Defending their lead: Cindy Day, Bruce Frisko, Maria Panapolis, Starr Dobson and Steve Murphy (clockwise from top left)
Defending their lead: Cindy Day, Bruce Frisko, Maria Panapolis, Starr Dobson and Steve Murphy (clockwise from top left)
Defending their lead: Cindy Day, Bruce Frisko, Maria Panapolis, Starr Dobson and Steve Murphy (clockwise from top left)
Defending their lead: Cindy Day, Bruce Frisko, Maria Panapolis, Starr Dobson and Steve Murphy (clockwise from top left)

CORRECTION: The published print version of this story—and the version that originally appeared on this site and was recently unpublished—said that CTV Atlantic was shut out in the major television categories at the 2010 Atlantic Journalism Awards. In fact, CTV Atlantic did not enter the Journalism Atlantic Awards. The Ryerson Review of Journalism regrets the error and apologizes to CTV Atlantic.

It’s 5 p.m. on an October Monday in Halifax, which for Live at 5 co-hosts Starr Dobson and Bruce Frisko means show time. The big story tonight on the popular Atlantic Canada newsmagazine is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There are several separate stories devoted to the campaign, including one about a hair salon that created a fundraising calendar featuring local breast cancer survivors. The rest of the show is pretty standard fare for a newsmagazine—weather, sports, entertainment and several interviews. Dobson and Frisko wrap up the broadcast by previewing stories that will be on the 6 p.m. news with anchor Steve Murphy. Both shows come out of the same studio and share equipment, camera people and newsroom staff. Then the voice-over comes in. “Live from our Maritimes news centre, this is CTV News. Here is Steve Murphy.”

Live at 5 celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012, while its sister show, CTV News at Six, and its predecessor The ATV Evening News, have been on the air since the early 1970s. Together, they make up a CTV Atlantic news package that is consistently among the top watched programs in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, with approximately a quarter of a million viewers every night—not bad in a region with a population of 1.8 million.

Typically, the 6 p.m. news has finished higher, according to recent BBM Canada statistics, withLive at 5 right behind it. When the programs started out, they faced little challenge in their time slots, as few Atlantic Canada–based news or newsmagazine shows existed. Today, that’s no longer the case: both online and on television, there are more options providing local, national and international news, all threatening to steal audience share. Now the two programs—which have undergone few major format or personnel changes in the past 10 years—must decide how best to use their limited resources to adapt in the face of these new challengers.

It’s impossible to talk about how these shows became so popular with Atlantic Canadians without first talking about The Notebook. Hosted by Dave Wright in the late ’70s, it was the region’s first supper-hour magazine show and a precursor to Live at 5. Like today’s CTV Atlantic anchors, Wright was more than just a host. The Notebook covered stories influenced by his editorial decisions, including local news, celebrities and health. The charismatic host took the air at 5:30 p.m., and the show gained a huge following of viewers almost immediately. Most of them stuck around for The ATV Evening News (which later became CTV News at Six). While the 5:30 p.m. show bridged the gap between news and its effects on people’s daily lives, the 6 p.m. program focused firmly on news—local, national and international. People in the Maritimes probably grew up watching CTV Atlantic: it became a daily ritual to come home from work or school, turn on the television at 5 p.m. and see the same familiar faces.

Viewers have grown to know the long-standing personalities well, especially within the last decade. Wright hosted Live at 5 until 1986, when Steve Murphy took over. Since 1993, he’s hosted the News at Six, making him one of the longest running news anchors in Atlantic Canada. Other well-known personalities since ’93 include some of those that have, at one time or another, hosted or co-hosted Live at 5, such as Paul Mennier and Nancy Regan. ATV’s Bruce Graham and weather forecaster Laura Lee Langley also became familiar to viewers thanks to their nightly appearances as anchors.

But in the last few years, the playing field has grown crowded and Maritimers have more options on the dial. CBC now has suppertime programs, as do Global Television, EastLink and other television providers in Atlantic Canada. “There’s a reason why the car that’s in the lead has a rear view mirror,” says Steve Murphy. “You have to look at who’s in the rear window, and never lose sight of it.”

Yet, while CBC’s and Global’s suppertime programs are constantly reinventing themselves and tinkering with their formats, Live at 5 and CTV News at Six seem to operate according to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Ask CTV Atlantic employees to identify any major format changes to either program and they’ll be hard-pressed to come up with anything other than the opening credits or the technology they use to put the shows together. “We’ve resisted the temptation to reinvent the wheel,” says Murphy, “Every season we put a new tire on it, but we’re not trying to reinvent it.”

This consistency just might be the key to the station’s success. “It’s not easy to dislodge people’s viewing habits,” says Don Dickson, a journalism instructor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Every year, many North American television networks spend millions to hire consulting firms to advise them on what they are doing wrong. This is not a new trend—when Live at 5 first started out, the show’s news director Dick Prat hired consultant Jacques DeSuze of the Washington, D.C. firm McHugh and Hoffman—but the problems facing the small Atlantic Canadian market have changed.

AR&D, one of the biggest American television news strategists, has worked with local broadcasters in Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Jerry Gumbert, the company’s president and CEO, says the biggest challenge is that local television news is quickly becoming irrelevant, because of the “rule of scarcity,” which states that the rarer something is, the more value it has. Local news has historically been scarce. “In the ’70s and ’80s, and even into the early ’90s, if you wanted to know what happened in your community, your country and the world in which you lived, you had to watch a local evening newscast,” says Gumbert. Thanks to cable news and the internet, consumers now have more control. “The true reason that the industry is struggling today is the rule of scarcity no longer applies to its product.” And that’s led to cutbacks and layoffs. On March 3, 2009, CTV announced the cancellation of local morning shows and evening newscasts in Ottawa, Barrie, London and Victoria—and eliminated 118 positions.

Approximately a 15-minute drive away from the CTV Halifax studio is the headquarters of its biggest competition. Tom Murphy (no relation to his CTV counterpart) is the host of CBC News: Nova Scotia at 6, the flagship show in the station’s hour and a half block of programming, which starts at 5 p.m. The 6 p.m. show is only two years old, making it, relatively speaking, the new kid on the programming block. “There are lots of people who want to eat your lunch and you want to stay ahead,” says Murphy, who admits that various CBC format changes nationwide, including to Atlantic Canadian coverage, in the past 10 to 15 years, have caused confusion among the CBC Nova Scotia audience. And recent ratings show that the programs have a long way to go before they pose a serious challenge to CTV. CBC News: Nova Scotia at 6 finished 17th in the spring 2011 prime time ratings (BBM publishes a report on ratings and viewership numbers twice a year), with the 5 and 5:30 p.m. shows finishing even lower.

Meanwhile, back at CTV Atlantic, the staff have been working hard to make sure they don’t get lost in the 21st century social media and technology shuffle. In an effort to make the shows as accessible as possible, the station recently created its own interactive website to replace the previous static page and frequently uploads pictures and videos, including stories, interviews and popular Live at 5 segments, such as “Milestones” (viewers’ birthdays and anniversaries) and “Weather Watchers” (weather-related drawings submitted to the show by younger viewers). All the hosts have their own Facebook fan pages and post status updates about the show.

But is simply having a website and social media presence enough for CTV Atlantic to stay ahead of the pack? For one thing, CBC and Global have also expanded their online content and are taking advantage of social media. Sue Newhook believes that these developments have advantages and disadvantages. With more platforms come larger workloads for already stretched staff. “You’re asking people to do more with less,” says the journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax. “It’s been a long time since anyone simply went home at six,” she says of staff’s increasing responsibility.

Another challenge the internet poses is competition for advertising. According to Gumbert, Google is now a significant advertising competitor in every market because local businesses have shifted ad dollars to the internet giant to advertise everything from barber shops to cleaning services to restaurants.

The three most common suggestions that AR&D makes to its clients are to air local news at different time periods, spend lots of time on investigative and in-depth reporting and make sure that  they have the right personalities and talent. That last one doesn’t seem to be a problem for CTV Atlantic—its hosts and reporters are respected and recognized in the communities they report in. Besides its flagship shows, CTV Atlantic also has a morning and afternoon show.

Being a package that covers the entire Maritimes, the CTV shows have always faced criticism over which province gets the most coverage and which gets the least. “People in Nova Scotia often think we do too much New Brunswick news, people that live in New Brunswick think we do too much Nova Scotia news, people that live in P.E.I. think somewhere in between,” says Dobson, who is also a Live at 5 producer. “That’s the nature of being a regional program.”

Whether or not the show’s brand of the news can be considered hard journalism is debatable. The purpose of the show has always been to explain how the stories reported on CTV News at Six are important to Maritimers. During the lead up to the 2011 Canadian federal election, CTV News at Six covered campaign events and the candidates, while Live at 5 looked at issues such as apathy among young voters. The 5 p.m. show focuses on the “magazine” side of newsmagazine.

As for its sister show, recent examples of investigative reporting are harder to find. Current or past hosts, reporters or staff are more likely to mention CTV’s breaking coverage in the show’s early and middle years: the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, the 1995 G7 summit in Halifax or the Swissair Flight 111 crash off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, in 1998.

Steve Murphy—who has interviewed many noteworthy political figures in his long career—made news in 2008, after an unedited version of an interview he conducted with Stéphane Dion during the federal election campaign ran on CTV News at Six (and then across the country). The then Liberal Party leader had trouble understanding Murphy’s questions and asked to restart the interview several times. After the show aired the unedited interview, it received angry complaints from viewers who thought it unfair. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found Murphy’s question confusing and reprimanded CTV for airing the uncut version.  But CTV management made it clear it felt Murphy was “unfairly criticized.”

At this year’s annual Atlantic Journalism Awards, the award for “Best TV News Broadcast” went to CBC News: Nova Scotia at 6, with the silver finalists being CBC News Compass (based in Charlottetown, P.E.I.) and Global Maritimes’s Global Evening News (based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia). While the 6 p.m. show’s current field reporters are competent, more competition has meant more shows are covering the same stories. Simply put, there are more fish in a small pond competing for suppertime news supremacy in Atlantic Canada.

Regardless, the CTV suppertime shows remain at the top of the ratings. Paul Mennier, a formerLive at 5 sports anchor and co-host who occasionally hosted CTV News at Six, likes to quote a line that was a favourite of Live at 5’s former senior producer Ian Morrison: “No one likes us except the people.” And for now, at least, that appears to be enough.

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About the author

Max Mertens was the Blog Editor for the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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