Canada's Star News Anchors

It was, of course, a send-up - a risky self-parody. As the strains of an operatic overture wafted over the crowd of broadcasting glitterati gathered at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the 11th annual Gemini Awards in March, three familiar figures strode onstage with exaggerated hauteur. Decked out in white tie and tails, they took their places against a backdrop of potted palms, their music stands at the ready before them. The three tenors - Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Placido Domingo - they were not, although they ranked as no less an institution in their own right. "Ladies and gentlemen," announced an anonymous voice over the loudspeakers, "the three anchors!" Like their singing counterparts, the three were primed to show off the power of their pipes. Instead of an aria, the CBC's Peter Mansbridge delivered the plot of The Barber of Seville as an impeccably bland two-line news item. Then, Knowlton Nash, his predecessor on The National, reduced the libretto of Carmen to a routine homicide report. Finally, twirling a white linen handkerchief to the bars of I Pagliacci, CTV's Lloyd Robertson brought down the house with a stereotypical bulletin: "A clown cried today. No Canadians were involved."

In that puckish satire, the country's reigning media superstars neatly skewered their own mystique - the showmanship behind their studied neutrality, their substantial egos and paycheques, and even their bitter backstage rivalries. "Anchors are our version of Canadian celebrities," says Peter Swain, president of Toronto's Media Buying Services Ltd., one of the country's leading purchasers of commercial airtime. But, as he points out, their celebrity is not merely for its own sake. Ratings and millions in ad revenues ride on the inflection of authority in their voices and how viewers feel about their countenances or tailoring. "They're very important icons of a network's identity and integrity," Swain says. "The anchor is one of the only means of branding a broadcasting outlet when there's an increasingly cluttered electronic Main Street."

At a time when polls show that 80 per cent of North Americans get their news from television, network anchors have become the gatekeepers of global events - the arbiters of what is deemed worthy for the population to know. In a world of dizzying information overload, they frame reality into a 22-minute sampler of digestible sound bites, unsullied by passion or discernible opinion. So effortlessly do they appear to dispatch their tasks that it takes the startling thud of a body hitting the soundstage - as TVA hostess Claire Lamarche did when she fell unconscious in the midst of moderating last week's French-language election debate - to provide a reminder of the perils of practising their craft, live, each night.

In fact, never is the news anchors' presence more keenly felt than in times like the current federal campaign, when they take over as political tour guides. During the weeks remaining before the June 2 vote, as they nudge viewers through the daily maze of issues and polls, photo opportunities and staged speechifying, they promise to become increasingly ubiquitous presences on the small screen. But no matter how frequently they invade the living rooms and bedrooms of the nation, their faces as familiar as household furniture, they remain elusive - their feelings masked, their personalities largely unknown.

 As it turns out, they like things precisely that way. One reason may be that, at a time when anchors have never appeared more powerful or omnipresent, they have also never been scrutinized with such a jaundiced eye. From the old Mary Tyler Moore Show to the current This Hour Has 22 Minutes and last winter's surprise CBC comedy hit, The Newsroom, their role has been getting a hilariously bad rap from their own medium. In The Newsroom's amiably vacuous version, played by actor Peter Keleghan, anchor Jim Walcott struts the set, all teeth and blow-dried hair - fretting, in the midst of a nuclear plant meltdown, over how far he should unknot his tie to convey the notice of impending catastrophe. "I just thought it was funny to have a guy who sounds knowledgeable, but is in fact trite," says the show's creator and star, Ken Finkleman. "But that's what the news is, isn't it? It pretends to be knowledgeable, but it talks in all these platitudes."

As if that indictment were not discomfiting enough, other media pundits have pronounced the network news anchor an endangered species. In the crowded 500-channel cablescape of the future - with a proliferation of all news channels joining CNN and Newsworld - they predict that the notion of waiting each night for an Olympian summary of events will become a quaint anachronism. "My generation can't relate to anchors," says Stephen Marshall, the 29-year-old force behind the radical "videozine" Channel Zero, who now finds himself courted by the world's top broadcasting wizards for insights into why his peers are no longer tuning in. At a symposium in Berlin last year, network executives - as well as Mansbridge himself - listened to his provocative riffs on an "anchor-free" future. "The anchor is the ultimate symbol for the current news paradigm, which is dying," argues Marshall. "They're living ghosts."

 On the fourth floor of the CBC's gleaming Broadcast Centre in Toronto, Peter Mansbridge stands alone in a pool of light, a solitary figure in the darkened studio that serves as the set for the public network's flagship news show, The National. Beyond the glass wall behind him, a handful of writers and lineup editors labor over their computer terminals, tracking the latest-breaking stories beneath the newsroom's fluorescent glare. An earpiece wired down the back of Mansbridge's navy jacket keeps him plugged in to the director in the control room on a floor above. But unlike Hollywood's take on the network news business, his only companions are an operator monitoring a pre-programmed bank of robotic cameras and the floor director, who is giving him his backward count to airtime: "14-13-12 ..."

The first time Mansbridge sat in for Knowlton Nash on The National one Saturday night in 1981, he remembers the rush of realizing the history he had inherited with that anchor chair. "I was scared s--less," he chuckles, betraying a candor and vocabulary he would never dare on air. On marathon broadcasts like election specials, the 48-year-old Mansbridge arranges for a sound technician to pipe a rock beat - The Rolling Stones or Alanis Morissette - into his ear to rev up his energy. But for the moment he awaits the cue of The National's theme music. Hours earlier, he had already marked up that night's script - written by a veteran member of the news team "who knows how I talk" - and it has been programmed into the TelePrompTer. But with the Stanley Cup pre-empting the network newscast, he must hang around the studio for hours, re-recording updates for Newsworld and regional editions, intoning the same clipped phrases over and over. "Glamorous, isn't it?" he deadpans.

In fact, to most viewers Mansbridge is a figure of considerable glamor. His salary, which he refuses to divulge, is reported to be in the comfortable six figures. His close friends include the country's media movers and shakers. And, after years of seeing his romantic misadventures - including a failed, 3½-year second marriage, to CBC broadcaster Wendy Mesley - chronicled in Frank magazine, he now shares his life with actress Cynthia Dale, best known as the stunning schemer Olivia in Street Legal. This summer, they have taken a house together in Stratford, Ont., where, on election night, she opens as Queen Guinevere in the festival's Camelot.

But glamor is an external perception. Up close, Mansbridge's sleek glass and black plywood anchor desk seems flimsier than on-screen and, sheathed in pancake makeup, squinting into the lens, he looks both less approachable and less avuncular. If the camera does not lie, as those in the news business repeatedly insist, it does mislead. At an even six feet, Mansbridge is taller and rangier than he looks on TV, just as Lloyd Robertson, at five feet, 10 inches, turns out to be slighter. Shy, but armed with a sardonic wit and a staccato laugh with bizarre echoes of Woody Woodpecker, Mansbridge can regale a listener for hours with tales about the making of the news - and his career. But when questions veer toward the personal, he slams the conversational door.

His image is something he fastidiously guards. Despite his well-publicized passion for golf, he refuses to be photographed on the links and only reluctantly divulges his handicap of 17. He also rules out posing with Dale and waves off queries about his two grown daughters from his first marriage. Although ex-wife Mesley - his frequent replacement as well as the host of Sunday Report - remains a close friend, she exhibits a firm reluctance to discuss Mansbridge in anything but the vaguest professional terms. To some, Mansbridge's reticence seems curious in a man whose ego was blamed for his epic 1995 clash with popular former co-anchor Pamela Wallin. But as he sees it, "I always thought it important that the anchor not get in the way of the news."

For Mansbridge, caution comes with the burden of being The National personified. "I can't escape the fact," he says with a nod to the corporate logo, "that my face is attached to the CBC pizza." Ever since the network's disastrous 1993 experiment with moving its news hour to 9 p.m. - when its market share plunged to second place and stayed - Mansbridge has anguished over every fluctuation in its numbers. According to insiders, that anxiety turned into an obsession this spring when the CBC introduced commercials into its once-sacred newscast and its average audience of one million viewers promptly plummeted to 844,000. During the same period, Nielsen Media Research reported that rival CTV boasted an average audience of 1.4 million - more than doubling the gap that existed between them last year.

Mansbridge still chafes at the commercials. "I think they damaged us in the eyes of some of our viewers," he says. But he points out that they generate $15 million in revenue a year at a time when the corporation is hemorrhaging talent as a result of budget cuts. "There was a time around here," he sighs, "when all I ever seemed to be doing was making farewell videos for people's goodbye parties."

His own career trajectory, which reads like the stuff of a movie plot, is an unadulterated product of public broadcasting. At 19, Mansbridge had dropped out of Grade 12 at Ottawa's Glebe Collegiate and flunked out of the navy's pilot training school when he found himself working as a freight handler at the airport in Churchill, Man. He had just stepped in to announce the boarding call for an ailing ticket agent when a passenger marched up to him. The CBC's regional manager declared himself so impressed with his voice that he offered Mansbridge a part-time job as the local radio deejay.

Mansbridge dreamed up the town's first newscast and, at night, he stayed late patching together freelance reports on polar bears and other Arctic clichés that won him airtime - and notice - on the main network. In 1976, he finally graduated from a succession of CBC Prairie bureaus to Parliament Hill. He arrived in his native Ottawa bored by politics and left four years later an addict. According to Mesley, he stays plugged in even on vacations at the Gatineau property he bought with his overtime earnings from the 1979 election campaign. "He's a complete political and news junkie," she says.

Over the years, Mansbridge worked doggedly at his craft. But he also had reason to dream of farther fields. Two generations of Canadian newsmen before him had made their mark at the U.S. networks, from CBS's Morley Safer to his own former Ottawa bureau mate Mark Phillips, now a CBS correspondent in London. But one figure had particular meaning for Mansbridge. At Glebe, he had watched in awe as his English teacher, Phyllis Bruce - now a Toronto publisher - was picked up after school by her beau, Peter Jennings, the anchor at Ottawa's CJOH who went on to superstardom with ABC's World News Tonight. "Of course, we all thought he was a big deal then," Mansbridge laughs, "because he did the local Saturday dance party."

In 1987, his own turn came to hear the siren song of U.S. fame: a reported $700,000-a-year offer to co-host CBS's morning show - and the dream of eventually succeeding evening news anchor Dan Rather, who now makes $3.5 million a year. Despite pleas from CBC pals like Tony Burman, now The National's executive producer, Mansbridge had decided to accept. "I was gone," he admits. Then, Knowlton Nash summoned him to a midnight meeting and announced that he was stepping down as The National's anchor after 10 years to make way for him. "It was all over then," Mansbridge says. "Here was the top job in Canadian broadcasting. How could I possibly walk away from it?" In the years since, he admits to only two moments of regret: envying the resources the American networks threw into covering the Persian Gulf War and when the CBC's news hour was abortively moved to 9 p.m. "In the worst days of the 9 p.m. experiment," he says, "I would have gone (to CBS) for nothing and done weather reports."

But now he has become as fierce a caretaker of the CBC's image as of his own. In fact, he almost quashed the three anchors skit at the Gemini Awards. Originally, Peter Kent, the news star of Ontario-based Global Television - which is currently bidding for third-network status - had been slated to appear. But Mansbridge refused to perform alongside him after Kent scoffed at the CBC's coverage of its own fiscal woes in an on-air commentary last January. Only when Nash was seconded from retirement to play Kent's part did Mansbridge relent. "I had no desire to be sharing a stage with someone who was calling into question my journalism and the journalism that we all do here," he fumes. Kent, a former National anchor himself, shrugs off the furor. "It's not a slam at CBC news," he protests. "I just said, 'Stop whining about your budget cuts in the newscast.' "

 Late on a chill spring evening, a security guard's voice crackles over the intercom of the parking lot gate to CFTO, the Baton Broadcasting station on the fringes of Toronto where Lloyd Robertson broadcasts the CTV News. Identification is demanded. Instructions are relayed. Inside, leaping up from his anchor desk in full makeup and a shirt of robin's egg blue, Robertson apologizes for the hassle - a product of the increasing perils of contemporary TV celebrity. Security has been tight ever since the fatal shooting of Ottawa sportscaster Brian Smith in the parking lot of another Baton station two years ago. "Things were a bit tense around here after that," Robertson says.

Still, it seems inconceivable that anyone would want to harm the newscaster his colleagues have dubbed "Uncle Lloyd" - the top-rated anchor whom Canadian TV Guide readers have voted the country's "most trusted" for nearly a decade. "What you get with Lloyd is what you see," observes Craig Oliver, CTV's Ottawa bureau chief, who has known Robertson for 40 years. "There are no dark hidden neuroses. He is such a straight arrow that I remember in the early days when gorgeous women were throwing themselves at him, and I'd be hoping for some ricochets, Lloyd would just breeze through it all." Married for 40 years to his high-school sweetheart Nancy and the father of four independent-minded daughters, Robertson is less grandfatherly - despite his right to that title - than courtly. He is so open that he unabashedly admits to a rinse in his hair - "the lights were bouncing off the top" - and at 63, he jokes with his crew about hiding Geritol under the anchor desk. Colleagues theorize that the secret of his staying power is that he manages to combine the ordinary and extraordinary beneath an affable, unassuming facade. "He's everyman," Oliver says, "but he also has an immense ability to soak up information and regurgitate it in a way that makes sense."

For 21 years, Robertson has used that mix to pilot CTV's newscast through constitutional crises and natural catastrophes. But in 1976, when he arrived at the network from the anchor slot at CBC, his defection provoked front-page headlines. For the previous two years, he had become the pawn in a bitter exercise of broadcasting brinkmanship by rival unions. Until then, Robertson's career had climbed placidly upward from his start at a Stratford, Ont., radio station - propelled by what he calls "good pipes." But in 1956, as television was taking root in the country, he volunteered for the chance to play pioneer in Winnipeg. Within 14 years, he had landed the CBC's most coveted on-screen job as the face and voice of The National. But he never saw himself as more than the title on his job description: announcer. Like others with the same tag, Robertson found his pronunciation policed by bureaucrats who revered the style of the lofty BBC newsreader - all pear-shaped tones and detachment. And his job was circumscribed by the rules of the announcer's union, which barred him from writing or editing stories. To Earl Cameron, Robertson's predecessor at The National, those strictures had posed no problem. "Earl would come in at 10:30 p.m. to do the 11 o'clock news," recalls former CBC correspondent Larry Stout, who has now joined Robertson at CTV. "He never had any input."

But on assignment to cover the launch of the Apollo 11 moon rocket, teaming up with CBS, Robertson studied Walter Cronkite, already a legend in the trade. It was Cronkite who had defined the institution of the postwar network anchor: on a November afternoon in 1963, he went on camera in shirtsleeves, voice breaking, to inform a disbelieving world that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Until then, those who served up the nightly news had been announcer types - "readers," as the scrupulously impartial BBC called them. But according to Marvin Kalb, the Edward R. Murrow professor of press and politics at Harvard, their refusal to mix passion and pure reportage ended with the Kennedy assassination. "With Cronkite gulping on air and leading the nation through four days of grief," Kalb says, "that was the start of anchors becoming personalities in their own right." Watching Cronkite in action, Robertson got the message. "I understood that you had to give people a sense of a real person behind the news," he says. "I saw that the news was going to move in the same direction as it had in the States."

Robertson's fight for input into The National became a public battle - so rancorous at times that newsroom staff once refused to run one of his foreign reports from Britain. Then, in the midst of the furor, CTV called to offer him a co-anchor chair alongside Harvey Kirck and all the editorial freedom he craved. But he accepted what was to become the longest-running anchor gig in English Canada with an initially heavy heart. "I was a child of the CBC," he says. "I didn't want to leave mother."

Nor were mother's minions pleased. Knowlton Nash, then his boss, was so chagrined that they barely spoke for two years. "There was," Robertson concedes, "quite a chill." His successor, Peter Kent, one of the CBC's most respected former foreign correspondents, never had to wage the same struggle to help shape The National. But like others, including Cronkite himself, Kent came to distrust the power that what he calls "the imperial anchor" had assumed in the public mind. "It's become larger than life," he says, recalling dinner at a friend's house shortly after he took the job. "I paused while I was talking and their son said, 'Hey, he has to stop and think just like us.' I thought, 'Whoa! What have we created here?' "

Meanwhile at CTV, where Kirck had retired in 1983, Robertson's amiability could not entirely mask his tenacity. A self-styled workaholic, he was in no hurry to leave the stage. But in 1994, when the network set out to prevent its biggest catch, Keith Morrison, from returning to NBC with the promise of the eventual anchor plum, he knew he had received his unspoken cue. Robertson went to CTV brass with a deal: he would step down gracefully if he could complete his contract at the end of two more seasons, rounding out his term to a neat 20 years. The deal was done, and apparently accepted on all sides, including by Morrison, who was juggling Canada AM co-host duties with freelance NBC assignments. Then, according to those close to Robertson, he got word that Morrison was grumbling about being made to wait. "It got back to Lloyd," confides a colleague, "and all hell broke loose." In the same week of May, 1995, that Pamela Wallin announced she had been fired from the CBC's Prime Time News, Morrison emerged from a stormy meeting in CTV president John Cassaday's office and promptly made it a two-fer.

Insiders point out that Cassaday was also under pressure from the owners of CTV affiliates who were beginning to have misgivings about Morrison as their standard-bearer. Paradoxically, the best-planned succession has now turned into the worst: CTV appears to have no clear candidate to take over from Robertson - currently the country's oldest anchor. It is a conundrum facing broadcast executives across the continent who anguish about their shrinking - and greying - audience. "It's clear a generational change is due," says Canadian-born Robert MacNeil, former half of the Public Broadcasting System's MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, who retired two years ago himself after 20 years as co-anchor. "They've got to do something to attract some younger viewers - not just people over 60. You can see there's a problem with age just by the kinds of things they advertise."

One measure of the current angst in executive suites is the fact that CNN flew Channel Zero's Stephen Marshall to its headquarters in Atlanta to present his rapid-fire recipes for reaching youth - meaning anybody under 35. One of his solutions: eliminate anchors altogether and give Generation Xers around the globe video cameras to create do-it-yourself, slice-of-life news. "Anchors are only making television more alienating for young people," Marshall says. He points to a fundamental sense of disconnectedness between the world outside the window and that they see on the screen. "Ever since we were kids, we've heard the planet was in crisis," he says. "Then, Peter Mansbridge comes on the air and says, 'This happened today and it's fine. Good night.' "

But until Marshall's brave new world materializes, the most imminent threat to the likes of Robertson sits symbolically 10 feet from his anchor desk, shrouded in plastic and beginning to take shape: the set for CTV-News-1, the private network's all-news channel, which CTV hopes will give Newsworld and CNN a run for their advertising dollars this fall. Robertson leads a visitor to peer through the plastic, where workers are preparing to hammer together another anchor desk. He has heard the predictions that, in the 500-channel universe, both the traditional networks and their front men are doomed. But he argues that the obituaries are premature. "Despite all these channels in the future, the research shows that people will still pick seven favorites," he argues. "So I think they'll need us around for a while." MacNeil says the need may, in fact, be all the greater - for strictly commercial reasons. "It strikes me the premium on brand names may be greater in the multichannel universe," he says. "People may want the comfort and solidity of someone they know in all that anonymity." Peter Kent agrees: "You still need someone to tie it all together and deliver it. We're paperboys - but paperboys with ties."

Maclean's May 26, 1997