Last month, CBC television aired a half-hour special program called Secrets of Montreal.
The show, hosted by evening news anchor Debra Arbec, talked to some figures in the anglo Montreal cultural community about some of their cultural “secrets”. The guests include some pretty big local names, like comedian Sugar Sammy, filmmakers Jacob and Kevin Tierney, chef Chuck Hughes and musician Melissa Auf der Maur. They talk about restaurants, bars, urban spaces and other things they love about this city.
This, all in high definition (actual HD, not the fake HD we see on the newscasts). I actually can’t think of another program produced for a local audience by any of the three anglo broadcasters in this city that was done entirely in HD.
It’s not the greatest half hour of television ever (that soundtrack gets annoyingly repetitive after a while, for one, and some people have noted the Travel Travel-esque vibe), but it’s the kind of thing I’d love to see more of: local programming that isn’t confined to a newscast.
Even though Montreal has three local English-language television stations (four if you include the multiethnic CJNT/Metro 14), none of them air original local programming that isn’t either confined within the schedule blocks of their newscasts or done from their news sets. Not to take away from the quality of local news being produced by these stations, but there are some things we’d like to see that can’t be converted into a two-minute news package or six-minute sit-down interview.
Seeing this show was a breath of fresh air, a sign that maybe the CBC was starting to rediscover the idea that its programming should reflect not only the national culture but the local one as well. And I was hopeful that this was a sign the local stations were getting more control over their programming schedules and/or budgets, being able to work on special projects like this.
But I was disappointed somewhat when I discovered through Google searches that this idea didn’t come from CBC Montreal. “Cultural secrets” shows were produced across the country: Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and apparently other places as well. All were done to coincide with “Culture Days” and the CBC’s 75th anniversary. All followed roughly the same idea, and all aired Sept. 29th at 7:30pm, in the timeslot normally reserved for Jeopardy. (In fact, for Videotron illico users, the show was listed as an episode of Jeopardy, and remains labelled as such on my PVR. This may have resulted in many potential viewers missing the show.)
What bugged me about this national congruence was that it reminded me how much of what happens locally at the CBC is actually decided nationally, imposed on the regions in a cookie-cutter fashion.
It reminded me of Living [insert location here], the regional lifestyle show duplicated across the country that was cancelled during the big round of budget cuts in 2009. At least that was regular programming instead of a one-off show.
When I start giving more serious thought to proposals of radical changes at the CBC, this is one of the reasons why. The other stations are doing daily local newscasts (and, unlike CBC Montreal, they don’t take the weekends off). If this network is going to be funded mainly through government financing, shouldn’t it offer something different?
I’m aware of – and sympathetic to – the budget constraints faced by CBC and its Montreal television station. But English Montreal (and, for that matter, English Quebec) is a linguistic minority, and one would think the CBC would be a leader in giving this community a voice. Lately, it’s seemed more like an also-ran, which is particularly outrageous considering how little is done outside of news at CTV and Global.
Secrets of Montreal, directed by Vincent Scotti and Filippo Campo, and starring Debra Arbec, can be viewed in its entirety on the CBC website.
Monday was a pretty big day for local TV watchers, with new faces debuting on CBC and CTV newscasts.
Debra Arbec, who left CFCF in May for an evening anchor position at CBMT, saying she wanted a shot at a supper-hour newscast, finally got her first night on air after her contractual obligation to CTV ended on July 1. She co-anchors with Andrew Chang from 5pm to 6:30pm, replacing Jennifer Hall, who has moved back to southern Ontario.
CTV, meanwhile, gave Arbec’s old job of 11:30pm weekday anchor to Catherine Sherriffs, who wasn’t even part of the permanent reporting staff at the time. Sherriffs’s first shift as a television anchor was Monday night.
Both Arbec and Sherriffs were flawless on their first nights, and got lots of praise from their bosses.
Smooth transition for Arbec
“It could not have gone smoother,” said CBC Montreal News Director Mary-Jo Barr, who has been working with Arbec for three weeks. “I was so excited to see the team on air,” she said. “It felt like Christmas morning.”
Arbec agreed that things went very smoothly, even when the first news report she introduced failed to play and she had to give her first we’re-having-technical-difficulties speech.
Asked what the biggest transition issue was, Arbec pointed to technology. CBC uses Avid video editing software, and Arbec had to learn to edit, something she didn’t do at CTV. And in HD, to boot. She and Chang edit the international news roundup themselves.
Arbec also said the change in the schedule took some getting used to. “My body clock has been used to late nights for so long,” she said. Now she has a day job and can spend evenings at home with her husband, Brian Wilde.
Chang, incidentally, also will have a more daytime schedule. It was decided to pull him off the late-night newscast (which runs 10 minutes from 10:55 to 11:05pm) so he could concentrate exclusively on the supper-hour show. Instead of coming in at 3pm and having only two hours to familiarize himself with the show, he can come in and shape it from the beginning. “The show was always a bit of a surprise to him,” Barr said. The move was done by rearranging existing staff, avoiding the need to increase the show’s budget by hiring another person.
Reporter Amanda Margison has been given the late-night host job, which includes some lineup editing and monitoring breaking news during the 5pm newscast.
Arbec heaped praise on her coworkers, including co-host Chang, who she said has been “such a godsend for technology for me.” She’s had a chance to meet the new team (she likened it to moving to a new school) and how to pronounce their names (try saying “Anna Asimakopoulos” without hesitating) and said they were all “really supportive and understanding” about her move there.
Aside from anchoring and preparing the newscast, Arbec will also be introducing a weekly segment called Montrealer of the Week, profiling people who make a difference in the community but aren’t otherwise recognized. Similar in style to the My Montreal series she did at CTV, but focusing on individuals instead of ethnic groups. They will air Fridays, with the first one this coming Friday.
You can watch the 6-6:30pm portion of Arbec’s first newscast here. It includes and end-of-show welcome from Chang, in which Arbec notes how fast the hour and a half went. CBC also has Arbec’s bio on its website.
Sherriffs’s nerves fade quickly
A few hours later at CFCF, it was Sherriffs’s turn behind the desk. A smaller desk, as she was thrown the curveball of having her first day also be the first day of a new temporary set while they build a brand new studio.
“She went into that position a little cold,” said CTV Montreal News Director Jed Kahane. “It’s not a hermetically sealed studio. There’s a lot of distraction. I thought it was great that she was able to do it under those circumstances.”
For Sherriffs herself, it was a bit intimidating doing her first shift as a television news anchor. Other than some time with Todd van der Heyden on Crescent St. during the Formula One broadcasts, she hasn’t had any experience behind the desk. She got some voice coaching (standard for new anchors, Kahane said), but nothing beat the pressure of being live on air by yourself.
“I was more nervous when I came in at the beginning of the shift,” Sherriffs said. By showtime, she realized there was no going back now, and with every segment the nerves became more manageable.
The nervousness showed a bit on air, particularly in more light-hearted segments when she didn’t seem entirely natural. By Tuesday night, it seemed much less apparent and she looked a lot more comfortable in her new role. (Well, as comfortable as you can be with bright lights shining on you, a camera in your face and thousands of people watching you live.)
Like Arbec, Sherriffs credited her crew for helping her get through it. “The crew was amazing,” she said, offering her lots of support.
And in case you were curious, Arbec did watch Sherriffs’s first show, even though it was on what is now a competitor’s channel. She said Sherriffs did a fine job and she wishes her well.
A new studio at CFCF
CTV and RDS are really excited about upgraded studios that are being constructed on the ground floor of their building at Papineau St. and René-Lévesque Blvd. But before CTV can move in to the new set in September, it has to vacate its old one. Sunday’s 11:30pm newscast with Paul Karwatsky was the last in the old studio (he’s very proud of that). Starting Monday at noon, the newscasts were being done on a temporary set constructed in the CTV Montreal newsroom.
The temporary set has its issues. For one thing, there’s only one chair behind the anchor desk. Kahane says the plan is to only have one anchor at a time (summer vacations mean the newscasts that normally have two anchors won’t again until September). But it still causes some interesting situations, particularly when they have to switch between news and sports anchor. Currently, one of the two stands when they chat with each other during transitions, which is a bit awkward.
The other thing is that the newsroom is a pretty active place. There was a bit of noise in the audio from the anchor desk on the first night, and people working in the newsroom during a broadcast have to be careful what they yell or what they do when they’re in the camera’s view.
The set added a bit of awkwardness to the introductions, because the establishing shot of the studio can’t be done anymore. Since that’s where the booming voiceover introducing the anchors comes in, that’s gone too. Now, the newscast goes straight from the opening theme to a closeup shot of the anchor. It’s a bit of a jarring transition for someone used to the way the newscast works.
Kahane said most of the work in setting up the temporary studio came in fixing the lighting. There was a camera in the newsroom before that reporters could use to report breaking news and the late anchor would use to say what’s coming up at 11:30, but to do an entire newscast from there, the background needed to be a bit better than the drab and – by television standards – dark cubicles of a newsroom.
Still, the production has a kind of out-of-the-basement feel to it. It looks fine technically, but it doesn’t feel as comfortable.
Kahane said the summer was a good time to do this (it’s kind of a lull in the news industry, and TV ratings are generally down as people head out and do things with their lives). And the move into a new expansive studio (with windows!) will be worth it.
The new studio will be “HD-ready”, meaning the infrastructure will be suitable for HD broadcast, but there are no concrete plans yet to convert the newscast to high definition. CTV has prioritized its specialty channels, which are currently being transitioned. And Montreal hasn’t been made a high priority because of the lack of competitive pressure.
Kahane also said the temporary set will be used as the in-the-newsroom live reporter feed once the new studio is in place, and its look will fit in with the look of the new studio.
You can watch the report CTV did here for some visuals of the building of the new set and the temporary one.
And what of their old set? Part of it is being used in the temporary studio, but the big desk and other elements have been donated to Concordia University’s journalism department, where it’s being used in their studio to teach students to become TV anchors themselves.
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.