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The Disconnect of Killing 'Connect with Mark Kelley'

Why CBC's inventive, highest rated original news program got unplugged.

Nicole Blanchett Neheli 18 May 2012J-Source

Nicole Blanchett Neheli is J-Source's Field Notes editor.

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'Connect with Mark Kelley': no 'cookie-cutter' newscast.

Connect with Mark Kelley is the highest rated original program on CBC News Network (CBCNN). It's experienced "phenomenal growth" and management has nothing but praise for the show.

So why is it being cancelled?

According to News Network's executive director, Todd Spencer, the show is expensive to produce, and after recent government funding cuts there isn't enough money to keep it on the air.

Spencer said, "I could continue to have an hour of Connect each night and have colour bars for four or five hours the rest of the day."

The loss of Connect may not seem like a big deal -- news shows come and go all the time. But Connect explores daily news in a format outside the cookie-cutter newscasts that are now the norm.

Show's social feel will live on: Spencer

While researching and writing my Master's thesis I wrote a blog on how Connect could be a blueprint to save quality daily news.

Back then, Mark Kelley told me he didn't think Connect was the wave of the future because "people didn't believe in it." When I asked him who "people" were he said "management."

However, in an internal email sent out after the cut was announced, executive director Spencer said, "Every night, Connect with Mark Kelley demonstrates original production techniques, intuitive story selection, creative style and authenticity. But above all else the show takes risks, and the audience noticed."

Loyal viewers swarmed the Twitterverse when news of the show's demise leaked out, and there is a "Save Connect" Facebook page.

The social media response is not surprising, because one of the things Connect did well was establish a social media presence -- thanks in large part to Jennifer Hollett.

Hollett's position of cross platform producer was cut last year. It was designed not only to engage the audience online, but shed light on stories and find sources a lot of mainstream news programs were missing.

Contacted in the U.S. where she is now doing post-grad studies, Hollett said, "I really hope parts of Connect will be sprinkled throughout CBCNN, especially social media experimentation, the conversational feel and stories with a viral quality."

That is what Spencer is planning to do: "We'll be dispersing the staff through the rest of News Network and we hope that they'll spread that kind of risk-taking and storytelling into the rest of the channel."

'Tight little machine'

But that won't replace the fast-moving train of interesting information that viewers can now enjoy for an hour every weeknight -- conducted by Kelley.

On a recent program, Kelley did a segment comparing the pop-culture version of a terrorist to the "bungling losers" whose terrorist plots fail.

He asked the question, "So why does there always seem to be a new recruit ready to pull on the next pair of exploding underwear?" and talked to a former member of New York's Counter Terrorism Bureau about his first-hand experience dealing with suicide bombers.

After some more traditional news hits, Kelley switched to a fascinating interview with a woman who had served as jury foreman on a high profile U.S. child molestation case. The news peg for this guest was the Michael Rafferty trial in the sexual assault and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford.

Hearing someone speak about the experience of judging the fate of another human being, no matter what a monster they might be, provided incredible insight into what it must be like to sit on the Rafferty jury.

And to mark the death of Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, the intrepid chase producers found an award-winning children's illustrator who was a former student of Sendak's.

This is what separates Connect from the pack -- its team focuses efforts on hunting down guests who are chosen particularly because of their life experiences, not their designation as an expert. They offer a different voice from the usual parade of specialists that are used again and again on other programs.

But that search for interesting people takes a lot of people power.

A colleague told me she wasn't that surprised that Connect was getting cancelled because of the size of the staff: there were too many people, especially producers, working on the show.

I asked one of the research subjects of my thesis who works for Connect, and has over 20 years of experience in the industry, if he felt the show was overstaffed. He completely disagreed. That source said Connect has 25 employees, both editorial and technical, producing five hours a week of original programming:

"Compared to a lot of shows I've worked on where you have those people that you don't know what they do, this one is a tight little machine."

And as Spencer pointed out, "Really, really, great journalism costs money." He said there are no extraneous positions -- cutting jobs to save the show wasn’t an option.

I asked Spencer if other solutions for saving Connect had been considered, like taking money from a more traditional, big-budget show like The National. Spencer said every department had faced cuts, including The National, and there's just no money leftover.

CBC of the future

The constant struggle of public broadcasters is balancing quality programming with shrinking resources. And how the CBC spends its money is always a controversial topic. CBC was under fire recently for its splashy fall launch and sending 14 TV execs to the Banff World Media Festival.

But despite the most recent round of funding cuts, Spencer doesn't feel the current political climate is "any worse for CBC than other political climates have been."

He also said, "This not going to take us off track of what our mission is, which is to continue to do great, original journalism and to be there for Canadians on all levels [platforms] that Canadians want us to be on."

CBC just announced that there will be three new hours of live programming on News Network originating from Vancouver and hosted by Ian Hanomansing. In an email, Spencer said it "positions CBCNN as truly round the clock and live, with a big commitment to Western Canada."

The network is also investing in exploring new ways to engage the audience, like the second screen technology on Evan Solomon's Power and Politics.

Viewers can interact with the show as it airs by providing Tweets that are put on screen immediately, and participating in polls that can be used, for example, to verify a politician's claims that people don't care about an issue.

Spencer says the plan is to move the second screen technology through the network to allow the audience to shape programming in a meaningful way. They've also just introduced a new interactive touch screen to allow breaking news reporters to play video and take in social media.

Audience engagement is essential in today's news environment, and "sprinkling" Connect's uniqueness throughout News Network programming could in fact improve other shows.

But without a show structure that allows for such transparent communication with the audience, the person-power to book such unique guests, and a regular time slot for viewers to tune in, it's just as likely that sprinkle will be lost in a deluge of more typical daily news coverage.

When Connect clears the airwaves on June 22, it will be a blow to both its loyal viewers and innovative journalism.  [Tyee]

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