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Watching the Watchdog: The Best Anchorman in Canada

If you're not planning anything of overwhelming importance this evening I invite you to screen a newish, different, pioneering and quite fascinating one-hour news program. It's called Kevin Newman Live and it's on the CTV News Channel weekdays at 9.00 p.m.
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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

If you're not planning anything of overwhelming importance this evening I invite you to screen a newish, different, pioneering and quite fascinating one-hour news program.

It's called Kevin Newman Live and it's on the CTV News Channel weekdays at 9.00 p.m.

Already it's a lot better than the big three national TV news English language flagships -- the CTV National News (Lisa LaFlamme, chief anchor and senior editor), CBC's The National (Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent and anchor) and Global National (Dawna Friesen, executive editor and anchor).

That's because Kevin Newman Live does actually seem to be live, just like the title says.

And because Kevin Newman himself is human.

Ha! you protest. All the big three news programs are live and all big three anchors are human.

May I politely suggest that they're not and you're wrong.

Let's examine the sad state of the aforementioned CTV, CBC and Global flagship news programs on the three main networks.

First, all three look like they're designed by those ubiquitous, pernicious American "news doctors" Magid and/or McKinsey. (Motto: Give The Viewers What You Pay Us To Say They Want.)

Here's their lineup: at the start comes the big obvious story of the day, usually about power, who has it and who wants it. Then the mostly cheap and easy-to-cover stuff about crime, weather, disasters, celebrities etc., almost all of which comes, one way or another, courtesy of P.R. flacks.

Each of the three flagships cover pretty much the same obvious stories every evening in pretty much the same obvious way.

Kevin Newman Live doesn't.

Second, much of the time all the big three flagships look, sound and feel like their stories have been edited -- and their anchor's introductions taped -- long before air.

Whether that's the case or not, little thought goes into continuity, highs and lows, conflict, contrast and dramatic development. The music of it all. Instead, the programs too often seem like a bunch of unconnected items glued together and labeled news.

It isn't storytelling.

Kevin Newman Live isn't like that.

Which brings me to the third problem.

The big three anchors themselves.

They're not human, at least not on air. Instead, all three are machines, slaves to the single most treacherous of all the magical machines bringing us our TV news -- the infamous, pernicious, communication-preventing teleprompters.

All three anchors are hypnotized by the printed words rolled out on those infernal machines. So they just read the machine's words at us. Loud and fast because they confuse loud and fast with energy and vitality.

The anchors don't think, they don't feel what they're saying.

They don't seem to understand that one person (the anchor) reading at another (the viewer), with no thought or emotion -- particularly when the reading is loud and fast -- is the least effective and least efficient method of passing on information we humans have ever devised.

The networks might as well put the teleprompter script straight to the screen and save those big anchor salaries for executive bonuses.

Until that happens (don't laugh, it could) the big three anchors will continue to drone through their allotted times, with the intro to each story sounding pretty much identical to the intro to every other story.

And almost no effective communication.

Which inevitably brings me back to one Kevin Newman who I now anoint as the best national TV anchor with the best national TV news program in the realm.

I even agree with some publicity CTV PR put out about his show:

Newman starts the next generation of bold news reporting, taking viewers inside stories they've never heard, and leading an honest, edgy, one-of-a-kind conversation in a transparent news show not seen anywhere else.

In spite of his name, Newman isn't new. He's been around. He was CTV's Parliamentary correspondent, anchor/reporter at CBC, anchor at ABC New York, co-anchor for ABC's Good Morning America, anchor and executive editor at Global, and now "Creator and Anchor" of this new prime time show on CTV News Channel, Kevin Newman Live.

Along the way, he's picked up two highly prestigious Emmy awards, two Genies and a Peabody. And learned a lot about how to do TV news differently and better.

What's new about Kevin Newman is that he and his program break the conventional mould. The program feels genuinely live. You get the feeling that because of that liveness, anything can and will happen.

Here's how Newman himself rather cryptically, even modestly, describes the show before it first goes to air back in November:

It's hard to describe. It's like nothing else on Canadian TV right now, because its eyesight is a little wider, and it's going to speak to you in a much more personal way.

He's right. It's hard to describe -- and it is like nothing else on Canadian TV right now.

Newman comes across as a well-informed, intelligent, probing journalist who's fascinated by the day's events and happens to be on-camera to present stories that he hopes will inform, interest and educate the viewer on this particular evening.

He's a sort of everyman.

No great looks.

No great voice, just the natural voice he uses to talk to one other person.

No pretensions.

He's a storyteller.

He tells stories in ordinary, everyday, spoken English (as opposed to the traditional news code which is mostly safe, bland, written English).

He sees the scenes, feels the emotions, thinks his way through his hour.

He has a professional performer's sense of timing and continuity.

He takes appropriate part in the emotional meaning of his stories so his viewer can take part too.

He tells an hour-long story in the program, connecting the ingredients with skill, humanity and even wit.

He's no slave to the teleprompter. He uses it like it should be used -- as a guide, not a bible. He, not the machine, is in charge.

All of which is hugely different from the too often unrelated news bits introduced by the big three teleprompter-serving, all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipotent anchors who front the three network flagship programs.

Newman's been away from his program for the past couple of weeks, presumably on vacation. But according to CTV is back Wednesday.

Here's my prediction: If TV news can ever be saved from the ravages of social media, journalists like Kevin Newman and his producers have the best chance of saving it.

But don't forget that LaFlamme, Mansbridge and Friesen -- all powerful senior executives as well as anchors on their flagship programs -- were also once heralded as representing the new hope, the new look, the new energy, the new, better way of doing TV news.

So keep an eye on Newman.

Just like the others, he could deteriorate from being the next great TV news hope to just another highly paid teleprompter reader droning on and on about less and less.

Sadly, it's happened before ...

Parts of this column are adapted from Tim Knight's book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.

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