Competitive advantage can be achieved in a political campaign through the better use of a blackboard and chalk, more phone lines for the phone bank, more volunteerdrivers or better use of new technology.  We’re never sure which technological wave will stick and which one will affect the outcome of a particular campaign.  I speculated about such things after reviewing candidate and party web pages for the network television program “Politics”, hosted by Don Newman. 


A recent all candidates’ debate during a national leaders’ campaign got me thinking about one of my pet peeves—research.  Below, I offer some upgrades to the unscientific focus group—a mainstay of modern research.


I was just asked to review the performances of 11 politicians in an all candidates’ debate months before voting.  Since anything can happen in even a month in politics, I struggled with what perspective I would offer on a TV show called “Politics”.


Issues could change, candidates can drop out, scandals can hit and so on   I saw little point in reviewing content and policy so early in a campaign  I remembered an old technique from focus groups.  It sometimes pays to show a candidate talking on video with no sound and get reactions to the body language only.  It’s revealing the specific information respondents produce based on watching a silent picture of a candidate speaking.  They are reacting to eye contact, facial expressions, speaking vs listening time and intensity in listening, among many other factors.


I asked the TV network to pull short clips of all candidates so I could review them in split screen with no sound each was speaking with the audience or debating other candidates.


Here’s what we found.  First, several candidates were spending most of their time reading.  If you have to read “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to be here with you”—you have a real problem.  Surely you can remember you’re pleased to be somewhere.  Live audiences and TV viewers will not vote for the top of a candidate’s head while the head reads a speech.


The next thing that was obvious was the candidates who did not appear to be comfortable in their own skin.  This seems to be an intangible matter, but audiences know it when they see it.  A stiff delivery, awkward gestures, fidgeting, pacing and other things that would put you off in a party, also put audiences off in large political venues.  Conversely, a candidate who can step to the side of the podium, reach out with a natural double hand gesture look at ease and smile has a huge advantage over those who cling to the podium and script.


The value of testing politicians’ performances with no sound is just one way to get more value out of a focus group.  Another is anamatics.  That’s a catch-all word that means make the testing as close to reality as possible.


Here’s how it can work in politics.  Most focus groups sit eight to ten people around a board table while a client watches from behind two way mirrors.  Depending on what you’re testing, this can be such an unrealistic atmosphere in which you don’t really learn much.


Take campaign literature, householders or direct mail pieces.  People don’t sit around a board table with strangers reacting to paper being passed around the table.  How about throwing the odd-mail piece or brochure on the floor with a bunch of other mail and see if anyone picks it up?  How about leaving a bunch of material on the board room table and leaving the participants alone to see if any of them show any interest in the stuff?  If not, you have a big problem that asking their opinions of the graphics won’t fix.


My New York partner, Ken Kansas, helped invent anamatics during decades of high end attitudinal research, directing ad agencies and funding civic arts projects.  He advocates testing a TV commercial in graphic story-board treatment only.  Audiences are sophisticated enough to review production techniques and ignore the content.  What are you electing, a video editor, graphic artist or a candidate?  Story boards cause an audience to review the steak, not just the sizzle.


Then, instead of showing test audiences the commercial in a false setting like a board room, how about a room set up like a living room with a couch, newspapers and other distractions normally found in the home. This might test whether people are interested in the commercial at all.


How about actually using someone’s basement TV room into which the homeowner invites all the neighbours?  How about stripping the ad into the actual TV show in which it will run and surrounding it with other ads so the audience’s reaction is tested in a realistic setting.  Ken used to take such ads to shopping centres and run hundreds of people through a room over a few days to get a large sample and increase the reliability of the data.


Since Ken did his work, new technology presents new possibilities.  Focus group respondents can be picked up in a van equipped with video screens.  As they are being driven to the alleged focus group room, they can be shown a real TV show with the ads to be tested stripped in.  During the drive the people can be watched to see how much attention they pay.  Once in the focus group room they can be debriefed on what they remember.  If it’s nothing, it’s back to the drawing board.  There’s no point in making them look at an ad and react to it if they wouldn’t voluntarily watch at.  The same technique can be used with even better results with radio ads in the van, since it’s more realistic to listen to the radio than watch TV in a vehicle.


In industry, empathic testing means using a real person in a real kitchen to test a real coffee pot.  There are documented cases of manufacturers learning valuable lessons that save or make them millions.


The lesson in politics is surely that the candidate should be tested in realistic circumstances too.  Whatever else motivates voters, they are surely voting to put that candidate in their living room TV sets multiple times per week over the duration of the mandate.  So, it’s in real living rooms, in real TV programs that the candidate should be tested.


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What to Wear


In 1967 Singer/Songwriter Scott MacKenzie (Philip Wallach Blondheim) gave some advice that may still hold.  “If you’re going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear/Some flowers in your hair.”  I did go, several times.  I dined at the Cliff House, Fisherman’s Wharf, and put a quarter in the human jukebox.  The human jukebox occupied a very tall cardboard box and would raise the cardboard flap and blow a tune on his trumpet when called upon.    

MacKenzie sang his advice after being a member of the Journeymen during the folk era, the group that included his mum’s friend John Phillips.  Phillips wrote and co-produced San Francisco before moving on to The Mamas and the Papas.  MacKenzie wrote for Anne Murray.  Phillips and MacKenzie reunited in the 1980s in a new Mamas and Papas and to write and produce Kokomo for the Beach Boys.   

That was a while ago. But today I’d wear red if I were going to Kansas City, Missouri.  The reason is their START program.  This stands for Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment.  Volunteers will be conducting triage at the scene of an urban emergency using a color-coded system.  From the bottom up, Green stands for a minor injury, Yellow means attention can be delayed, Red requires immediate attention and Black is for Deceased.  

I say volunteers because in an emergency, as in war, everybody gets promoted one rank.  It will no doubt be someone’s intention to have trained medical personnel conduct triage, but they will end up providing actual medical treatment, not assessment.  A range of volunteers, medical students, yoga instructors and others will be doing triage—believe me.

Will they know what a dead person looks like?  Do you?  I am not sure I can distinguish a dead person from someone in extreme shock or a coma.  Years ago I saw people in catatonic trances before medication all but made the condition disappear.  They looked dead, but weren’t.  I don’t want to bet my life that a well-meaning volunteer with no medical training in Kansas City can.  So, I’ll wear red, signalling I need immediate attention and am not dead.  

In Houston they too have a triage guideline that I don’t want to be part of.  Black is also the category you don’t want to be in.  But in Houston there are several levels of dead—cardiac arrest, obviously deceased, and severe multiple blunt trauma non-survivable. That last category is probably more accurately termed ‘almost’ dead to be precise.  By deceased, Houston plan writers also mean “Non-Urgent.”  What an ‘urgent’ death might be is not stated.     

Speaking of the color black, as in the Black Death, San Francisco uses this color to signify the worst kind of emergency needing immediate attention.  So if this city is in the category “black” it’s a clue to send all possible assistance.  If a person in Houston or Kansas City is the category “black” that means give them no assistance—there’s no point.  

Perhaps on second thought I’ll wear a sign that says, “I’m not dead…really.”

Birmingham seems almost alone among urban emergency plans studied in its reference to the need for an emergency mortuary.  But that’s a reality check for urban emergency planners and the people who will have to use the plans they write.

There will be death–death of pets, livestock, and people.  Traumatic as this will be, the public health implications and logistical challenges will be an equal or greater challenge.  Some have talked about pre-arranged agreements with undertakers.  Others think of using hockey and curling rinks to store bodies.  Kansas City’s pet-plan is about the most comprehensive and speaks of incinerators and crematoriums.  

This is not pleasant.  But not planning for the unpleasant is worse.      

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Conscription if Necessary, but not Necessarily Conscription

An equivocating Canadian politician, Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, was asked about the divisive issue of conscription.  French and English Canadians didn’t see eye to eye on the issue, leading up to World War II.

Kind famously said “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” or words to that effect to reassure French Canadians that even a “Yes” vote in a plebiscite during the war might not necessarily mean actual conscription.    

This is how I feel about the activities of communications departments—communication if necessary, but not necessarily communication. But I mean something much more specific than Prime Minister King did.

What are the goals of the communications department?  Surely we are trying to sell goods and services?  We might also want to enhance reputation or engage in a great corporate social responsibility campaign.  But everything is secondary to the health of the enterprise.  

With that, here are some principles:

  1. Do we really need original research?   Are there no peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic we seek to understand?  Has no one else faced our market challenges before?  If so, let’s conduct research, but let’s also be sure we are building on the thousands of journal articles that already exist.
  2. Focus groups are unscientific gab-festivals and a good way to have a snack behind a two-way mirror.  They can be a good way to have a deep and long conversation, but this might be with people who are telling you what you want to hear.  
  3. Polling is really expensive – tens of thousands of dollars for reliable, national polls.  It’s even a thousand dollars or so to put your question on research company’s regular poll.     

So what do we do?  I would be in a preposterous position if I were arguing against research.  I’m not.  I’m just arguing for a certain type, at the right time.  

The first thing I want to do is deconstruct the buying decision.  Why do people buy?  When do they buy? Is that a different time than when they order or decide to buy?  Are other people involved in the decision?  Here’s what may be the case with a winter vacation in Florida.   The item goes on the credit card in November for a December trip.  This might spark advertising in October.  The advertising might be to credit card holders.  But it just might be the teenagers in the family who caused the decision to be made, and they may have been agitating in September when they went back to school.  Or they may have been bored during summer holidays in July and started thinking about going to Florida.  Or it may have been a family decision the previous cold February when everyone decided they were sick of winters.  

Who decides, and helps decide what and when is key.

It’s only after I really understood my customers’ and clients’ decision making process that I’d think about further research on my reputation.  Even then, I’d want to know if there’s already a strong impression about my sector of the economy.  If everybody hates a certain sector, it’s going to be hard for me to buck strong impressions.  So, back to first principles—sell the goods and services.  

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Sketch Comedy

There is an unresolved debate about how much of urban planning or architecture is sociology and how

much is science. What’s lost in this debate is that both may contain a little more sketch comedy and

Vaudeville than imagined. In the UK, it’s more Music Hall traditions.

Here’s an example. Edinburgh’s tram is hundreds of millions over budget and three years late. That’s

bad enough. But during construction, it left many roads all but impassible and thousands of drivers in a

rage. Now, to add insult to injury, there will be a judge-led inquiry into what went wrong. To complete

the sketch comedy, the inquiry will probably cost more than the budget for the tram, but that’s getting

ahead of the story. Stay tuned. Mind the gap.

The transport project cost about 1.5 billion dollars, after the scope was cut in half. Interest and loans

could push this total up even farther. The final project runs 8.7 miles from the airport to the centre of

the city with 15 stops. This is about a two hour walk for a healthy person.

The scope of the inquiry seems to exceed the scope of the tram project. The judge will examine 6

million documents. That’s down from an initial 500 million documents, reduced by the judge and his


A journalist covering the mater, Chris Green, notes that the judge won’t determine whether the trams

should have been built or whether anyone is liable. He’ll only try to find out why trams “cost

considerably more than originally budgeted for and delivered significantly less”

Let me try to save the judge some time, and the Scottish people much money. Let me start by putting

this in perspective. I’ve heard a story that Washington has been studying a tram for more than a dozen

years. No tram, but lots of study. At least Edinburgh has a tram. You can build a nuclear plant in 10

years, about the time it took to design, build and then study the Edinburgh tram. A nuclear plant “only”

requires 100,000 drawings and documents, not the 60 times that which the judge will be examining.

Planner Bent Flyvberg has already written a book called Rationality and Power which probably answers

most of the questions the Scottish judge is going to address. He studied a transport terminal in Aalborg,

Denmark. Guess what he found? Various powerful interests affected the design, location and cost.

These powerful interests were not just in the planning department or the city’s political offices.

I did my major planning study on the location of Toronto’s Skydome—the world’s first fully retractable

covered sports stadium. Guess what I found? Various powerful political interests affected the design, location and cost. These powerful interests were not just in the planning department or the city’s political offices.

Skydome was built on a site no one proposed and which was not in the top 3 chosen by a study group.

The cost quadrupled.

Getting to the bottom of these things is often like solving a mystery in the family. Who lost the sizzers?

Where’s the money go? Why’d we buy that couch. Often no one knows.

There might be something for Edinburgh to learn about tram building. That lesson might apply to a

future project. But for now, Edinburgh should just be glad they have a tram of any kind for any price.

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The 60’s Then and Now

There were a lot of divides in the 1960s. In fact, the 1960s probably didn’t really begin in 1960. Eisenhower was president until January 20, 1961 and he brought the 50s with him. In Canada Prime Ministers Diefenbaker and Pearson both looked like they were from a bygone era. Dief was a prairie populist, distrusting of big Eastern interests– a throwback to the Progressive Party from which his Progressive Conservatives took half their name. Pearson was a Nobel Prize winner and international diplomat, but spoke as if stating the exact time of day might cause an incident.

The 1960s really began with the British Invasion of February 1964—dividing the decade almost in half. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan on February 9th and famously toured in the mid 60’s with their last live concert at Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965

This signals another divide–Beatles vs Stones. Here’s a perspective, 50 years on.

Both groups unleashed a sexuality and libertine element. The Beatles had to go through matching suits and “good boy” behaviour after their “bad boy” behaviour in Hamburg, before becoming “odd boys” in India and on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s.

The Stones started out as bad boys and it stuck.

Most people think of the Beatles as making significant social commentary, and the Stones not doing so. Let’s have a closer look.

The Beatles wanted to “hold your hand” in 1964. The Stones suggested “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” They at least got to the point.

John Lennon’s “Revolution” was a remarkably un-revolutionary song in the tumultuous year 1968. There was something in the air in 1968 (to quote Thunderclap Newman) and you’d be forgiven for asking “What’s Going On” as did Marvin Gaye. Paris was at a standstill and standoff with a student’s strike, the Columbia strike was going on in New York, the Tet offensive was launched on January 30th and Peking was awash in the cultural revolution. Lennon didn’t seem to want to play along with the world trend and rightly so. Events in Paris ended when Charles de Gaulle made an ambiguous speech (counter revolutionary), the Right won the 1960s in the US with the election of Richard Nixon, the North Vietnamese lost the Tet offensive on the battlefield, and only won on US domestic TV screens. Peking lost lots of talent.

“Revolution”, the song, was prescient of John, but most people don’t think of the Beatles as counter revolutionary.

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re all doing what we can

Take a look at the Stones lyrics and you see two things. There was much more social and political commentary than you thought at the time, and they’re still making prescient comments.

“Men just aren’t the same today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired
They’re so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight

The social commentary of “Mother’s Little Helper” may be lost today, especially in North America, but in post war England, the over prescription of stimulants to housewives was an epidemic.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man

Despite somehow becoming an anthem of violence and destruction. The lyrics to “Street Fighting Man” undeniably identify the singer’s unruly character as unwelcome and unwanted. Originally inspired by Jagger’s visit to Paris in 1968, the student uprising was by all accounts sobering and seems to have left Jagger with something of a bad taste in his mouth for revolution.

When I’m watchin’ my T.V.
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say

Ask any person what “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” is about and most will be pretty sure that the lyrics are meaningless gibberish and the song’s main impact is the hypnotic riff and insistent rhythm. However, a close reading reveals the first two verses to be about advertising and consumerism. Jagger electrified his generation writing about rejecting the button down world of Madison Avenue. The boomers, at least in 1965, didn’t identify themselves as brand ambassadors, or brand slaves. They had little interest in doing what they were told to do by anyone.

And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
And if we don’t, we are going to blow a 50-amp fuse”, yeah

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is the jewel in the crown of 60’s social commentary. Jagger and Richards saw through the idealism of the hippies for the violent unfocused destructive movement it was. Looking back, and having seen the boomers trade in their protest banners and long hair for SUV’s and Starbucks, it’s hard to not see the point the Stones were making.

The legacy of the 60’s may be in the hands of the Beatles, but who’s really winning now? The Rolling Stones continue to tour the world breaking into new markets and entertaining audiences worldwide. Paul McCartney still tours but to nowhere near as much as the Stones. When Paul was invited to perform at the Grammys in 2012 The phrase “who is Paul McCartney?” Started trending on twitter. No one was unclear who the subject of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” or when Kanye West or other rappers reference The Stones’ lead singer. The Beatles’ recordings may have captured the zeitgeist of the 60’s but the Rolling Stones have something more universal than that. Whatever it is, remains in demand around the world to this day. The Stones continue to provide relevant social commentary, even in their 2013 track “Doom and Gloom”:

Lost all that treasure in an overseas war
It just goes to show you don’t get what you paid for
Bowing to the rich and worrying about the poor
Put my feet up on the couch and lock all the doors

Whichever side you’re on there’s lots of great music to enjoy. But here’s one legacy from the 60s—don’t think conventionally or buy the conventional wisdom about the Beatles, Stones, revolution and message songs.

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Political Truisms –Still True After the NDP Convention

Political Truisms –Still True After the NDP Convention

1. There is only a tenuous link between federal and provincial parties. There’s no need to get in a knot about Premier Notley’s wanting to ship Canadian bitumen in Canadian built pipelines made out of Canadian steel to Canadian tidewater ports. If a faction of the federal party doesn’t like it, that’s life. I lived in Saskatchewan when the provincial NDP government was presiding over the shipment of Uranium to the world for nuclear purposes when much of the federal wing of the NDP were anti-nuclear power and weapons. Relax.

2. Politics demands different skills. Campaigning for nomination is different than being in opposition or governing. Campaigning for general election is another skill as well. NDP leader Mulcair showed in sharp relief that one can be superb in Question Period and lack luster in a speech. I say speech because his campaign manager bears some responsibility for acting as a front runner and not the social conscience the NDP likes to be. I am referring to his convention speech over the weekend, which was a bland, front runner’s stump speech, not a call to action or a request for support. The NDP should beg Mulcair to stay as deputy leader and ask questions in the house and be a roving gadfly, chairing a committee and barbequing witnesses.

3. Pandering is pandering and manipulation is manipulation. Mulcair’s call to stand up for justice and a variety of things was too thinly veiled manipulation to orchestrate a standing ovation.

4. I digress but remember to last big piece of public spending that benefitted two regions? It involved western Canadian resources and eastern manufacturing. It was the mad monk from Cape Breton, Alan McEachen, long-time Trudeau (P.) cabinet minister, who orchestrated the building of oval (thus oxymoronic) box cars at Sydney Steel in Cape Breton to haul Western Canadian wheat to market. Good plan pleasing at least five provinces if you count shipments from Ontario ports.

5. Even the Richard Hatfield strategy wouldn’t have helped Mulcair with 48%. What the late former NB Premier did, or had Dalton Camp and John Andrews done, was orchestrate a standing ovation at the convention which voted on a leadership review. No one reported a number or percentage of the vote because it wasn’t made public. The media covered how long the standing ovation lasted.

6. No one cares who is leading an opposition party 3 years before an election. The NDP needs to wait two years to launch a new leader and carry the momentum and interest into an election.

7. Canada is not the US, nor the UK and comparisons between Mulcair and Sanders and/or Corbyn are to be taken with a pound of salt. First, Corbyn is far too loose a cannon, having made quite inflammatory statements about matters that don’t pertain to social justice or the economy. Sanders is a better comparison, toiling away in the intellectual salt mines for decades. Sanders has been in our faces with inequity messages very effectively, while Mulcair has been whispering in our ears. Sanders is the compelling guest at a dinner party and Mulcair is the oddball in the corner of the room, speaking softly about conspiracy theories.

8. Mulcair quit his smiling lessons about three weeks too soon.

9. You can’t take your punch with you when you move up a weight class in boxing. You can’t take your political punch with you to a new jurisdiction in politics. Mulcair was once a cabinet minister who negotiated something difficult and quit over a matter of principle. For those in most provinces, that was a long time ago and far, far away.

10. Candidates at a political convention can’t tell delegates whom to vote for when they drop out. Premier Notley can’t tell any voters, even in Alberta, how to vote federally. The federal NDP can’t get a bounce from the Alberta NDP. They can get workers, but that’s about it.

11. We need to hear more French from Canadian politicians to get a sense of how well they can speak to Francophones and Francophiles. But, and I say this cautiously, Mulcair spoke too much French from his convention in Alberta. Why? Not because it was French, but because the simultaneous translation sounded hesitant and disconnected Mulcair from anyone watching on the English networks. We knew he could speak French.

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Power Point

The headline in the New York Times Magazine is eye-catching and funny–“Power Point Makes you Dumb.”

But when you read that Clive Thompson’s, article from 2003 is about the report of the Columbia Accident

Investigation Board that looked into the crash of the space shuttle, it’s not so funny.

When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a

confusing PowerPoint slide — so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly

impossible to untangle. ”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and

not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the board sternly noted.

And how’s this an urban issue?

Urban emergency plans contain lots of irrelevant information–lists of contributors, jargon, lists of hazards

without solutions, definitions of the obvious and so on.  Some plans run to 500 pages.

Some have surprising elements.  One nice surprise is Boston’s comprehensive look at climate change.  A

disappointment is Barrie, Ontario’s out of date plan that advises readers to get help where not is actually


And now for something completely different.  Hamilton has a Power Point presentation for our reading

enjoyment.  The problem is that readers weren’t in the room when the presenter spoke about the power point

bullets.  So, the bullets don’t make sense without the commentary.

Take these three lines:

“Response in Ontario & Canada starts at the ground level”  — I bet response begins high above the ground in

high-rise fires and well below the ground in the mining industry or subway accidents. But that’s just a guess.

“No automatic call for the cavalry” — Has someone disabled 9-11 in Ontario?  Are mutual aid agreements a

myth?  Have the alarms in petro-chemical plants that are hooked up to city fire departments been banned?  Are

we using semaphore?

“That is known, that is what we prepare for”  — That is what?  If it’s known, could we know?  Perhaps we could

also prepare, if it weren’t for the unspoken.

Clive Thompson in New York Magazine sums up the use of these bullet points.  “Perhaps PowerPoint is

uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation — where manipulating facts is as important as presenting

them clearly. If you have nothing to say, maybe you need just the right tool to help you not say it.”

But Mississauga’s emergency plan may be revealing another use.  The inclusion of this Power Point may be

the low-tech version of “I Tweeted it out…”  Both imply a willingness or even necessity to communicate.  They

imply openness, that one values one’s own opinion, that one has information to share.  The fact that perhaps

nobody gets or understands it is beside the point in this information age.

In this information age, building a website, sending an email, posting an instagram picture, adding a hyper-link,

blogging, and hosting a webinar are all considered “pro-active” communication.  These tasks can be listed in

another Power Point presentations and used during performance appraisals to show the boss how much has

been done.  That Power Point can be used to obtain a larger budget.

Few senior managers with budgetary control will discuss the content of these social media efforts, ask how

many received them, or how many responded.  That’s good because there’s no good research on how much

good a communications plan does to keep urban residents safe.  The fact that communications plans do some

good is mainly a guess.

But these activities may actually show compliance with laws.  Laws in most jurisdictions require cities to have

emergency plans, make them public, update them regularly and test them.  There’s no law that says they have

to be received by anybody, understood or make sense.

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The World’s First Video Leaders’ Debate

“Let’s be clear…let me cite some facts…” as the politicians say.

What I just watched from the University of Westminster in London may have been the first ever video recorded leaders debate. Others were televised debates, and were video recorded, but this one was only video recorded.

It was good to watch on YouTube, but it wasn’t television. More on production values after comments about the leaders.


Justin Trudeau

When Pierre, Justin’s father said, “uh…well…you know…” many Canadians thought he was thinking of Plato during the pauses and only brought his mind around to the pedestrian question reluctantly.

When Justin says, “uh…this…um…” most people probably think he’s lost his way. His head waggle (like a golfer’s) and twitching body also signals a diversionary tactic, perhaps because of a discomfort with the topic at hand.

In this debate Trudeau was at his best, but he’s still a bit too awkward for TV. His nervous smile at inappropriate times signals this.

When Trudeau pauses and refocuses both verbally and physically he is signalling that he has memorized, but not internalized his messages. I advise committing one’s messages to mind, not memory.


Let me just remind you that this is the Prime Minister who apparently dislikes the mainstream media. In fact, word is that it is the PM who didn’t want to do another consortium debate on regular TV.

Well, if this is true, he is a remarkably good TV performer for someone who may not like the people who work in the media. He has also improved his performance over the years and is now the strongest we’ve ever seen him.

Harper won a previous debate by sitting quietly and smiling as May hectored him about an OECD report. This time he’s much more active and mediagenic. He’s jumping in and using the weight of his office to say he’s proffering facts and correcting the record. He even occasionally lecturing the others, but not appearing unreasonable in doing so.


Elizabeth May looks the best she’s loooked.

She also sounds as good on the issues as she has in previous debates, the House and speeches. This Green Party isn’t the European version. May is not only good on the environment & getting an army of workers put to work on infrastructure and other projects.

She was also good on inter provincial trade barriers, which should have been addressed after FTA and NAFTA.


The problem that Tom Mulcair has was high expectations. He’s come off many, many months of producing great TV clips and incendiary questions in the House. He may be the best opposition leader since Diefenbaker.

In this debate, he’s calm and cool with reasonable positions, particularly on pipelines.

But reasoned discussion of the issues isn’t necessarily good TV. Nor is his forced smile. He smiles like the guy in CSI during the first 10 minutes and you’re not sure if he’s the villain or not.

And Now a Review of the Video Show

The Host

Let’s start with the host. Paul Wells is insightful in his TV analysis and commentary and page-turning riveting in his books. But you can see the difference between insightful 30 second bursts in conversation with others, as he does with Don Martin, and hosting a program that’s almost 3 hours long.

The Music

The theme for the debate had that fake sense of occasion that such things as elections, debates and news specials need.

The Backgrounders

The video montages giving viewers background on the issues to be discussed were professionally done. They’re the video version of a sidebar story in a magazine. The audio technician didn’t do Paul Wells a favour by having his print voice compete with the theme music. Not everything needs a soundtrrack.

The Lighting

Note that Mulcair looked as if he’d spent weeks at Hollywood Beach, Florida with other Quebecers and others looked liked they’d spent all winter in Whitehorse under a touque.

Camera Angles

Ditto the asymmetrical camera angles. We saw Justin Trudeau in full face, Elizabeth May’s right cheek, Stephen Harper in full face, and Tom Mulcair’s left cheek, but not as much as Ms. May’s right.

To be fair, many reaction shots of leaders watching other leaders were very good.

The Set

I make these comments having worked in a state of the art studio in Saint John, NB many years ago, an old shoe store turned into a TV studio in Moose Jaw, a converted industrial building in Regina, CBC’s new building in Vancouver and something built in CBC’s parking lot on Jarvis Street in Toronto. I’ve also been a guest in studios in London, New York and elsewhere.

I bet the technicians were first rate. I also bet they were working with less than optimum equipment. I worked with a Teleprompter at IChannel that stuck regularly and in Moose Jaw, the shoe store’s concrete floor was too uneven to truck or dolly (move back and forth) the cameras.

So it ain’t easy to make a TV show and this is not a bad one with the available tools.


The much neglected aspect of current TV and video production was great for the voices of the participants, with the exception of Paul’s voice over.

The Set

This ain’t easy either. Real things look fake on TV and fake things look real. The shadows on Mulcair’s face were not planned or welcome, but the shadow outlines of maple leaves
are fake and look great.

The Commentators

The cut aways to average Canadians, carefully chosen is largely a waste of time.

What a revelation to find that Facebook has a Manager of Public Policy, or some such title.

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Gordon Lightfoot

I blame Gordon Lightfoot for delaying the urbanization of Canada.  While he wrote about the city in

“Home from the Forest” most of his iconic songs glorified small towns and rural settings.  In “Did She

Mention My Name” the young man calls back to the small town to see whether his old flame

remembers him.  “Alberta Bound” celebrates the vastness of our country.

So does Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” chronicling the migrant worker’s challenges.  If you can really

listen to this and not cry, try playing it again.

Ironically these celebrations were occurring when Canada was rapidly urbanizing.  In the early 1960s,

just as Lightfoot and Tyson were coming up, future Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had the plumb job of

traveling with and aiding Agriculture Minister, Alvin Hamilton.  Who?  Those were the days when

Agriculture was a senior cabinet portfolio.  This ended with Eugene Whelan.

By the time Stompin’ Tom came along the glorification of rural Canada in “Bud the Spud” and

“Tillsonberg” the stories and characters were more camp than true.

I like all these and other Canadian iconic songs, but they don’t reflect the urban nature of our country.

And since I like them and like the singers, I forgive them for misrepresenting my country.

But I can’t forgive the late Peter Gzowski.  He was a successful journalist who rose quickly to be one of

the youngest ever editors of McLeans Magazine.  Good editor, they say.

Peter then joined CBC as host of the network radio program “This Country in the Morning.”  He left for

late night TV talk show “90 Minutes Live” and then back to radio for his final run on “Morningside.”  In

between there were some books of recipes and home-spun anecdotes.

I began my CBC career baby-sitting the network feed at the Fredericton station, and ended it as a regular

on Morningside, but with Don Harron as host.

Peter’s take on Canada was out of step in two ways. The first was that his perspective came from the

1960s, embodied in his TV commercials in which he noted his work clothes were made of denim. This

was a little after the fact by the time modernity ended in 1973.

The other was the content of the show. To be sure, some interviews and the Kierans, Camp, and Lewis

political panel were spot on. But most of the show fetishized odd-ball, rustic characters from the nooks

and crannies of this country.  We also heard recipes and never-ending letters from listeners who tried to

write in Peter’s baroque style. Interesting to be sure, but not representative.  My recollection is that we

were more likely to hear from Goofy Ruffy in the Fredericton market than from someone dealing with

pressing urban issues, or more likely to hear major coverage of minor hockey than Quebec or Western


This Country in the Morning was a fantasy land — a “Group of Seven” picture of Canada in which no one

was there–only squiggly lines adding up to the land. Most of the people who were on the show were

squiggly caricatures of people–not real people.

An acquaintance of mine was the New York Times Canadian correspondent when Peter was about to

retire.  Anthony de Palma had all the resources and smarts in the world, so got it right.  He summed up

the beloved show in The Times. He noted the importance of rhubarb pie recipes, and getting to the

bottom of the thorny issue of avoiding the pie filling being too stringy.

Canada has an enviable history of resource-sector development, pioneering and farming.  But we must

not ignore our current reality–urbanism for most of the population.

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Well On My Way

There are many signs that you’ve made it in the big city.   I like carrying my MetroCard

from New York, just to show I’m a regular there.   Having a regular driver in a car

service is a good omen, but so is just walking the busy streets and being part of the

urban street theatre that urban critic Jane Jacobs loved.

But, it’s really where you eat a celebratory meal that separates the successful from the

aspiring–don’t you think?

Dinner at Hy’s in Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa announce you’ve arrived.  Carver’s in

Saskatoon, the Carvery in Edmonton, Golf’s in Regina, Barbarian’s in Toronto, Moishe’s

in Montreal and the Maverick Room in Fredericton have been the scene of many a

celebratory dinner in my life, and, no doubt the lives of many others.

But then there’s the calculous involving the time of life.  A & W with that special person

may linger longer than an expensive dinner after you’ve made it.  A buddy of mine and I

once invited two young women out for a drink in Fredericton.  We bought a bottle of

wine at the liquor store on Prospect Street, opened it as we drove into the Irving car

wash at the corner of Regent and Prospect.  We had the wine finished by the time the

car was clean.  It might not have been what the young women were expecting, but we

did take them out for a drink.

One of my most memorable meals that announced I’d made it was breakfast in Regina. 

While still in university I had part-time work in broadcasting, mainly on the CBC morning

show–Saskatchewan Today.  I had been impoverished by the daily wage at CJME

(20/20 News), and CBC’s half-day rate was a big step up.

My first morning, one of the French announcers from Radio-Canada’s morning show

walked around asking people if they wanted breakfast at the end of the broadcast. 

“Sure” I said, having eaten at 5:00 AM, but knowing I’d be hungry again at 9:15.  He

took my order–bacon and eggs.

When our English and French shows were over, we all walked out to McIntyre Street

and a bit north to the Empire Hotel.  Saskatchewanian Joni Mitchell had written about

“…sittin’ in the lounge of the Empire Hotel…” in her song Raised on Robbery, but I had a

low expectation that she’d actually be there.

In we walked, and in my minds eye, there was actually a drunk sleeping on the floor

from the night before.  We took a left into the restaurant, and there was my breakfast

waiting in a little booth.

There was more aroma than what was coming from the welcome bacon frying and

coffee, but I was focused on something else.  I was wedged into a decades old booth

with my fellow performers.  We had the camaraderie of that only those who’d been

through a trial by fire could have–circus performers, politicians, singers and

broadcasters.  We knew the tight rope of live radio, tape that broke, stretched or didn’t

play, guests who didn’t show and dead phone lines.  All the while what saved us and the

program was an inexhaustible ability to talk.  We’d cover any and all problems with talk

about the last guest, the next guest, the guest who didn’t show up, the weather or the

roads.  When it was all over, we had a much deserved bond and minor celebration.

The breakfast probably cost me one-half of one-percent of some of the celebratory

dinners I mentioned above.  But it was my first earned bond with grown ups who had

real jobs, cars, mortgages and lives.

I was on my way.

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