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Vietnamese Google Rival Challenging Global Giant

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Information technologies are creating new business opportunities across the global South. As more and more people gain access to the Internet in one form or another, opportunities to offer them services also increase.

A number of key trends show how the Internet’s profile is being reshaped by the growing number of users from the global South. One of those trends is language. English was the first language to dominate the Internet – but this is changing, according to the latest data.

China has the largest number of Internet users in the world (China Internet Network Information Center) and the Chinese language is the second-most often used online, behind English and before Spanish and Japanese (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm).

While most English-language users turn to the giant Google search engine to look things up on the Internet, Google also has many rivals chasing its tail. In China, Baidu (baidu.com) offers searches in Mandarin using Chinese characters, making the Internet easier to navigate for Mandarin speakers. Elsewhere, Arabic language Internet users are being offered new services and urls using Arabic characters.

In short, the Internet is becoming multilingual, customized and local, and creating new opportunities with it.

One new business in Vietnam is challenging Google with its own locally tailored search engine. Called Coc Coc (http://coccoc.com/) – Knock Knock in English – it has already spent US $10 million to hire 300 staff at its Hanoi base, according to the Associated Press. Whether Coc Coc is successful or not in the long term, it is clear as a business it is already helping the local economy by hiring so many people and investing in Vietnam. Google currently does not have any staff in Vietnam because of its concerns about legal conflict with the government over censorship of content on the Internet, AP reports.

Coc Coc believes it has developed a system that better understands the grammar, syntax and nuances of the Vietnamese language. Another advantage it believes it has over Google is its large presence on the ground in Vietnam. With a headquarters in Hanoi, it can quickly make marketing deals and agreements with content providers. To further its local advantage, Coc Coc has dispatched camera crews and photographers to film and photograph streets and log the details of shops, cafes and businesses – all to make search results more accurate and richer in detail.

The headquarters is spread out over four floors of a downtown office block in Hanoi, and according to the Associated Press has a relaxed atmosphere similar to that found in many places in California’s technology start-up culture.

Coc Coc is a joint Russian-Vietnamese venture and is hoping to ride the fast-growing Asian Internet market by offering a search tool that understands the nuances of the Vietnamese language online. By using algorithms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algorithm) it promises to give a faster and better search experience to Vietnamese-language users. It also uses its knowledge of the local scene to  tailor results to users’ needs.

The plan is to spend US $100 million during the next five years to lure 97 per cent of Vietnamese Internet users to make the switch from Google.

“When I came here, I had some understanding why Vietnam was a good market to beat Google,” said Mikhail Kostin, the company’s chief search expert. “But after living here for one year, I understand the language and market much more deeply. I’m sure it’s right.”

Having a local search engine tool can be a successful approach. The Yandex (http://www.yandex.com/) search engine in Russia beats Google in the Russian-speaking market. In South Korea, there is the Naver (naver.com) search engine.

Google battled it out with the Chinese search engine Baidu in 2010 before leaving the country when Google refused to abide by government censorship guidelines. Baidu in the meantime has become the number one search engine in China and is planning to expand to other markets throughout Asia.

“Google is a foreign company, and they are not here,” said one of the three founders of Coc Coc, Nguyen Duc Ngoc. “We can serve the interests of the local market better.”

Vietnam has been experiencing rapid economic growth since the introduction of the Doi Moi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doi_Moi) economic reforms two decades ago in 1986.  Vietnam is fast becoming an Internet success story, with a third of its population of 88 million (World Bank) (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam) now online. Many are accessing the Internet through their mobile phones and electronic devices.

Vietnam connected to the Internet in the 1990s and the infrastructure was built up in the mid-2000s. A national plan that kicked off in 2005 accelerated take-up of the Internet in the country as more and more people accessed the Internet through mobile phones, often at home, rather than just in public Internet centres. One study found 71 per cent of users in major cities were accessing the Internet at home (https://opennet.net/research/profiles/vietnam). One in three people in Vietnam now has access to the Internet. Significantly, the Internet has been an overwhelming success with youth in the main cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where 95 per cent of people in the 15-to-22 age group has Internet access.

Optimists point to Vietnam’s large youth population, fast-growing economy and its modern Internet infrastructure as advantages that will boost its Internet economy. This is attracting entrepreneurs and investors from across Asia and around the world working in the field of online content, e-payments systems and other online services.

With Vietnam’s Internet scene on fire, many people and companies are piling in to come up with the Next Big Thing online. Many have failed, but the same is true in every other country where new information technologies have been introduced. The nature of information technology innovation means ideas quickly rise or die depending on whether Internet users find the innovation useful or attractive. Despite great ideas, there are often far too many factors at play to guarantee any one person or company will have a success on their first try. As has happened elsewhere, ideas hatched by small start-ups, if good, are gobbled up by larger companies. Talented and skilled people usually find themselves being chased by other companies.

Resources

1) Techinasia: “Vietnam is Asia’s New Tech Manufacturing Hub”. Website: http://www.techinasia.com/vietnam-asias-tech-manufacturing-hub/

2) Allo’ Expat Vietnam: A list of Vietnam’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Website: http://www.vietnam.alloexpat.com/vietnam_information/internet_service_providers_vietnam.php

3) Telecommunications in Vietnam: A quick explanation from Wikipedia on the state of play in Vietnam. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_in_Vietnam

4) Vietnam Women’s Innovation Day 2013: Theme: “Women’s Economic Empowerment”. Website: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/03/13/vietnam-womens-innovation-day-2013-launched-themed-womens-economic-empowerment-8221

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This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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Research Reviews | 2001 – 2002

2001

Research Review 2001: A Year of Excellence and Innovation 

Britain’s best-loved children’s hospital and charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH), contracted me to lead a two-year project to modernise the hospital’s web presence and take its brand into the 21st century.

2002

Research Review 2002: Building on Success 

In 2003, the UK’s Guardian newspaper called the Children First website one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS.
“A highly attractive website written by and with children at Britain’s biggest specialist hospital for children. The site is carefully segmented for different age groups and provides a powerful platform on which children can reach out from the confines of their hospital wards, share their experiences and learn about a range of medical issues as well as have access to fun interactive resources.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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CASE STUDY 5: GOSH/ICH Child Health Portal | 2001 – 2003

Expertise: Strategy, vision, team leadership, managing suppliers, design vision, digital strategy, content creation, editing, project management, innovation, child health, public health, modernising large institutions. 

Location: London, UK 2001 to 2003

Project Manager: David South

Charity Content Coordinator: Ramita Navai

Click here to view images for this case study: CASE STUDY 5: GOSH/ICH Child Health Portal | 2001 – 2003 Images

Abstract 

In 2001 I was hired to project manage and deliver a Child Health Web Portal for the prestigious Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital NHS Trust (GOSH)/Institute of Child Health (ICH) based in London, UK.  

The project was intended to lead on innovation at the institutions and in the wider National Health Service (NHS) and was delivered in three phases. Screen grabs can be viewed below:  

Phase 1 

Phase 2

Phase 3

About

From the start, the project begged the question: Could we take a complex (and complicated) mandate and successfully achieve it in just two years? All under great public and media scrutiny (London being a world centre for media)? And how do you innovate for the 21st century in a major health care institution and build on its already high reputation?

Britain’s best-loved children’s hospital and charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH), contracted me to lead a two-year project to modernise the hospital’s web presence and take its brand into the 21st century. GOSH is both Britain’s first children’s hospital and a pioneering child health institution (along with its partner the Institute for Child Health). The hospital’s outstanding reputation meant the project was carried out under intense public, media and professional scrutiny, and required a keen awareness of new media developments and the needs of the hospital’s patients, their families and the public. It drew on an extensive public consultation and the NHS Modernisation Plan and the Information for Health strategy – which had identified strong demand for services and information to be made available online – to develop this innovative online offering. The NHS had also set the goal of having 25 per cent of all its services accessible via the web. 

From the start, the project represented a new phase in how the institutions communicated. An announcement in PR Week in April 2001 acknowledged this, declaring the role will deal “with what is increasingly becoming an important part of the press office and the hospital”. Prior to beginning the two-year project in 2001, the existing website was an amateurish affair and not suitable for an internationally renowned centre for paediatric treatment, training and research. 

The UK had become out of step with wider web developments at that time and had to do a lot of catching up. But there was a ready audience for better web content already established in the country. By 2001, data showed 3 million children in the UK were using the Internet and 33 million UK citizens could access it through work, school or home. 

By 2001, the Internet offered an estimated 100,000 health-related websites (most based in the United States, leaving a gap for high-quality information based on UK research and experience). Trust was key and this was a crucial part of the content strategy that was developed. 

As lead staff member for the website, I was in charge of recruiting and managing staff and suppliers, liaising with stakeholders inside and outside the organisations, planning work and seeking opportunities and partnerships.

The project was developed in three, distinct phases. Screen grabs from these phases are available for download and evaluation. They also include web traffic statistics. This unique snapshot of a complex project as it unfolded, should prove useful for other e-health practitioners. 

As an innovator, the project became a catalyst for numerous online and offline initiatives across the institutions. The website made enormous strides, winning a number of national and international awards and leapfrogging to become one of the best NHS-linked sites in the UK. Areas radically improved included the design and navigation, patient information for families, press office, and the development and launch of the award-winning children’s website. 

Phase 1 

Phase 2 

Phase 3 

Each stage was transparently communicated and accompanied by high-profile publicity campaigns: a necessity because the hospital relies heavily on public trust and funding to function. 

The first phase involved getting buy-in on a new design vision, assembling a team, extensive work on migrating the very large legacy website into the new template, and exciting colleagues on the potential of the new child health portal vision. It was launched in September 2001.  

Ask Dr Jane Collins, a regular column written by the Chief Executive Dr. Jane Collins for The Times newspaper, was one of the more popular features of the child health portal. The portal was also directly connected to the NHS Direct service with its extensive online health encyclopedia.  

In 2001, the project launched an interactive Christmas child health advent calendar offering top tips from health professionals on how to have a safe holiday season. It showed what could be done with the improving web design and production skills of the team. The PDF can be viewed here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/44905926/Christmas-Advent-Calendar-for-GOSH-Child-Health-Portal-2001.

As another example, the hospital’s 150th birthday celebration on 14th February 2002, attended by Her Majesty the Queen (and celebrities, including Madonna), was accompanied by an online interactive history prepared by the project and was used to inform the wider public about the child health portal.  

Phase two involved the launching of new content developed by some of the world’s top child health experts and scientists, substantial new resources for sick children and their families, an online awareness-raising campaign to drive traffic to the health portal as a trusted and reliable resource, plus a wider media campaign. Based on user experience testing and user feedback, changes were made to the design and content structure to make the portal more user-friendly and to follow best practice in web design at that time.  

The overall child health portal also gave birth to a highly successful new resource, the award-winning Children First website in May 2002. This resource was a year in development and was calibrated by age to provide relevant resources to guide children through the hospital experience. It used high-quality animation and partnered with BBCi and BBC Science to create resources that would resonate with children and youth. It included high-profile elements such as the Write4GOSH children’s writing prize, attracting entries from around the world, with winners receiving prizes from Cherie Booth QC, Dannii Minogue and children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson.  

Children First attracted an average of 700,000 visitors each month with over 800 children in its first year contributing to the site. It addressed a gap in the online marketplace for health resources written for children rather than for their parents and families. It also gave birth to its own project: The Virtual Children’s Hospital (VCH). Funded by the PPP Foundation in August 2002, it worked with a team of psychologists to meet the social, psychological and information needs of ill children. 

In March 2003 the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) in its review and assessment found, in answer to the question “What, if anything, did CHI find that the rest of the NHS can learn from?” at the hospital, it was the child health portal, because “The trust’s website has different sections for children and families as well as for health professionals. The website also has sections for children of different ages and a broad range of information leaflets is available to download. The website has 3.5 million hits per month.”  

In 2003, the UK’s Guardian newspaper called the Children First website one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS. Children First also won the prestigious Cable and Wireless Childnet Award that year as well. And was short-listed for the New Stateman’s New Media Awards. 

In 2006, The Times of London called Children First the Top Child Health Website in its Wellbeing on the Web: The Best Portals survey (November 11, 2006). 

Phase three saw online traffic growing at a steady clip, the portal gaining accolades, awards and positive reviews; it also helped the hospital to gain the highest rating in a government review (5*), and Children First was awarded significant further funding so it could expand its resources. The award-winning team also re-developed thewww.gosh.org charity website (one of the highest profile charity brands in the UK) and launched it in 2003 as well.  

A great way to track the historical development of a web project is to use the Wayback Machine’s Internet archivehere (https://archive.org). By typing in the web address (for example, http://www.gosh.nhs.uk, and http://www.gosh.org), you can see a chronological history of the website by month. 

Timeline 

2001: Initial design vision articulated and team assembled. First phase of content creation and ‘soft launch’ of portal in September 2001. Begin experiments with new graphic design, including an online interactive Christmas advent calendar with health tips.  

2002: Launch new content during the hospital’s 150th anniversary celebrations; begin development work on Children First content. Partnering with BBCi and BBC Science to improve quality of child and youth resources. Significant new content is launched throughout the year as the portal sees month-on-month growth in web traffic. Awarding of further funding for Children First and the Virtual Children’s Hospital. 

2003: Winning of Childnet Award; launch of new GOSH Charity website. Record web traffic to the website.

“Hospital unveils international website for children”: The Guardian, 8 October 2003.
“The kids are alright”: The Guardian, 5 February 2003.
“Web Projects For Kids Get Their Due”: CBS News, April 25, 2003.

Testimonials

“As a parent, I recognise how important it is to help your child understand all that they can about their stay in hospital and their care and treatment. Time spent in hospital can often be a very frightening experience. Making sure that your child has helpful, easy to read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. 

I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.” Prime Minister Tony Blair, May 2002

“A highly attractive website written by and with children at Britain’s biggest specialist hospital for children. The site is carefully segmented for different age groups and provides a powerful platform on which children can reach out from the confines of their hospital wards, share their experiences and learn about a range of medical issues as well as have access to fun interactive resources.” Childnet Award 2003

“I am glad you mentioned the web site. If you can access it and haven’t recently please have a look. It has vastly improved and both David Latchman and I (it is a joint site with ICH) are very pleased.” Dr Jane Collins, Chief Exec’s Corner, Roundabout newsletter, February 2002

“I never thought that GOSHKids would be so valuable to the hospital or, more importantly, to children and young people attending the hospital or simply interested in health matters. I think that this reflects my age, though!

“Many of us over 30, even if we use the internet ourselves, are surprised how much children and young people use it both as a source of information and for entertainment. 

“Even quite young children are using it routinely now and as an increasing number of families have access to it, either at home and/or at school or work, presumably more and more will do so. 

“There are over 42,000 hits per day (1,260,000 a month) on our GOSHKids website already. Of course, part of the success of the website is down to its design and content. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Gary Loach, David South and the whole team who have worked so hard to make it successful.” Dr Jane Collins, Chief Exec’s Corner, Roundabout newsletter, June 2003 

“The GOSH/ICH web site to date has been a notable success. Not only has it met a majority of its objectives as delineated in the PIN report of 2000 and achieved recognition as ‘exemplary’ among NHS resources, but it has also generated a number of spin-off projects, including Children First (as a successor to GOSHKids) and The Virtual Children’s Hospital.

“It has moved from providing a poor representation of the organisations, to above average for corporate web resources, and compares highly favourably with those of other NHS sites and departments. The most notable success lies in the resource it now provided for the public, especially GOSHKids.

“In a context in which less than 25% of all projects realise even 50% of their benefits, the satisfaction of 75% of the original objectives set out in the PIN report must rank as a significant achievement.” Website Project Audit by Passmasters Limited, 17 April 2003

“Great Ormond Street Hospital has launched this health site targeted specifically at childen, with a separate version aimed at young teenagers. The site aims to give young ‘uns information about health, illness and treatment in an easily digestable, non-threatening manner.” Internet Magazine, July 2002

“… it’s a good site and not just for those about to go into the hospital.” New Media Age, 20 June 2002

“The project was instrumental in pulling together a number of key strategies (including the NHS’s Modernisation Plan, and its Information for Health Strategy), and acting as a catalyst for numerous online and offline initiatives. Critical to these strategies is the need to provide information and services online and in an accessible way. The aim has not only been about serving the specific needs of the institutions, but also to become a broader child health portal.  

“The website in 2001 was an amateurish affair and a disgrace to an internationally renowned centre for paediatric treatment, training and research. Run largely from the Research Office it was focused on one particular audience, uninspiring in design, reactive in updating and made little use of the potential of the internet. We needed someone to take it forward …

David [South] was lead staff member for the website, recruiting and managing staff and suppliers, liaising with stakeholders inside and outside the organisations, planning work and seeking opportunities and partnerships. It is fair to say that the site made enormous strides under his leadership, winning a number of national and international awards, and leapfrogging to become one of the best NHS-linked sites in the UK. 

 “A number of areas were drastically improved, including design and navigation, patient information for families, press material, and the award-winning children’s site, which is now an international project with many different partners. David [South] project managed many projects in this time including linked sites for London IDEAS Genetics Knowledge Park, and the hospital charity site …” Stephen Cox, Chief Press Officer, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust and the Institute of Child Health

Impact 

Micro

  • took public consultation and consultant’s report and crafted and developed a strategy to implement the GOSH Child Health Web Portal
  • assembled team across two institutions
  • set clear milestones and brought project management methodology previously deployed with the United Nations
  • led on teaching new ways of project management for results
  • took GOSH brand forward for the digital age
  • advised colleagues on digital publishing and design
  • awarded additional funding

Macro 

  • role model for NHS and government/charity sector. Awarded five stars in government review
  • Childnet Award
  • launched major milestones with well-known figures, including Her Majesty the Queen, Madonna, and pop stars
  • significant media coverage of project
  • attracted funding not only for the GOSH Child Health Portal but also for other projects at the institutions
  • grew web traffic month-on-month, becoming one of the top online child health resources
  • website cited in many other resources. One of the goals of the project was to increase access to high-quality child health resources and to have them cited in books etc.

Citations

The Great Ormond Street Hospital Manual of Children’s Nursing Practices by Susan Macqueen, Elizabeth Bruce and Faith Gibson, John Wiley & Sons, 2012

Help! My Child’s in Hospital by Becky Wauchope, Marbec Family Trust, 2012

Oxford Desk Reference: Nephrology by Jonathan Barratt, Peter Topham and Kevin P.G. Harris, Oxford University Press, 2008

Research Review 2001: A Year of Excellence and Innovation, Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust, 2001

Research Review 2002: Building on Success, Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust, 2002

Other Resources

GOSH Child Health Portal Phase 1a

GOSH Child Health Portal Phase 1b

GOSH Child Health Portal Phase 2a

GOSH Child Health Portal Phase 2b

GOSH Child Health Portal Phase 3 

GOSH Project Launch Brochure and Screen Grabs, 2001-2003

GOSH Child Health Portal 2001 to 2003 Resources

Further Reading:

Embedding Young People’s Participation in Health Services: New Approaches edited by Louca-Mai Brady, Policy Press, 7 October 2020

“There is increasing interest in young people’s participation in the design and delivery of health services. But young people’s views are not consistently sought or acknowledged, and they are still often marginalised in healthcare encounters. Drawing on original research and a diverse range of practice examples, Brady explores the potential for inclusive and diverse approaches to young people’s participation in health services from the perspectives of young people, health professionals and other practitioners. She presents a practical new framework, embedded in children’s rights, that shows how young people’s participation can be integrated into services in ways that are meaningful, effective and sustainable.”

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© David South Consulting 2017

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Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

By David South

Scan Magazine (Canada), April/May 1997

The screensaver on an Undercurrents researcher’s computer terminal bears a maxim that might strike a chord in a lot of CBC units these days: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The quirky media and technology show will fade to black at the end of March. Its cancellation raises a host of issues for a CBC deeply troubled by budget cuts, an ageing audience, a dearth of alternative programme concepts and an inability to plan for a future.

In the show’s pilot, Wendy Mesley – Undercurrents’ host and progenitor – set the tone for this accessible look at the relationship among technology, media and society: “Like it or not we are living in a wired world where OJ Simpson, Big Brother, even your bank machine, all converge … we’ll explore all the issues, the undercurrents of the information age.”

To those who loved it, Undercurrents was a program that satisfied a vital public need, and an ambitious concept for a public broadcaster that some say had grown a little musty. The show promised avant-garde production and investigative journalism that critically explored today’s new media and technology culture. Youngish researchers and producers were hired from outside the CBC. They brought with them experience and new ideas from specialty channels, TV Ontario and CTV. Some came straight out of journalism school.

Critical reaction to the first programs was mixed. John Doyle, a critic with the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, lauded Undercurrents when it launched, calling it “a superb example of  solid CBC-TV journalism and original reporting.” Others were less flattering. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill accused the show of “flirting with infotainment.” At the Vancouver Sun, Alex Strachan wasn’t impressed by a report on a weekend conclave of computer geeks in the California desert for a kind of Hackerstock. “It sounds interesting,” he wrote, “but it isn’t.”

What hurt more was schedulers playing musicial chairs with the show’s slot. Switching Undercurrents from Tuesday at 7 pm to Friday at 7 pm midway through its life left viewers confused and sent ratings plummeting just as network programmers were casting about for places to apply a whopping 30 percent budget cut. As a result, some feel the show never had a fighting chance.

In the end, it was the show’s precarious financial arrangement that killed it. Undercurrents was never funded from the general current affairs budget. Instead, it drew on a special reserve of cash created by the network. When it came time to mete out the cuts in December, the special funding bubble burst. Rather than cut further into the budgets of flagship current affairs programs, executives chose to drop Undercurrents.

Executive producer Frances Mary (FM) Morrison acknowledges that gratitude for her program’s special funding obscured a recognition of its fragility. “That was really our Achilles heel,” she says. “We were just this little orphan that didn’t have its own money. We weren’t adopted into the larger family.”

With the network funding gone, Undercurrents’ budget (rumoured to be over a million dollars per season) was nowhere to be found. Discussions about chasing a corporate sponsor went nowhere because the show needed more money than any sponsor could have provided. “It was never an issue of $100,000 or $200,000,” says Morrison. “It was the issue of our entire budget. [CBC] would still have had to come up with the rest of it.”

CBC TV’s news, current affairs and Newsworld director Bob Culbert and former current affairs head Norm Bolen both say they wanted the show to stay on the air but couldn’t find a way to fund it withou seriously hurting programs like The Fifth Estate, Marketplace and Venture.

Bolen, now VP of programming at the History and Entertainment Network, says it came down to choosing between The Health Show and Undercurrents. The Health Show won because it had a “bigger audience, a broader demographic and was bringing in revenue from sales of programming to the specialty channels.”

Mesley has another theory. “The majority of people who worked on this programme are not traditional CBCers… They can’t bump, they don’t get huge severance packages. Of course, if you want a future, those are the wrong reasons for letting people go.”

With its intensive focus on issues like the abuse of computer-morphed images, surreptitious “data-mining” of consumer purchase records, or media “freebies,” there’s no question that Undercurrents has met a need in this media-saturated world. But controversy over the cancellation centres on the age-old question of CBC and the youth audience.

Morrison and Mesley both say they intended the show to appeal to a younger-than-usual CBC audience. But CBC executives weren’t convinced it was an audience the network could, or should, go after. According to Culbert, a youth mandate was something the production team brought to Undercurrents. “It started as a media ethics show targeted at a classic CBC audience. Nobody sat around one day and said ‘let’s invent the show that will go after younger viewers.’”

Bolen expresses a profound lack of faith in the under-30 audience. “People under 30 don’t watch information programming, okay? Let’s get that straight. I sure wouldn’t spend the rest of my life trying to get an audience that doesn’t watch a certain genre of programming. This is a business where you pay attention to reality. People under 30 watch trashy American sitcoms, which I’m not in the business of doing, and which the CBC isn’t in the business of doing.”

“I think that’s bullshit,” says Reid Willis, producer and director of CityTV’s Media Television. “People under 30 are interested in what’s going on in the media. The 20 to 30 group is more media savvy than the generation that preceded them.” But Willis thinks the lack of information programming pitched at a young audience is down to a lack of interest from advertisers.

Mesley and Morrison remain convinced Undercurrents did appeal to a younger audience, but felt it was sabotaged by the schedule shuffling. In the show’s first slot, Tuesdays at 7 pm, its average audience was 499,000. The biggest night came on Sunday, October 22, 1995 when a repeat aired at 9:30 pm got an audience of 865,000. But Undercurrents’ debut in the 96/97 season in its new 7 pm slot on Fridays was demoralizing for the crew. Morrison reports the audience for the season opener at 438,000 and 434,000 for a strong programme the following week.

She says the numbers built as audiences found the programme’s new location, peaking at 678,000 on December 6. According to CBC audience research figures, average minute audience for the 96/97 season to February 2 stood at 518,000 viewers.

“Friday at seven was not a good place for Undercurrents,” claims Morrison. “It’s an older audience. In fact the audience for Air Farce [which followed Undercurrents at 7:30] is quite old, surprisingly old. I was actually astonished to find out how old that audience was.”

CBC audience research bears Morrison out, reporting that the 18-34 demographic for both Air Farce and Undercurrents has been identical this season – a mere 14 percent of the total audience.

Fridays at seven is also a heavily competitive slot packed with overhyped American tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair. Morrison says focus groups told her that audiences in that time period surf around looking for stories they like and then switch around with no loyalty to a particular programme.

“People build a menu. We took a leaf out of the tabloid book in terms of our presentation in order to survive in the seven o’clock environment.”

Undercurrents’ jerky camera work and flashy graphics didn’t endear itself to everyone, a fact the show’s producers recognized early on. “I can point to stories where we sabotaged ourselves with stylistic extremes,” admits Morrison.

But Mesley bristles at accusations the show was all style and no content, or a clone of Media Television. “We are the antithesis of Media Television. Obviously everyone has adopted their style from rock videos.  But they get nearly all their video as handouts. We are not saying, ‘This is hip.’ We are not saying, ‘This is the latest consumer thing you can add to your collection.’ We are saying ‘Think about this.’”

Undercurrents’producers express pride in the show’s innovations. They cite its lead role in web page design at the corporation., its efforts at promoting a more playful visual presentation, and its success in promoting an acceptance of media stories elsewhere in news and current affairs. But what seemed to enliven everyone interviewed for this story was a love of the public broadcasting ethos, where stories are told because they are important, not because advertisers say they are important. Many of the young researchers and producers at Undercurrents had done time at the privates, and appreciated the freedom and extensive resources offered by the CBC. But they felt they had come to a CBC whose values were in peril.

“It will be like C-SPAN here,” quipped an Undercurrents freelancer who has done time at the specialty channels.

Others who thrived in the upbeat atmosphere at Undercurrents say they’re not too keen to look for work elsewhere in the CBC. One such is 25-year-old researcher Bret Dawson. “It’s not a happy place,” he says.

It’s not clear what, if any, programming will replace Undercurrents. If the current trend prevails, it looks like any new programming will have to survive on a smaller budget, generate outside income and prove it can draw in viewers in short order. Under those conditions, people at Undercurrents and elsewhere wonder how long CBC’s commitment to innovative new programming  can hold out.

CBC TV’s Undercurrents host Wendy Mesley. Scan Magazine was published in the 1990s for Canadian media professionals.

In 2021 Wendy Mesley commented on the story in a Tweet.

More from Scan Magazine:

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics With Questions Aplenty

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021