In the middle of a cattle feedlot, an hour south of Calgary, Kevin Newman is sitting in a rental car. It’s 3:05 in the afternoon on May 20, 2003, and his show, Global National News with Kevin Newman (GN), is 25 minutes to air. Newman is thinking about mad cows and what he will do if the satellite truck doesn’t arrive within the next 60 seconds. The camera operator, lent to him by a local Calgary affiliate of CanWest Global Communications Corp., is ready and waiting. In the background, hundreds of cows are mooing and munching at the feed station. Maybe it’s time for a rain dance.
Rewind four-and-a-half hours. Newman huddles with staff in his Burnaby, British Columbia, studio. The mad cow story is huge, they decide, and they need a pasture to do it justice. Writers and researchers leap to the phones to find a willing farmer, a satellite truck, and airplane tickets. The flight happens first.
After landing in Calgary, Newman and staff producer Erin Lawrence head for the car rental. The cell phone rings: “Drive south!” researcher Luke Bryant shouts. “We’ll find a ranch to broadcast from.” Ten minutes later, another call comes in. The first stop is High River to pick up a local veterinarian, who guides them to the feedlot. Newman researches his story and writes his script in the backseat while Lawrence drives.
At 3:06, a cloud of dust appears on the horizon – it’s the satellite truck. Everyone races to string cables and connections across ground carpeted with cow pies. Eight minutes to air: the satellite link is secure, but no audio. The satellite truck operator, a freelancer tracked down by Newman’s staff, hustles with intense calm between truck and camera, testing connections.
Finally, two minutes to air, the audio works.
It’s 3:30. The cameras roll. A relaxed, affable, suitably concerned Newman reads the entire broadcast – reporters’ pieces notwithstanding – from his handwritten script. It’s word perfect.
The crew starts packing up. The minor miracle is that GN has done it again.
As it turns out, the word-perfect reading helped make the piece good enough for a 2003 Gemini Award nomination for Best News Anchor. And that’s not the only accolade Newman has earned; at ABC News, he took home a 2000 Peabody Award for the network’s millennium coverage and an Emmy Award for Outstanding News and Documentary Program Achievement. At GN, he and his team have won six Radio Television News Directors awards, four Leo Awards and a BC Film Institute award.
Three-and-a-half years since launching GN, the 45-year-old Newman is widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s leading broadcast journalists. According to Nielsen Media Research, his show – especially strong with western viewers – is challenging CBC’s august flagship, The National, for the No. 2 national newscast spot . It’s a remarkable feat for an upstart on a budget.
Still, it’s not yet clear if GN is what the public wants. Newman himself thrives on the challenge, but whether the show succeeds in the long run depends not on awards, or on how smart or determined or driven he is, or even on how secure his competitors are; it depends on whether his personality and his kind of news are what 21st century viewers want to grow old to.
For most journalists, the opportunity would present a delicious dilemma – headline a Canadian news network for less money, or stay in an enviable job in the United States for more money. Newman, after all, is a high-profile correspondent for Nightline with Ted Koppel, ABC Inc. television’s blue-ribbon journalism show in New York, and for World News Tonight. He has substituted for anchor Peter Jennings – who calls him “a very natural broadcaster” and “a lovely writer” – and chances are, he’ll be made an international correspondent. His earnings are less than the million he is reported to have made when he coanchored Good Morning America in 1998, but much better than what he could expect to earn as a Canadian national news anchor.
The untried job in British Columbia is a gamble, but in his heart, Newman knows he wants to come home with his wife to raise their two children here. In his head, the desire to create his own kind of newscast and put his face on a major new show is visceral. Still, wanting it doesn’t make it less risky. His competition will be CTV NEWS’s Lloyd Robertson and CBC NEWS’s Peter Mansbridge, both of whom have been in place for what seems like forever. As Newman knows, it takes a good 10 years to build viewer loyalty and trust. Simply replicating the two anchors would be a mistake. He would have to be different and relevant. To go forward is to risk everything – security at ABC, stimulating work at Nightline, the possibility of being the next Jennings. Newman is venturing that he can create a program so solid, distinctive, and appealing that it competes with CBC Broadcasting Inc.’s and CTV INC.’s evening news programs.
But what if he miscalculates? What if his vision doesn’t fly? Worse, what if CanWest Global pulls the plug after its initial five-year commitment? So many “what ifs,” but to not go forward would eat away at him forever.
And there are crucial factors on the plus side. Global offers an opportunity to start fresh – free from the restrictions of bureaucracy or traditions. Broadcasting from the West Coast would distinguish GN as an outside voice, separate from the central Canadian orientation of CBC and CTV, says Ken MacDonald, the former Global news vice president who recruited Newman.
So in February 2001, Newman elects to leave ABC, seven years after the network recruited him away from cohosting CBC Midday in Toronto. He wants this new job badly enough that he agrees to shoestrings and bare bones – constraints his competition would, no doubt, find unthinkable. Intriguingly, he loves the idea of coming in as the underdog, coming to what he calls his “best job ever.”
After seven months of intense preparation, GN launches on September 3, 2001. Broadcast on weekdays only, the show airs at supper hour across the country, and at 11:15 P.M. in the Maritimes (the show recently moved to seven days a week). Members of a team of 10 – made up of writers, producers, a line-up editor, an assignment editor, and an executive editor – meld in tone and style under Newman’s coaching, as he sets out to establish his distinctive brand. Then, six working days after the launch, the fledgling crew is severely tested. The Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies force them to morph from new kid on the block to authoritative voice. Drawing on Newman’s experience and instinct, the show broadcasts non-stop for 17 hours. Reviewers noticed: “The credit goes almost entirely to anchor Kevin Newman who showed the same poise under pressure that garnered him national attention in the U.S. when he anchored ABC’s breaking news coverage of the death of Princess Diana,” wrote Tony Atherton, who was then a TV-columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Newman’s presence, he went on, gave the coverage “a weight that the other Canadian broadcasters had to catch up to.”
As was his loyalty to family. When Newman was 15, his father, a Bell Canada manager, moved out, and he had to step into the role of family protector. Dual threads of responsibility and ambition run deep and compete for attention in his life. To this day, he remains extremely close to his mother.
Opting for political science instead of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, Newman tried out student radio broadcasting and enjoyed it. Immediately after graduating in 1981, he landed work as a general assignment reporter and coffee runner at Global Television in Toronto. His idol was station news anchor Peter Truman. Ray Heard, then the vice president of news and current affairs at Global, remembers Newman as one of the brightest young hires. “Right from day one, you could tell that he was going to go a long way.”
There, Newman met his wife Cathy Kearns, then an entertainment reporter. Christina Pochmursky, who also worked at Global at the time, remembers urging the painfully shy Newman to approach Kearns. Newman recalls, “They had a pool because she was the office hottie, and I was the office nerd. They said, ‘She’ll dump him in a week.'” Instead, the two were married in June 1985.
In 1987, Newman moved to CTV to work as parliamentary correspondent and then in 1989 to CBC as parliamentary correspondent and substitute anchor for The National. He was cohosting the Midday show with Tina Srebotnjak in 1994, when ABC News from New York came calling. He was off in a heartbeat.
For four years, Newman worked for ABC as anchor and correspondent on several World News programs. But many remember his very public failure cohosting ABC’s Good Morning America with Lisa McRee. In May 1998, they were paired together to stanch a ratings slide. Eight months later, the fresh-faced Canadian with the impeccable news credentials and McRee were fired. The slide had accelerated during their short tenure.
At the time, the public didn’t know Newman’s personal life had also imploded. On February 14, 1997, his sister Kelly, a 34-year-old police officer in Mississauga, died without warning from a brain tumour, leaving behind an 11-month-old baby girl. Brother and sister had been especially close. Then, in August 1998, his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Newman recalls the bruising year: “I should have been able to rise above it, because the truth is, other people do it. Katie Couric, who had a terrible personal tragedy, rose above it and didn’t show it. I wasn’t strong enough to do that.” At the same time, his newsman self was yelling in his head, “What am I doing talking about folding sweaters? Who gives a screw about that?” Tragedy had dramatically shifted his perspective. Barbara Walters counseled him. “You have to work harder than ever and do the most serious journalism of your life,” he recalls her saying. Determined to put professional humiliation behind him, Newman asked for – and won – a job as a correspondent with Nightline with Ted Koppel. “They hadn’t given up on me,” he says. “You don’t just tell Koppel you want to be there.”
National news broadcasts are losing young viewers with ominous speed. The trend, which affects newspapers as well, began in the mid-1980s, when specialty cable channels began to splinter off viewing audiences, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization that is part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In the United States, ratings for ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts have dropped nearly 44 per cent since 1980, and the average age of American national news viewers is now almost 60. Nielsen indicates that Canadian viewership of the three major newscasts has declined 12.1 per cent since 1999. In Canada, the average age of viewers is 56.
That’s a big problem in an industry where the Holy Grail is younger, 25- to 54-year-old viewers. Michael Harris, a vice president of Corus Entertainment Inc. and former head of CBC Newsworld, says people tend to get more interested in the news as they age, but, except for drug companies, advertisers generally prefer specific lower-age categories, especially 18 to 49 and 25 to 54. Harris says, staccato-like, “Takes 20 ads to switch older people. Only two ads to switch younger. Ads aim at people who are just forming their buying habits.”
The problem is, younger viewers now grow up with little or no history or habit of sitting down to watch the news. There is little regeneration of the audience. Many options – including cable news, newsmagazine programs, and even fake news such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – compete for their attention. Increasingly, the Internet plays a role, too: it’s convenient, unsanitized, and diverse.
Newman faces another daily challenge as daunting as the prospect of fighting audience shrinkage: the clock. Broadcasting live from the West Coast to Central Canada means his team must wrap up a full day of production by 3:30 P.M. Pacific Standard Time (PST).
Every day, time is a pressing taskmaster – more for GN than for its competitors. Executive producer George Browne calls it the daily miracle.
There’s also the matter of GN’s time slot. Canada, in contrast to the United States, has no tradition of suppertime national news. Dinner hour is the most challenging slot of the day; fewer people are at home because commute times are longer and lifestyles have changed. Late evening news shows, on the other hand, draw people when they are settled for the night, and ready for a summing up.
What’s more, GN’s suppertime time slot begins on the half hour (except in the Prairies). Audiences, says Newman, are conditioned to “appointment viewing” at the top of the hour. This means he contends with a preceding hour of lead-in local news that often covers big national or international stories. Throughout the day, he is forever asking his staff: “What’s a different angle for this story? What hasn’t been reported on it yet?”
Given all this, it’s tempting to wonder why GN bothered with the supper-hour slot at all. Newman says flatly that the late hour was too crowded. David K. Foot, a professor in the department of economics at the University of Toronto, comments that it is better to take a not-so-coveted slot and give it a much better newscast. Going on air at 11 P.M. would have meant a tilt with the dominant program, CTV News with Lloyd Robertson. Going on air at 10 P.M. against The National with Peter Mansbridge would have meant putting news on at a time when Global could be drawing bigger audiences and larger revenues with shows like Without a Trace and Judging Amy.
These issues aside, what grinds Newman down daily is money – there’s nowhere near enough of the stuff for him to play on an even field. Not one of the three broadcasters will reveal its budget numbers, but it is reasonable to conclude that GN operates with less than half of CTV’s budget, and just over a third of CBC’s.
This translates into a dedicated staff of 30 and a part-time staff of 20 for GN, compared with 200 for CTV. CBC gives the number 700, but that includes all CBC news programming. “We still don’t have any capital infrastructure unique to Global National – we graft a lot onto local newscasts,” says Newman. “We don’t own a single edit suite; we borrow them from each local station. We have three cameramen in the whole system.”
GN has no full-time overseas reporters; instead, it uses a battery a freelancers. When a foreign news story breaks, Global dispatches a beat reporter on a plane, who often arrives behind the competition, which can move a full team on a moment’s notice. When tropical storm Jeanne hit Haiti in September 2004, CTV’s coverage was almost completed before 27-year-old GN reporter Lauren McNabb arrived. Still, she found a fresh angle, staying for eight days to report on the distribution of Canadian aid.
Even without infrastructure, innovations in technology have helped make it possible to present a professional newscast. About the time that GN launched, new editing software became available for Macintosh G4 laptop computers. A G4, a digital camera, and access to a satellite connection make a reporter in the field the news-production equivalent of a one-man band. For GN’s foreign location reporting, Newman relies on this technology.
Newman also relies on his core group in GN’s Burnaby studio. Less than a dozen drive the show, and they don’t pay attention to formal job descriptions; they just do what needs to be done. “I know the numbers our competitors have to do the same half-hour program,” he says. “You cannot sustain the level of quality without people seeing this as an opportunity for growth.” Brian Liu, national research coordinator, says that at GN he has learned in a few months what would have taken two years or more to learn at CBC, where he once worked for 18 months, nine of which were as associate producer.
Newman’s mission is clear: draw more viewers (young viewers in particular), make the most of tight resources, and do it every day by 3:30 P.M. PST. He learned from Koppel how to develop a program that minimizes weaknesses and accentuates strengths. GN showcases his likeability, his passion for news, his desire to be just this side of irreverent, and his relative youth. Those strengths are all within budget. Newman tries to position his program away from CBC and CTV presentations, which he finds overly formal and predictable – seven or eight reporter items, each introduced by the anchor, all lined up “like boxcars.” Instead, he opts for fewer stories and a flexible, fluid line-up. “Part of that, to be honest,” he says, “is that we don’t have nearly the number of reporters. I do a lot more of the writing and telling of the story.”
On any given night, the three competing newscasts begin with about 12 minutes of solid news – the top stories. GN, however, clusters several related stories around the opener. Newman will often also deliver a background lesson to introduce a story. On November 9, 2004, he instructed us, for instance, on the significance of Ramadan, with a calendar and PowerPoint-like chart. Sometimes, in a line up of related items, he delivers a mini-editorial, as he did when Yasser Arafat died, elaborating on the man who “through violence, stubbornness, and guile gave voice to a people.”
And Newman breaks from the standard voice-of-authority approach with asides to his audience. On October 27, 2004, for example, he told viewers that GN staff were finding themselves less and less certain of how to handle the stream of videos from captors of Iraqi hostages. He appealed directly to viewers, asking for advice about whether to air the images, as the staff worked to develop a policy. Newman believes the media will earn more respect if they are honest and transparent about these kinds of ethical issues.
Refreshingly, Newman doesn’t hesitate to inject his point of view, though the results can be mixed. On December 30, 2004, he warned viewers of becoming blasé about the endless and numbing pictures of the tsunami disaster. It came across as a lecture – and a patronizing one at that. “It’s all too easy to turn away in any crisis. At this point, the numbers have been coming at you for five days now. They can begin to seem less shocking. The numbers are so numbingly large that it’s easy to forget they represent people who were killed in an instant.”
On CTV News, Robertson never deviates from the crisp, straight-ahead, authoritative delivery. Wendy Freeman, the executive producer, says viewers have a deep trust in Robertson, which is built on comfort and predictability. That works for older viewers, but the coveted younger audience might respond better to Newman’s informal approach. It’s rare that he pushes his informality too far. He is friendly but not gushy; authoritative but not stern. Blessed with a clear, strong voice, he occasionally entertains his audience. On January 28, 2005, the show had a little fun with the merger of the Coors and Molson brewing companies. It aired the famous Molson “I Am Canadian” commercial, except with cheeky subtitles: As Joe says, “The beaver is a noble and glorious animal,” the subtitle reads, “And eagles are nice too.” Newman skipped the usual closing tagline: “Thanks for spending your time with us this evening,” he chuckled to himself.
Newman writes his own script and vets all other writing for the show. “I have a scary amount of editorial control,” he says, “because there is no one else who scripts what I say.” Any jabs at authority are his. “National news was just not relevant to anybody under 45,” he claims. “We want to pull in more irreverence – try to borrow some of the positioning that Jon Stewart has. You know he’s pointing to the side of absurdity.” In the lead-up to the coronation of Paul Martin as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, for example, Newman noticed that no one in the media commented on the dearth of competition for the country’s top job. During several newscasts, production staff superimposed a crown on pictures of Martin’s head. Another time, Newman juxtaposed a story of destitute Thai tsunami victims with that of a Thai princess and her entourage of 16 arriving at Whistler, British Columbia, on January 14, 2005, to stay in a $1,300-per-night hotel room.
After being in the United States for seven years, Newman was struck by how Canadian newscasts seemed stale with the same familiar faces. “You need young people on air, young reporters that are angry and want to trash authority and challenge it. Of all the national newscasts, our show has more of the young bucks of TV journalism.” Roughly 65 per cent of his staff are younger than 35.
Ratings point to how close the show is to the mark. From August 30 to November 28, 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research, on average, each night, CTV News at 11 P.M. drew 867,000, GN at 6:30 P.M. pulled in 671,000, and CBC’s The National at 10 P.M. had 646,000 viewers. As for success with drawing younger viewers, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement numbers, at least the ones provided by a senior member at GN, show that GN is holding its own against CTV, but gaining in the 18 to 49 age group at the expense of CBC.
Geography tells another side of the story. GN dominates in British Columbia and Western Canada, where six of the nine stations showing GN are located. In British Columbia, it pulls in more than double the number of viewers of CBC or CTV. But in Ontario, where over half of all national news viewers live, CTV draws close to double the viewers of its competitors. “Our Toronto numbers,” acknowledges Newman, “are really poor.”
The No. 1 news program, CTV News, reliably pulls almost one million viewers. (It doesn’t hurt that five nights a week CTV leads into its newscast with such top 20 ratings powerhouses as Law and Order and CSI: NY.) Still, Newman’s achievement is remarkable, says Trina McQueen, former senior executive at both CTV and CBC, and a member of the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. Peter McNelly, a trainer and coach for reporters and editors at CTV News, says that Newman “almost single-handedly made Global National News a respectable and innovative force in Canadian journalism.”
Accolades aside, Newman says the show has gone as far as it can with the budget it has – but there are signs of change. Global extended GN to seven days a week in February and hired nine new staff members to handle the extra load. And at CanWest’s annual meeting held in Toronto on January 27, 2005, chief executive officer Leonard Asper said one of the company’s priorities is to improve ratings overall at Global.
As a condition of purchasing several western TV stations, CanWest promised the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission it would create a third national news broadcast. It is theoretically possible that Global might pull the plug after the initial five-year commitment ends in October 2006. But, after wondering for a long stretch whether the network would sustain the show, Newman is now hopeful, saying, “I really want this thing to grow and flower.”
To ease his aching back, Newman slides into an expensive Aeron office chair – his only visible perk – and, suddenly, he’s lost in his computer. In this skeletal operation, wedged inside a local television station in suburban Burnaby, Newman is doing what he does best – driving GN forward relentlessly.
Newman may be our national Boy Scout leader – he’s earnest, eager, slightly geeky, and no one has a nasty word to say about him – but don’t be disarmed. He built GN from nothing to a contender in three-and-a-half years flat. This kind of ambition doesn’t stop at creating a younger brand of news telling for Canadian viewers. No, Kevin Newman has his gaze firmly fixed on the prize: “I want a show that’s threatening CTV.”