lasted for a few months in terms of financial viability especially as a pubcaster.

    2. What will other commercial broadcasters react to this temporary change and will have to do different but somehow some similar changes post-virus? Right now Breakfast Television is also in Vancouver and Calgary, will BT Toronto will become a national program if Rogers cancelled those local editions in Vancouver and Calgary if returning to normal after the virus is not financially feasible by ad revenues being dropped. Temporally BT Toronto offers a special national newscast across CityTV live coast to coast but will somehow overcome the financial drops even after the virus is over and if the profits dropped at Rogers Media did happen for the next few months will Rogers probably joining the same cancellations as Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Montreal?

    3. CTV has Kitchener, Northern Ontario, Terrace, Dawson Creek, London, Barrie, and Windsor; Global has Lethbridge, Kingston, Kelowna, and Peterborough; plus independent owned ones in Medicine Hat, Prince George, Kamloops, Thunder Bay (2 stations), Lloydminster (2 stations), Hamilton, Victoria (which solely competes with CTV Victoria), a handful of some small Quebec markets, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Will the virus will wipe out small market stations that are mostly the only game in town, since small businesses and local companies rely on their stations in terms of ad revenue? What happens if your employer Postmedia goes bankrupt if the ad revenue plumets so hard that upends the push for mass paywalls?

    Journalism matters but we do need local news which relevant to smaller towns and mid sized cities like PEI, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, London, Barrie, Windsor, Kelowna, Lethbridge, among others. No matter what crisis does we need local voices to cover the ones that the big cities sometimes skipped out.

  16. Anonymous

    My understanding is that if the CBC Toronto building needs to be evacuated, the brown tower in Montreal can take over the control and provides the essential services. But in the other way, can Toronto take over Radio-Canada if MRC gets evacuate? (I bet most of CBC staffs in Toronto don’t speak French…)
    I heard that BBC is building an emergency studio outside of the broadcasting house now so if the virus gets in to the building the service could continue, I guesss CBC has no plan B?


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