Olympics offer rare media opportunity

By Michael Nolan, Special to QMI Agency

Canadians will expect the consortium of CTV Inc. and its partner Rogers Media Inc. to set a new standard of excellence in their scheduled wall-to-wall coverage of the Winter Olympics beginning Feb. 12 in Vancouver. The country has been promised a live, comprehensive and entertaining style of reporting the Games on a range of platforms including television, radio and the Internet.

Still the crux of the issue relating to this media saturation is whether the devoted viewers of public broadcasting will appreciate CTV's populist programming as a suitable replacement for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's more culturally-oriented Olympic broadcasts that have played historically to national sensibilities.

CTV has tried always to deal with topics in which viewers were interested but never has it sought to inform them in a noble and high-minded manner as has the publicly owned CBC. This general interest style of presentation will dominate CTV's Olympic coverage and feature more than 100 broadcasters from the fields of news, sports, entertainment and music providing programming in both official languages.

The private network faces a programming challenge as it attempts to win over viewers familiar with the CBC's coverage of past Olympics. An experience Lloyd Robertson, the network's news anchor, had when he joined CTV after covering the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal for the CBC underscored a bias towards the public broadcaster.

The reaction of a female viewer in her 40s whom Robertson encountered by chance while travelling in northern Ontario typified the many Canadians devoted to public broadcasting and gave him pause. He remembered her telling him: "I've watched you for years, but . . . I am sorry I won't be seeing you anymore, because I just watch the CBC and I will be only watching CBC news in spite of the fact that you are on the other channel."

Ironically, when the Winter Games' opening and closing ceremonies are on CTV, the two personalities front and centre will be former longtime employees of Holy Mother Corp. Brian Williams left the public broadcaster after 30 years so he could join the private network to host CTV's prime time Olympic schedule. Lloyd Robertson is in his 34th year with CTV. Before joining the private network, he spent 22 years with the public broadcaster.

Still, CTV has an advantage in 2010 compared to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary when it provided the world television signal as host broadcaster and the Canadian feed as domestic broadcaster. The structure of the network has improved markedly from when it won the rights to the Calgary Games.

CTV functioned in 1988 as a co-operative owned by the affiliated stations that rented their time for national broadcasts in the network sales time period. As the handmaiden of the stations, the network found that some affiliates often could be reluctant to carry network programs.

After a realignment near the start of the new millennium, CTVglobemedia Inc. eventually emerged as owner of the local station affiliates and was able to ensure the full carriage of network programming. The new ownership structure means that, for the Vancouver Winter Games and the London, England, Summer Games in 2012, audiences and advertisers can be assured of the network's true national reach to broadcast the Olympics, an important aspect since audience levels dictate the commercial value of programming.

Because the Winter Games come first, Vancouver affords CTV a singular opportunity to introduce an electronic media age that truly touches audiences by combining athletic achievement and national cultures. A vibrant presentation of the Olympics could well usher in a new era of big event programming from which all Canadians could benefit.

Michael Nolan is a professor emeritus in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario and wrote the 2001 book CTV: The Network That Means Business.

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