Networks Fight over Election Ratings

One of the best things about election-night television is its cruel sense of finality.

Networks Fight over Election Ratings

One of the best things about election-night television is its cruel sense of finality. "The people have spoken," losing candidates will say as the night winds down, and after weeks of hearing the leaders and their operatives spin poll results into outright fantasy, voters can at last savour the spectacle of their decision taking hold. But for the people who actually produced this year's coverage, there was no such release. While campaign volunteeers gathered up lawn signs on Jan. 24, publicists at the national networks were feverishly analyzing the results of their own knock-down, drag-out contest. By day's end, CTV and CBC had both drafted full-page newspaper ads claiming a ratings victory for their election-night news teams. For them, the battle was just beginning.

Subtlety did not count among their weapons. "When the polls closed across the country and the results were pouring in," blared the Mother Corp.'s ad, "more than 2.2 million Canadians turned to Peter Mansbridge and the CBC News team for their election results - more than any other network." The boast ran in both national newspapers, flanked by a photo of Mansbridge in profile and mug shots of other CBC journalists. CTV took a more minimalist, but no less brash approach. "The results are in," it proclaimed, as if the nation had been voting on TV coverage rather than political leadership. "Once again, Canada chooses CTV." The private network scored an average audience per minute of 1.48 million through the entire evening, the ad noted, while CBC averaged 1.253 million; Global News, the other national network providing a full evening's coverage, scored 771,000.

If you're wondering how two horses can win the same race, you're not alone. Last week, officials at Nielsen Media Research, the company that provides overnight ratings, took a look at the competing claims and phoned up the networks with a pointed reminder about standard practice when it comes to reporting results. The problem, says spokesman Paul Robinson, was specifically with CBC's ad, which failed to cite the source of the 2.2 million figure (i.e. Nielsen), or any explanation of how they calculated it. "We're concerned any time an organization represents data without citing it properly," says Robinson. "It's fine to have disagreements in the marketplace as long as people can look into the fine print and see what's being measured." CTV provided that fine print, Robinson noted. Why didn't CBC?

Perhaps because the public broadcaster has its own way of measuring performance - standard practice be damned. The 2.2 million figure referred to the combined per-minute viewership of the CBC main network and Newsworld between 10 and 11 p.m., when the polls had just closed, says Tony Burman, editor-in-chief of CBC News. So even if CTV won the night overall, the CBC's total for that hour was slightly higher than CTV's, even including the audience for its own 24-hour channel, Newsnet. If you count only the main network, then CTV won the hour by a neck: Nielsen results show that the private network averaged 2.065 million viewers during that period, against 2.045 million for CBC.

Burman defends the CBC practice of conflating numbers across two channels as a more accurate reflection of the viewing audience. "It's absurd to talk about Canadians watching election night and excluding one of our most important channels," he says. But his argument has the distinct feel of a tightrope act. On one hand, he blames CTV for ignoring the results of the news channels when it claims victory in election after election; on the other, he dismisses the CBC's failure to explain where it got its numbers as "a peripheral point." "Our motivation after election night is just to get the word out that many, many Canadians watched us the night before," he says. "It's also to address the distortions we know will occur as a result of CTV putting out incomplete numbers."

It's the kind of claim that frosts CTV News president Robert Hurst, who has long complained that the public broadcaster is trying to muddy the waters of audience measurement. "The point about their ad after election night is, I don't know what they did," he says. "I saw a number of 2.2 million and I have no idea where that came from." Privately, CTV officials suggest the CBC's unique arithmetic stems from its increasing struggle to compete - a challenge that intensified with the launch of Global National in 2001, then turned critical with last year's crippling two-month lockout. Since its employees returned to work on Oct. 11, CBC's The National has averaged 648,000 viewers on the main network, according to Nielsen's figures, trailing both Global National (771,000) and CTV National News (957,000).

The whole dispute may seem petty (are they incapable of consensus on reporting ratings?), but the propaganda war relates as much to the long-term challenges facing all broadcasters as to genuine hostility. Increasingly, say analysts, viewers receive TV news through non-TV devices - cellphones, BlackBerries and laptops. At the same time, the number of information sources has exploded, meaning brand recognition determines whether a broadcaster survives. "When you get these hundreds and hundreds of channels of information, people are going to start making shortlists," says Doug Checkeris, managing partner at The Media Company, a Toronto-based firm that buys advertising time. "The broadcasters want to get on those shortlists."

One way to do that is to persuade consumers you are the prime venue for the national conversation. Another is to paint the network as serious-minded - something best done by placing a heavy priority on news. "There's a large amount of prestige attached to strong news coverage," says Marsha Barber, a broadcast journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. "When you can say you garner the public's confidence, and the public makes a choice to watch you, you're in a much stronger position." These pressures are all the greater for CBC: from prime-time dramas like Da Vinci's City Hall to comedies like the Rick Mercer Report, it has vested its image almost entirely on being resolutely Canadian. That's a tougher sell when you aren't the place Canadians go for national news.

All this explains why the networks are jockeying for status as most vital, most trusted, most recognizable. It's also the reason that news shows on the Big Three - Global, CTV and CBC - seem in a permanent state of flux, perpetually rebranding and reformatting and shifting time slots in order to garner the greatest possible audience. This week, for example, Global will shift its national broadcast, anchored by Kevin Newman, to 5:30 p.m. in most regions. The move will give it a jump on CTV's 6 p.m. local newscasts, which together form a ratings juggernaut. CBC News has recently made over its on-screen graphics in what it called a "rebranding" initiative, while CTV - wary of upsetting a successful formula - tweaks its coverage on an ongoing basis.

In the end, though, there's no substitute in television for personality. A single change behind the anchor desk can instantly turn the industry on its ear. While ratings and surveys affirm the ongoing reign of CTV's Lloyd Robertson, the éminence grise of Canadian broadcasting can't read the news forever. Newman, for his part, has almost singlehandedly made Global into a national player, while cracks have recently appeared in Peter Mansbridge's normally unflappable mien. The most jarring moment of CBC's election coverage was his pedantic reminder to Keith Boag, CBC TV's parliamentary bureau chief, that Liberal candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau was not the first Canadian to "walk in space." "You must have been referring to inside the spacecraft," Mansbridge said dryly (Garneau is actually the first Canadian to travel to space).

The veteran newsman was undoubtedly upholding a timeless journalistic principle: dilute the reliability of the information and you dilute the credibility of the source. The folks who write the CBC ads would do well to heed Mansbridge's cue.

Maclean's February 13, 2006