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.