Wallin, Morrison Lose Jobs
It was the week of the long knives in the newsrooms of Canadian television. Those who deliver the news were suddenly making it. One day, Pamela Wallin showed up on the front pages announcing that she has been rudely yanked from her position as co-anchor of CBC's Prime Time News. The next day, Keith Morrison, designated heir to CTV eminence Lloyd Robertson, announced that he had been fired from his job as co-host of Canada A.M. Two anchors cut loose in two days - what on earth was going on? Had the sober, even-tempered world of Canadian TV news gone haywire? Wallin and Morrison certainly made it sound that way. Both of them publicly talked about their misfortune as if they had been hit by a car that they had not seen coming.
In fact, the dismissals are both the result of long-simmering internal feuds. Wallin's relationship with the CBC, which wooed her away from CTV in 1992, has been rocky almost from the start. According to many CBC insiders, she was constantly at odds with colleagues at Prime Time News. And she was clearly losing her battle for on-air equity with co-host Peter Mansbridge. Morrison, meanwhile - whose career has shifted from Canada to the United States and back - had been steadily eroding the patience of his CTV colleagues. They complained that he was pushing to succeed Robertson sooner than planned, and straining his schedule by juggling duties at Canada A.M. with freelance projects for American television.
Only the most avid conspiracy theorist would conclude that the synchronous timing of the two dismissals is anything but a bizarre coincidence. But both episodes reflect a state of turmoil at two leading networks that are fighting for survival in an increasingly fragmented world of broadcasting. Organizationally, they resemble two wildly contrasting caricatures of Canadian federalism. "CTV's problems are exactly the opposite of the CBC's," notes Global TV anchorman Peter Kent, who has worked at both. "The CBC is this great, monolithic, bureaucratic eternal-motion machine. CTV is a cat-fighting co-op, the whipping boy of all the member groups that own it. CTV is like the former Yugoslavia; CBC is more like an authoritarian state."
But in both cases, the nightly ritual of the news is a precious sacrament. And on the threshold of a 500-channel universe, news anchors are under greater pressure to serve as brand names for the network, custodians of viewer loyalty. "They are the embodiment of an otherwise inanimate corporate object," observes Peter Swain, president of Media Buying Services Ltd., one of Canada's largest purchasers of commercial time. "And I think there is some distress that these personalities can be exorcised. You don't muck around with a brand image."
Last week's dramatics did seem to violate a basic taboo of Canadian TV news. Traditionally, the nation's key anchor desks are inherited through a kind of dignified succession, like the job of governor general. That was the way Knowlton Nash passed the mantle on to Mansbridge in 1988, and that is how CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson had agreed to make way for Morrison in 1996. If conflicts arose, they used to remain discreet. "In the old days," says Kent, "if you were fired, you'd slink away and hope to get a job elsewhere."
What happened with Wallin, 42, and Morrison, 47, is more reminiscent of the American networks, where newsmagazine anchors air their feuds in the public spotlight. Of the two dismissals, Morrison's is the less dramatic - it is just one more tangent in a relatively unanchored career. But Wallin's fall from grace has broader implications. For the beleaguered CBC, it could not have come at a worse time. A new CBC president, former Tory communications minister Perrin Beatty, had barely taken office. And the network was hemorrhaging from fresh budget cuts. On the same day Wallin learned of her fate, the network announced that its Hong Kong and Berlin bureaus would be closed.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is that Wallin's departure arrives as yet another spasm in a chronic CBC identity crisis. After the comedy of errors known as "repositioning" - dismantling The National and The Journal, moving the evening news to 9 p.m., then moving it back to 10 p.m. - it looked as if the show was finally settling down, at least to the casual viewer. PTN spent more than two years pushing the camaraderie of "Pete 'n' Pam." At first, the co-hosts divvied up the day's events with a semblance of parity, then Mansbridge, 46, a 24-year-veteran of the CBC, took over the hard news while Wallin was moved to Prime Time Magazine at the bottom of the hour. Finally, a structure seemed to be in place, one that echoed the old National-Journal two-step.
But now, with one-half of its anchor team severed, CBC's flagship is adrift once again. While the usual variety of guest hosts take turns in her empty chair, rumors fly about who will replace her - if her position is not eliminated altogether. Obvious candidates include Newsworld's Nancy Wilson and Alison Smith, and CBC Toronto's local news anchor Bill Cameron. But last week, the CBC newsroom was buzzing with unconfirmed reports that Mansbridge's ex-wife, broadcaster Wendy Mesley, had been offered the job. The idea of Mesley sharing a desk with her ex-husband, who has since begun living with actress Cynthia Dale, sounds wild. But it could be great for ratings.
The soap opera of Wallin's dismissal certainly goosed up last week's numbers: early in the week, CBC overtook CTV news by a slight margin as a nightly average of 1.3 million viewers tuned in to PTN, 25 per cent more than the season average; 936,000 watched the Magazine portion, a 15-per-cent rise. Network executives released the figures on Friday in an internal memo, but it seemed early for gloating: sheer curiosity probably accounted for the increase.
Although Wallin's departure has been cause for celebration among her enemies at the network, a number of high-profile CBC personalities are alarmed by the instability that it conveys. "It does make the place look a bit shaky," acknowledges former CBC chairman Patrick Watson. "For a lot of viewers, it's going to look like there's been a competition between Peter and Pamela for supremacy, a jockeying for position. It's had that whiff to it all the way along, and now that will be very hard to dispel."
After hearing of Wallin's demise, veteran CBC broadcaster Ann Medina (who now hosts Rough Cuts, a documentary program on Newsworld) said: "I'm absolutely flabbergasted that the CBC decided to do this at this time. When the network is so weakened, it sends out an unstable signal." Adds Medina: "It always comes down to the viewer. Until the viewer is unhappy, as was the case with Prime Time at 9 o'clock, you don't diddle. Or if you do, you do it on a less visible scale."
Peter Gzowski, host of CBC Radio's Morningside, says he felt "some sort of dismay" at Wallin's dismissal. "I was driving down from the cottage when I heard a little flicker of news on the radio and I thought, 'That can't be right.' And it came out in such a strange way." If television is the face of the CBC, the radio network is its spirit. And Gzowski, whose populist show remains the most literal incarnation of the public broadcaster's pan-Canadian mandate, is an anxious keeper of the flame. "Things are pretty uncertain around here right now," he says. "This is a time when the place desperately needs a new vision - a redefinition and a lift. I'm far more critical of TV management than I should be. But at the CBC, the balance between performers and management seems different from what I see on the outside. There are too many bureaucrats."
What is to be done with the CBC has become another Canadian Rubik's Cube, like the Constitution. Those with the deepest affection for it, and who root for its survival, are among the harshest critics of the way it is run. And many of those who have weathered its office politics consider its bureaucrats to be the most cannibalistic in the industry. "Over there, they just eat up everybody, including themselves after a while," says CTV Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver, who worked at the CBC for 17 years. "The next person on the list, believe me, is going to be Perrin Beatty. You watch."
Constant upheaval in the CBC bureaucracy has affected programming the way a messy divorce affects a family. Prime Time News has its roots in a marriage of convenience between The National, the old 10 o'clock news, and The Journal, the newsmagazine created in 1982 by producer Mark Starowicz and his star, Barbara Frum. Both of them had migrated to television from CBC Radio's As It Happens. And as The Journal's empire grew, sapping the network's resources, it aroused jealousy and resentment within the corporation. But it broke new ground in TV reporting and ruled the ratings, while Frum became the diva of Canadian TV journalism. Since her death in 1992, and the dismantling of The Journal the same year, CBC news has never really regained its composure.
For Wallin, Frum was an impossible act to follow, not just as an interviewer, but as a legend. Warmly remembered by those who worked with her, Frum played saintly den mother to her CBC family. And although Frum faced the same frustrations of anyone working at the CBC, "she didn't chew out anybody in public," says one former Journal reporter. Wallin, however, did not hesitate to express her distaste for the legendary incompetence that afflicts the ranks of CBC technicians and supervisors. Says a close friend and ex-colleague at CTV: "I kept warning her that the CBC is a very different place. You have to build up constituencies there. You've got to find your friends and get along."
Scripts, interviews, hair, makeup, wardrobe - and constituencies. An anchor's role is complicated. It requires the skills of a journalist, an actor and a diplomat. Producers like to think that they alone create television, especially at the CBC. And for an independently minded woman, the environment can be frustrating. "There does seem to be a kind of old boys' network there that protects its own," says retired Global news anchor Jan Tennant, who was the first woman to read the CBC national news, on Easter weekend in 1974. "When the producers think a show isn't working," adds Tennant, "the anchor is the one who gets pulled or dumped or moved around. It's like being a piece of furniture. They say, 'This piece isn't working. Let's go to the props department and get another.' "
Anchors are also surrounded by people who are itching to tinker with their image. Tennant, 58, recalls that as her hair was going grey, a Global vice-president of news pointedly asked if she was thinking of dying it. She made it clear that was not going to happen. "The grey suited me," says Tennant, noting that male anchors are under as much pressure as the women about their appearance. "I believe Lloyd colored his hair. And that Knowlton used to color his - he was grey-blond, but sometimes he became kind of strawberry." Tennant, now living in Vancouver, bowed out of the business on her own terms, but says: "I have great empathy for people who are unceremoniously dumped."
Medina, 51, knows what it is like firsthand. In 1986, the veteran reporter began a three-year contract anchoring the CBC's Saturday Report. She lasted just six months. "They hated my voice," she says. And Don Owen, her news editor, kept trying to get rid of her glasses. "He'd say, 'Gee, you look younger without them,' " she says. "But I cannot wear contact lenses. They also wanted a lot of makeup on me. They wouldn't let me be Ann Medina. Peter [Mansbridge] is Peter. Finally, thank God, people didn't care if he was bald - I remember when he used to shadow in his disappearing hairline."
In the United States, where ratings can make or break careers overnight, top anchors earn millions of dollars a year; here, no one earns more than a few hundred thousand. But it is still a high-pressure game. Surviving it means making a career out of professional calm: Canadians do not like too much personality to get in the way of their news. The messenger is the medium, and the more transparent the better. Even after all the so-called revolutions in television, the country's most popular and durable anchor is still doing, more or less, what he did in the 1960s - reading the news. "I never dreamed that it would go on this long," admits Lloyd Robertson, 61, who has spent 43 years in broadcasting. "A lot of it is habit. You become kind of an old cardigan. People get comfortable with you." Asked to pin down the secret of anchoring success, he says: "It's got to do with having a personality that doesn't have too many hard edges. You can't jump quickly to conclusions. You have to have ego to do the job, but if you let your ego run you, you have huge problems. I've seen people be destroyed in this business because of their egos. They get what they think is power. But you've got to see yourself as part of a team. You've got to keep that measured perspective all the time - because it could end at any time."
And that is the kind of week it's been. Goodnight Keith. Goodnight Pamela.
Maclean's April 17, 1995