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“Four minutes to air!” Four minutes until the launch of the fall 2997 season of programming for CPAC, the national Cable Public Affair Channel. Four minutes to the start of the season’s new political interview show called The Roundtable. Four minutes and one of the four guests scheduled to appear has still not arrived. It’s Sunday night, prime time, and there’s a show to do. A live phone-in-show, uncut and unedited, with no commercial breaks. And two hours long. It’s an ambitious move for the station once confined to being the lowly Parliamentary Channel. In the darkened studio that belongs to CTV, the station’s set furniture has been moved to one side to make room for CPAC’s small, round table. A large window overlooking Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, bathed in spotlights in the evening darkness, provides a backdrop. Three MPs—Liberal, Conservative and Reform—sit around the table with the show’s moderator, Martin Stringer. “Three minutes to air!” The floor director removes the empty chair where NDP house leader Bill Blaikie was to sit. If he shows up late, they’ll have to find a way to get him into the discussion. “Thirty seconds!” But he’s not just late, he’s not coming. Turns out he simply forgot—misscheduled, actually. “Three, two, one….” Bet he would’ve been here if it were CTV.

Perhaps CPAC’s reputation, born of its dull beginnings, is partly to blame for Blaikie’s absence. When it first began in 1977, it broadcast the House of Commons for the 20 per cent of the month that it sits and a blue and gold sign that said “The Parliamentary Channel” the other 80 per cent. While it is still the station that broadcasts the House of Commons debates, since 1992 it has also aired raw; unedited footage of conferences and speeches when the House isn’t sitting. And for the past year and a half it has been much more than that. The Roundtable is just one of 22 original programs in CPAC’s new lineup—the culmination of four years of work transforming CPAC from the Parliamentary Channel to a station of meaningful political journalism.

A caller is on the line. She says the Reform Party doesn’t get enough respect as the official opposition. “I hope you’re there forever,” she tells the Reform MP. But Stringer misunderstands. “Who?” he asks, thinking the comment is directed at him. his face reddens as he realizes his error. The control room erupts in laughter, and the director quips, “Martin was disappointed.”

Disappointed, but not surprised. CPAC’s licence under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission does not allow the station to develop television “personalities.” Hosts of CPAC interview shows are interchangeable. They are meant to facilitate conversation and debate but were cautioned against forging a relationship with the audience. Most importantly, their opinions are not allowed on camera; they are forbidden to influence a debate or interview. “It is not a platform for the moderator,” says Martha Wilson, CPAC’s general manager from its inception until December 1997. “The programs are not driven by the personality of the host, where the audience becomes attached to the host as much as they do to the guest.”

Instead, CPAC is driven by what its director of programming, Barry Conway, calls social responsibility journalism, or “noncommercial attempts to capture reality, for the greater good.” For example: CPAC is probably the only station that would, and did, broadcast a 1996 weeklong AIDS conference in its entirety. Conway likens CPAC’s role in the media to the long-format style of magazine journalism, citing The Atlantic Monthly, which still runs 10,000-word articles, Harper’s For the Record section, which prints transcripts of important statements or speeches, and Utne Reader which runs stories the mainstream press won’t cover.

“People think we’re not in the news business because we show long-format journalism and not 30-second clips,” he says. But CPAC is “access to public affairs at the grassroots end, very fast and in full format.” He says the speed with which it gets to air is what makes it news. “My commitment is to give people what they need to know, when they need to know it. Some people call that broadcast journalism. Some people see that as news.”

So that more people will see it that way, CPAC’s promotional material speaks of broadcasting “the big picture” and says, “When you edit content you edit meaning.” A glass of water is not half empty or half full, a TV spot that runs between programs on the channel attests, “it’s just a glass with water in it.” But what is now a philosophical statement—unedited footage with no voice-over—started out as a requirement of the station’s broadcast licence, imposed by the CRTC.

CPAC was conceived as an idea in the late 1970s when Phil Lid, then vice-president of U.S. operations for Rogers Cablesystems, wanted to create a Canadian version of C-SPAN, the U.S. Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network. Around the same time, the House of Commons feed in Canada began airing on a channel run and maintained by the CBC. Lind’s idea to include originated programming and interview shows grew more serious in 1988 when he organized a consortium of 30 cable companies to form a joint venture with the CBC. But in 1991, the CBC backed out of the arrangement, protesting Mulroney-era budget cuts. So the cable consortium began discussions to fund the 24-hour network on its own.

The following year, with an experimental two-year licence from the CRTC and a staff of two (Martha Wilson and her assistant), what is now CPAC took to the airways as the Cable Parliamentary Channel. The station occupied a tiny office in the Sparks Street press building, a block south of Parliament Hill. In addition to the House feed, it carried sporadic additional programming of conferences and speeches, but the station was not journalism by anyone’s standards. In its second year, for example, it televised an unmoving shot of the fireplace from the Quebec hotel Château Montebello on Christmas Day.

In spring 1995, the CRTC granted CPAC, a seven-year licence. Staff increased to 14. By September, staff had doubled again and the station moved into a new office in the grand World Exchange Plaza, across the hall from CTV’s Ottawa bureau. Barry Conway, formerly with CBC Radio, both as national editor on Sunday Morning and a producer with As it Happens, was brought in a director of programming to make CPAC’s station of hard-hitting news and journalism. The day he started, he says, footage of the Lake Couchiching Conference, shot three months earlier, was still being replayed Conway implemented four formats for programming: live, prime-time interview programs hard news broadcast later the same day, current affairs aired within 24 hours and feature-length footage within seven days.

But when CPAC applied to the CRTC for its seven-year broadcasting licence, CBC launched an objection, claiming the station was planning to cross too far into journalism. Some journalist in Ottawa say CBC Newsworld is threatened by CPAC, though none of the journalists at Newsworld interviewed for this story will acknowledge this. While the new interview programs and coverage of press conferences and speeches do put CPAC in competition with Newsworld, next to TSN and YTV, is one of the highest-rated specialty stations on cable television. CPAC, along with WTN and multicultural broadcaster VisionTV, is among the lowest.

The CRTC deemed the CBC’s objection a routine reaction to a perceived competitor. CPAC got its licence and in October 1996 made the transition to journalism with a gala relaunch that introduced the first of its new programs. Today, it operates with a staff of 37, including seven producers, an assignment editor and two full-time camera operators. CPAC produces 60 hours of original content a week (which is replayed each day throughout the week to fill airtime). The station relies on freelancers based in major cities across the country to make coverage truly national.

Viewers likely discover it while flipping channels on TV—CPAC programming isn’t carried in any TV listings. The station’s promotional literature explains that this is because its “schedules are determined on a daily basis,” based on the day’s events.

Most of the station’s original programming is on during prime-time hours. In addition to The Roundtable, there’s a one-hour interview program called A Public Life on Monday nights at 9 p.m., which has featured guests such as long-time Liberal politician Mitchell Sharp and AIDS activist Janet Connors. First Person, CPAC’s flagship one-hour phone-in-show, launched in the ’96 season, runs on Tuesdays and has been host to federal cabinet ministers. Democracy Abroad on Wednesday nights is an hour of interviews with foreign officials like Iraqi and South African diplomats. The Senate on Fridays is a moderated panel discussion with parliamentary committee members and senators.

With this many original programs in its lineup, viewer response ought to be lively. But the lonely video booth for CPAC’s public opinion program vox pop—à la Toronto based Citytv’s Speaker’s Corner—almost always sits vacant despite its location in the busy main concourse of the World Exchange Plaza. The metallic silver booth has “vox pop” spelled out in blue neon. Inside, bilingual instructions say that for the cost of a loonie (to charity), anyone can voice an opinion on CPAC. An issue of the week is posted and people can talk for up to a minute. The booth has been there for about a year, but the response has been poor. Martha Wilson has seen some of the few spots recorded in the booth. “People think it’s a photo booth,” she says. “They put their dollar in there and they just sit there. It’s quite hilarious.”

Others have had their own laughs over CPAC: the comedy troupe of CBC Televison’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, for instance. Spoofing CPAC’s coverage of the 1997 federal elections (modelled on CPAC style, but with more edits), Rick Mercer plays an NDP candidate campaigning door-to-door—except people keep slamming doors in his face. Coverage continues. Doors slam. Cameras keep rolling. More doors slam. The political satire team Double Exposure (formerly of CBC Radio but now on CTV) paid tribute to the station’s full coverage of the Krever, Westray and Somalia inquiries with the plug line “All hearings…all the time!” CBC’s media and technology program, Undercurrents, ran a piece called “Allure of the Boring,” which looked with amazement at people who watch what most would consider painfully dull. The objects of their fascination? The black and white security can cable channel (a fixed camera trained on the entrance of an apartment building), the Sammy’s Souvlaki Website (a 24-hour camera shot, updated every 20 minutes, of the exterior of a London, Ontario, souvlaki shop)—and CPAC.

C-SPAN, the network’s American counterpart, is also a station that people like a laugh at. In 1995, Paragon Cable of New York forced customers to pay outstanding bills by replacing all channels with C-SPAN. “Money is pouring in,” the company reported just after the plan was launched. The two channels have even garnered mention on an episode of Seinfeld. Kramer to Jerry: “Listen, is it all right if I watch a tape in here?” Jerry: “Why here?” Kramer: “Well, I’m taping Canadian Parliament, you know, on C-SPAN.”

It’s the type of station few—Kramer aside—will admit to watching. Perhaps the problem, for CPAC anyway, is the straightjacket of restrictions imposed by the CRTC. It’s not allowed to have the traditional elements of a news network: a news desk and reporters. Its CRTC licence requires it to broadcast an uncut feed from the House and permits it to carry other public affairs programming only if covered in a similar style.

The uncut format series a financial purpose as well. With no expensive postproduction costs, programming is cheap for CPAC—it operates with a relatively small budget of $34 million over seven years, or $5 million a year since the relaunch. (By comparison, CBC Newsworld’s annual budget is in excess of $50 million.) The nonprofit station is entirely funded by what is now a group of more than 100 cable companies, and the cost works out to a few cents per subscriber. In addition, the House feed is supplied and funded by the federal government.

The budget may be small, but it would still be a waste of $5 million a year is no viewers watched the station. CPAC does draw a loyal contingent of political junkies. A telephone line set up to log viewer comments recorded over 3,000 calls between January and May 1997. “I would like to commend Martin Stringer for his demeanour,” one caller said. “He has the sense to ask a question…then shut up until the interviewee responds. He could teach the people at the CBC a few things.” “I notice you have the Red Cross on there now, snivelling about how they are not to blame,” said another. “You know, I am glad you put these people on so we can see how they operate.”

According to Martha Wilson, 7.5 million households receive the station in basic cable packages. Of those, A.C. Neilsen ratings show that CPAC grabs the attention of two million viewers weekly; a third of whom are university educated. Nearly half the viewers of a Friday evening program called Jurisprudence, which broadcasts Supreme Court hearings in their entirety, are women over 55 who never completed university. Coverage during the Quebec referendum, which sometimes used a split screen to show the action on the main floors of the Yes and No camps and alternated between the two during crucial moments, reached an audience of 2.7 million. It even beat CTV’s coverage, which pulled in an audience of two million, but not CBC, which drew just over three million.

Through its viewer numbers may not match CBC’s, CPAC rewards its audience with scenes they might never see elsewhere. During the August 1997 First Ministers’ Conference, television news anchors spoke dryly about the strained relations between Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and the other provincial premiers. Coverage on CPAC, however, showed Bouchard leaning back and stifling a laugh during then New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna’s awkward repletion of a speech in French.

CPAC’s cameras also capture the mood of an even, using cinema verité, a classic film technique more often associated with feature films than the news. With cinema verité, there’s no cutting; tape runs the way it’s shot. It is storytelling using a camera but no script, allowing stories to unfold on their own to convey candid realism. For CPAC’s Saturday evening program called in camera, it can mean simply letting the tape roll as striking teachers picket in front of an Ottawa school in October 1997, or showing Newfoundland correspondent Roger Bill driving around the province, attending moving sales and interviewing people about why they are leaving.

Using this technique, a cameraman will know that when someone points, he must follow the person’s finger. Because there won’t be any voice-over later, a producer must ask questions to fill in any holes on the spot. Mistakes go to air; they can’t be fixed in the edit room. It’s a demanding style of filming that can sometimes reveal how strong the medium of television truly is.

Former CBC producer Howard Bernstein introduced CPAC to the technique. “We were looking for something that they could do without breaking the rules, he says, “and at the same time still allowing them to cover the event.” Bernstein, a broadcast instructor at Ryerson’s journalism school, also covered the southern Ontario region for CPAC during the 1997 federal election and taught the station’s seven producers how cinema verité works. He had used the style of filming for years for the CBC and saw it as a perfect solution for CPAC. With mainstream news outlets focusing on short news items or features that provide analysis and context, there are few other places Canadian viewers can see history unfold before their eyes.

Another advantage to CPAC’s style of coverage is that it can sidestep pack journalism, as it did with the spring 1997 federal election. During a five-week project Conway called the Olympics of democracy, two CPAC crews crossed the country in motor homes, one travelling through northern Ontario and west to B.C. and the other heading east to the Maritimes. They covered local all-candidates meetings and followed small-town politicians as they canvassed door-to-door.

Martin Stringer remembers shooting streeter segments in Kenora, Ontario, during the campaign for vox pop. “We crossed this fellow’s backyard to get to the street. He was raking leaves and he looked up and we said, ’Can we ask you a few questions?’ He said a few things about the issues, but then he looked at us and he shook his head and the camera was still rolling and he said, ’I can’t believe you guys are here standing in my back lawn. I never thought the national media would take enough interest to be here.’”

The mainstream national media were elsewhere—following the leaders, tagging along in the luxury party coaches. For them this was the obvious story because party leaders are among the only politicians identifiable to viewers across the country. But elections are not only about leaders. They are about local candidates from small towns across the country. They are about issues and people and communities. And telling these stories requires escaping the confine of a sound bite.

After all, sound bites may be efficient but they are also uninformative. The National Media Archive, part of the right-wing Fraser Institute in Vancouver, kept a record of the CBC’s longest and shortest clips of the leaders during the first two weeks of the campaign. The shortest, at one second, is Gilles Duceppe saying, “Job, job, job.” But all of the party leaders were “featured” in sound bites of one to four seconds. Ultimately, the most memorable moments from the election have little to do with issues and more to do with images that can make an impact with a short clip—Duceppe wearing a hairnet or fretting over a lost campaign bus.

The mainstream media missed a lot of revealing scenes during the election. Leisurely coverage, for instance, of Reform MP Myron Thompson stretched out in a doughnut shop booth, chatting with the locals in Airdrie, northwest of Calgary. He had recently recovered from quadruple bypass surgery and was wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt that stretched over his girth. “That’s how he was campaigning,” Stringer says. “It was just the picture of his riding.”

Still, many say this kind of coverage does not add up to journalism. The kinder critics call CPAC programming news without a lead or unpackaged news or, as veteran CBC Newsworld anchor Don Newman puts it, “the most elementary form of journalism.” Others are more blunt. CTV reporter Roger Smith says CPAC airs the confusing “bafflegab and ancillary information” of daily scrums. CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver calls it boring television.

On the afternoon of October 7, the buzz around town is that New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna is retiring from provincial politics. Oliver is sitting in his office in the CTV Ottawa bureau, watching McKenna’s speech live on Newsworld. He interrupts each sentence with a glance over his shoulder at the TV. What he’s watching is the same type of program he’s just called boring, yet he can’t take his eyes off it. “They’re allowing people to say what they have to say at great length, which is useful, but they’re not making editorial decisions,” he says. “They’re not putting value on what people say. It’s almost like free-time political broadcasting as opposed to politics.”

He has a point, although McKenna’s speech is not on CPAC. That’s because right now CPAC is broadcasting a live feed from that House of Commons, a feed it must broadcast every day. Even if it runs overtime to overlap regularly scheduled programs. And even at the expense of breaking news. CPAC won’t run McKenna’s speech for another six hours.

“It’s the mandate, we don’t have a choice,” explains CPAC assignment editor Anne Truman. She admits that having to cover the House until 7 p.m. each evening is a constraint on CPAC’s ability to perform as a news station. “At the same time, if Newsworld’s covering McKenna, RDI’s covering McKenna, everybody’s covering McKenna, maybe it’s okay that somebody’s not covering McKenna.”

“Some journalists see us as anti-journalistic because we provide raw coverage with no commentary,” Conway says. But the station has attracted a high calibre a journalists, including Stringer, who left a job as a producer on As It Happens at CBC Radio to join CPAC. He sees his job as a career goal, as do many C-SPAN staffers who have been with the station for 19 years, from its beginning. Conway, too, left a senior position at CBC Radio and sees his position at CPAC as one of the highlights of his career.

Other journalists in Ottawa haven’t been so impressed. For some time there was doubt among them whether CPAC should be allowed to join the Parliamentary Press Gallery. “They didn’t understand us originally,” Conway says. “But now I think they see us as a legitimate partner, very different in how we conduct our business, but nonetheless, we’re journalists in the news business and there’s a real merit in what we do.”

Ironically, CPAC won membership in the gallery in November 1995 with the help of some of the same journalists who say it’s not quite journalism. Perhaps that support emerged because CPAC had made waves in Ottawa while trying to gain access to Parliamentary committee meetings. Those meetings can be televised, but only if they take place in rooms where Parliament’s cameras are set up. CPAC didn’t want an arbitrary assignment of rooms to restrict its access. Others, including Newsworld’s Don Newsman, saw this to be to their advantage as well. Newman phoned some of his friends at the helm of CTV and Global to convince them that CPAC camera crews were just like any other and should be allowed to become members of the gallery.

It’s about 20 minutes to 3 p.m. and Martin Stringer is joining his crew and other members of the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill. The Peach Tower bells start to ring as he nears the West Block. Question Period is almost over and soon MPs will be pouring out of the House of Commons into the throng of waiting reporters. This is where CPAC tapes Scrum, a one-hour show that runs weekdays at 7 p.m. CPAC records the chaos going on in the foyer of the House. And when the CPAC camera catches a scrum, it stays with it until the last question is asked. Stringer won’t be asking questions, but he still considers himself a journalist.

Health Minister Allan Rock is the first out of the doors. Journalists squeeze around him and the CPAC crew rolls tape. The crew stays with Rock, but Stringer circles the room, sticking his head and shoulders into each scrum that forms on the floor. He must direct his crew to the ones that, when strung together, will tell a logical story. And he must decide whether to keep his crew at the health minister’s scrum, which seems to be going on and on, or move it to another. If the crew leaves before Allan Rock is finished, CPAC won’t be able to play it at all. In this sense, CPAC is making editorial decisions, it is sometimes more than a fly on the wall. It’s also a truth meter that shows which MPs evaded questions and what quotes were taken out of context—or worse.

Former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae can attest to that. On June 8, 1997, the front page of Toronto’s Sunday Sun screamed that Rae had said in a speech that Conservative Premier Mike Harris was “on the right track.” The story raised a commotion in the province, but Rae maintained he never said the words that ran on theSun’s cover. He wrote an angry letter to the paper, which said, “I have seen no other interpretation or account of my remarks in any other media whih support your desperate attempt to prop up the Harris Tories. The speech itself was covered by CPAC.” The letter drew a full retraction from the Sun: “We agree you did not say the Harris government was on the right track, or its cuts necessary and we apologize.”

CPAC reveals the game between the media and politicians. Often the story is as much about journalism as it is journalism. Barry Conway says the station is redefining the trade. “After 20 years in the business,” he says, “you begin to think there’s only one way of doing things. It tells the stories that other stations don’t tell. In telling each story in its entirety, CPAC focuses the lens on parts of the political process that would otherwise go unseen.

During the Westray inquiry into the explosion at a Nova Scotia mine that killed a crew of miners, a supervisor was being questioned. He was testifying about the men who had worked for him before dying in the tragic explosion. In the middle of his testimony, overcome with emotion, he broke off to name each of the 26 men who died. It took him 59 seconds.

CPAC’s former general manager Martha Wilson was sitting at home watching the mine inquiry when it happened. “Just thinking about it now, I get goosebumps,” she says. “When you do a news report, you talk about 26 miners dead, 26 people died in the explosion. It’s not really anymore an individual when you distil it down like that. And his recitation of these 26 names from memory… Well, you’d never see that on the news. It brought home in such an incredibly powerful way what that inquiry was all about.” And what CPAC, at its best, is all about.

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About the author

Patricia D'Souza was the Executive Editor for the Summer 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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