On Being Fed Up With Crap Television News

When you read the Letters section in this issue, you may be one of the many who will empathize with Robert Fripp, the former Fifth Estate producer who says that he hasn’t watched television news or current affairs programs for over 10 years because “The steady drip-feed of Shock-Horror, negativity, finger-pointing and a press-room compass eternally pointed towards noire, is no more conducive to good mental health than is television.”


I can remember a time when I would have been mortified if I’d been caught not being informed; if, during cocktail conversation, I was found guilty of not knowing about the latest gaff of some politician, or what kind of reviews a certain movie received. Now, I don’t care. Neither do a lot of people. Because the trend seems to be that we’re backing away from the media. No one is embarrassed to say so any more. I have friends who no longer own television sets. People have made the decision because anything to do with mainstream media these days is maudlin crap, slanted reporting, That Blowed Up Real Good!, or Oh The Humanity! It’s stressful and depressing.

When I first heard about the Tsunami in December, I thought ‘Oh, poor people.” Then I thought ‘I bet newsroom journalists all over North America are just jumping for joy.’ I was right. There was a palpable giddiness in the reportage of the event’s aftermath, as if producers were shouting ‘We’ve got enough Human Interest for last for months!’ Reporters flocked to the region to report on sick orphans and starving people. Global News BC sent a native of the region, along with a reporter and cameraman, for that ‘first-hand, personal’ touch while, at home, its reporters were doing remotes from coffee shops whose owners were smart enough to see a great promotional opportunity when it arose.

When the Tsunami story started to cool, the same news organization invented its own story. A Thai princess came to Vancouver to settle legal and insurance matters relating to a property she owns here, and that almost burned down last year. Global reported on that fire at the time, and likely knew exactly what she was doing here. Instead, it reported that she came here to ski, swarmed her at the airport, demanded an interview with her representative here, and did ‘people on the street’ interviews.

Man oh man oh man….

While North American news organizations were squeezing every last sad drop out of the tsunami story, and many of us were hoping for some other disaster so the subject could be changed, the temperature plummeted to a (Vancouver) record of -7. I’m schlepping winter clothes to the Salvation Army and thinking “Hmmm…we’re sending millions and millions and millions overseas but, uh, doesn’t charity begin at home?” That same day, Nelson Mandela’s son died of AIDS. In South Africa alone, 600 people die of AIDS every single day—that’s 219,000 every year. While recording artists in every country are organizing concerts for those affected by the Tsunami, I’m thinking: “Whatever happened to Bob Geldof’s push for famine relief in Africa?, and “Why aren’t more people fundraising for HIV meds there?”

I used to be a fundraiser—I organized my first event at 14 and hung up the ball gowns about 10 years ago. I know how easily good causes can fall out of favour, or lose their cachet. There’s a status attached, or not, to each one. But once the media sees the opportunity to show the Blood & Guts, and countless images of suffering and pain and loss and damage, our response is to jump on! Do something now! Buy an Armani t-shirt (made in Mexico—I checked), send little kids on door-to-door collection excursions. That’s great, but then the cause in question seems to become obscene to us. After a very short period of time, people turn away, repulsed, or bored. It’s March now, and few of us think of the tsunami disaster; by the summer, most people will have pretty much forgotten about it. (The answer of course is for everyone to give a monthly sum to a broad-reaching charity.)

I digress. I turned on the news today. Services for the slain RCMP officers—an event that has grieved and disgusted the entire nation. Paul Martin’s ongoing support from his party. The US border’s closure to our cows. This is good—this is news that is relevant and meaningful to Canadians. But I’m watching the CBC. At 6:00, I will turn to one of the local channels—Global, CTV or CHUM. I will hear about the latest car accidents, house fires, some out-of-bounds skier being rescued. In ‘international’ news, it will likely be news of a landslide in California, a bad car accident in Holland, or a flood in Wales—anything gut-wrenching to fill the time.

We need to write to news directors and ask: ‘Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t we have fresh stories, discovered and developed by Canadian reporters, about things that actually mean something to us? Why is it that, when we are finished watching the news and there was an important issue mentioned, we’re left asking questions about it? Why give reporters 2 minutes, when they need at least 6 to lay out the facts? Why is all of our news coming from the wire services? Have you forgotten that there is, or used to be, something called ‘investigative journalism’? Are you appealing only to those who use TV as a dinnertime opiate? Or are you trying to frustrate us all and force us into blissful ignorance?’

That may be the route I’m taking. In fact, it is. I used to spend time writing essays about ‘Big Important Issues’. Now, I’m writing children’s books. My new main sources of news are the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I’m tired of being depressed by every news show. I’m tired of listening to junk no one cares about. I’m turning over a new leaf. I have a new ‘tude: Don’t ask me nuthin’ because I won’t know nuthin’.

Blitz Magazine, 2006

Donny, Marie & BC: BC Children’s Hospital Is #1 in Telethon Fundraising

 Blitz Magazine, November 1998


 To cynical television viewers, fundraising telethons can be nightmarish marathons of show tunes, dance acts and maimed children gasping over puppies while sleep-deprived celebrities sob in the background. On the other hand, all that tackiness works — it keeps the phones buzzing and the money meter humming.

               In 1983, Donny and Marie’s Osmond Foundation decided to improve on the concept and founded the Children’s Miracle Network (CHM), which facilities the staging of telethons for pediatric medical facilities. One reason that some telethons turn out to be so hokey is that certain markets may have a very limited amount of local entertainment. With the CHM, all members have their telethons on the same week-end. But the telethon in, say, Little Rock may have only enough local material to fill 20 minutes in an hour. As a CHM member, for the other 40 minutes, it goes by satellite to the main CHM event in Orlando, where Donny or Marie or Mary Hart or John Schneider could be performing. The foundation is paid a fee by the hospitals and, in exchange, provides access to national sponsors and, for promotional purposes, national celebrities. Today, there are 160 North American facilities under the CHM umbrella, and BC Children’s Hospital is number one — ‘has been since 1994.

bcch3               How can that be?, you ask. BC’s population has only just hit four million and we know that Americans are way more generous when it comes to supporting hospitals. And it’s true that there are hospitals in markets like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles which take in $60. million a year. But that money is gathered through planned giving, where corporations and individuals make long-term charitable commitments; and through major gifts from estates, trusts and foundations. Where BC Children’s Hospital wins out is in annual giving.

               Then you ask: But, if our government uses our tax dollars to pay for our hospitals, why do they need more money? John Morton, Director of Marketing & Communications for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, says that that is the question which he’s most often asked. And that its answer is the reason that there has to be a foundation in the first place.

               “Our tax dollars pay for operating costs. That money — $140. million annually in the case of BCCH — keeps the doors open, the lights on, the staff coming. It doesn’t allow for capital expenditures, new equipment, research, patient programs or staff and family education. For that, we have to raise our own money. So the foundation, which is a stand-alone entity with 30 full-time employees, is the hospital’s fundraising and marketing arm. We raise awareness and bring in funds so our care-givers can concentrate on taking care of children.”

               Although there has been a hospital for children in Vancouver since 1897, BC Children’s Hospital (BCCH) has officially been in existence since 1947. It is the only children’s hospital in the province (Ontario has three) and it is charged with providing BC with leadership in clinical care, access to specialty health care and research. It is the provincial centre for pediatric trauma, critical care, neonatology, cancer treatment, kidney transplants and the training of medical specialists in child health care. Last year, the hospital saw 139,000 patient visits (65% from outside the Lower Mainland), its ER treated 32,000 patients, its staff cared for 600 premature infants and critically ill newborns. One thousand cancer patients were treated last year — it sees 110 new cases each year and 75% of patients survived last year, up from 20% in 1988. In 1997, it performed 86,000 surgical procedures, including 200 open-heart surgeries and 20 bone marrow transplants, and it has BC’s only MRI scanner (which is used by other hospitals). It operates 40 ambulatory clinics and 162 out-reach clinics, provides treatment for HIV-infected women and children, and runs a vaccine evaluation centre, a family resource library and an injury prevention program. All of this, of course, costs bags of money — $154 million in 1997.

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               Raising money for the short-fall would, some may think, be easy — you produce pictures of cute sick kids and ask for the dough. Who could refuse? What possible argument could there be against wanting to make children healthy?

               In fact, fundraising is a hugely competitive business, and BCCH competes with 1,000 active BC charities. Most charitable giving is based on emotional appeal, and most charities are targeted in that appeal — if your spouse has kidney disease, you would be more disposed to giving to the Kidney Foundation; your passion for animals would direct your money to the SPCA. The two charities which are so broad-based that everyone feels good about supporting them, though, are the United Way and BC Children’s Hospital. But fundraising is expensive and the United Way is a huge organization with lots of money to spend.

               The answer to what could be a David-and-Goliath situation for BCCH is two-fold — it maintains innovative communications programs and it thinks of itself as a for-profit business.

               “We make a concerted effort to position the hospital in the same way as we would in the for-profit sector,” says Morton. “We’re a charity and many people donate all or part of their services to us, but we don’t shy away from the fact that there’s a cost to doing business and that investments have to be made in resources, people and marketing tools. We have the same demanding standards in marketing and communications as any professionally-run company would, we pay the same attention to cash out-lay — but we stay with the non-profit rule of never allowing costs to exceeding 20% of funds raised.”

               BCCH raises funds in a variety of ways. Smilewear, or branded apparel, is sold in banks, retail outlets, over the BCCH web site and at the hospital’s gift shop to bring in $100,000.00 a year. Financial gifts come from individuals and corporations. But where BCCH comes out of the gate is in annual telethon fundraising. And although about $250,000.00 is raised each year through call-in donations on the telethon week-end, the bulk of annual funds comes from activities conducted throughout the year for the telethon. And this happens through what Morton calls ‘systemic fundraising’.

               The foundation divides its telethon fundraising cabinet into industry sectors and recruits volunteers from these sectors — Tourism/Hospitality, Information and Technology, Construction, Transportation, Retail/Wholesale, Forestry, Finance, Real Estate, Mining, Energy, Professional (doctors, lawyers) and the Public Sector. In each sector, one volunteer becomes chairman of the committee for his or her industry, recruits more volunteers from that industry and is responsible for that committee’s activities. In addition, the Chinese-Canadian, Indo-Canadian and Italian-Canadian communities have their own committees, and there are 13 additional committees to handle donations management, catering, production etc.

               As the telethon is held each June, the 28 committees start planning in October, and all funds raised over the next eight months become part of the telethon total. The foundation provides a relationship manager for each committee to provide support, but the committees are pretty much left to themselves to raise funds in their own way. And they don’t need much help.

               “We tend to attract people who are at the top of their industries, and they got there for a reason,” says Morton. “We have fundraising initiatives that we’ve perfected over the years, but these are extremely creative people and they’re good at coming up with their own ideas.”

               The Finance committee raises about $1. million by selling hot dogs and Sunny Bears (the hospital’s mascot), and by hosting a stick-on toonie campaign at teller wickets. The Tourism/Hospitality committee conducts a chocolate hedgehog campaign, a Coffee for Kids campaign and a golf tournament. There is a Mining For Miracles campaign. Canada Post sells cook books. A Slo-Pitch tournament brings in $420,000.00. Then there is Jeans Day, where people buy $5. buttons and, if they wear the buttons, can wear jeans to work on a designated Friday each year. Jeans Day alone raises $620,000.00 and it was an idea that came from Bryant, Fulton & Shee, which has been the foundation’s advertising agency, on a pro bono basis, for the past ten years and which gets a lot of credit for making the telethon fundraising campaign the success that it is.

               Because communication is the key to successful fundraising. If you’re a non-profit organization, people have to know why you exist, what you do, why they should give you money and what you would do with it. You have to create awareness of yourself as a brand, and you have to keep reminding people that you’re still doing what you do and that you still need money. It’s not easy, given the competition and our persistently unstable economy.bcch2

               After the BCCH foundation joined the Children’s Miracle Network in 1986, its fundraising plugged along at a steady pace, hitting $2.7 million in 1990. Public awareness of the hospital and its activities grew, as did the foundation’s work with Bryant, Fulton & Shee but, in 1993, it was decided that a heavy branding campaign was in order.

               “The foundation had developed a bit of an advertising campaign and had decided on the image it wanted to portray,” explains Jeff Schulz, Bryant, Fulton & Shee’s Director of Response Marketing. “That image was that the hospital is there to put smiles back where they belong — on the faces of children. But, for 1993, we decided to go bigger, to create a bigger sense of the hospital and to put an emotional face on it.”

               A new strategy was developed, and it is this strategy which remains today — the strategy which propelled BCCH to the top of the telethon fundraising heap and keeps it there still.

               Two campaigns were launched, both using transit, radio, TV, outdoor and poster advertising. From July to April, a general awareness campaign does not ask people to donate money, but it reminds them that the hospital is a provincial care-giver which puts smiles back where they belong. The second campaign raises awareness of the telethon. It is a call to action, encouraging people to support the telethon by participating in the committees’ telethon-related activities.

               One of the key components to the success of both campaigns was the 1993 incorporation of direct mail. There are now direct mail campaigns in the spring and fall. Each is a three-wave mailing: three consecutive letters are sent to 50,000 households, most of which include current or past donors. The mailings include wish lists, i.e. ‘this is the piece of equipment we need, this is what it would do and this is what it costs’. There have been notes from parents and children — such as ‘I want to be a airplane lady,’ or, from Brandon, ‘I want to be a firman’, with an accompanying photograph of Brandon in a firefighter’s suit. The goal is to create what fund-raisers call ‘the warm fuzzies’ — the tug at the heartstrings which opens the door to the bank account.

               The direct mail campaigns have also included a design strategy. “We tried to do some interesting, less traditional things,” says Schulz. “Most non-profits print two-colour materials. We found that four-colour generates a better response. Most donor forms are 3 1/3” x 8” — we went with an 8 1/2” x 11” form and simplified it to make it easy to complete. So we use strong, bright colours, make donating easier and put interesting graphic treatments on the envelopes — large images of children, strong headlines. We’ve included a stamp program with children’s art which we later auctioned off, and that had the effect of involving donors. Meanwhile, the direct mail works with the advertising so that when donors see a TV ad or outdoor board, they relate it back to the direct mail pieces.”

               Campaigns we’ve seen lately have included the Superman theme (using the Crash Test Dummies hit song), which points out that too many children discover that they’re not made of steel. There have been taped parent and care-giver testimonials and, recently, Vancouver Grizzly Antonio Daniels warbled hackneyed ballads with the promise that he’d stop if people donate. The print/poster ads have been extremely effective, with arresting images and headlines.

               “Some of the campaigns are a little edgy, but we always want to convey a sense of hope,” says Schulz. “With the drama, there has to be a positive spin. We want people to feel good about giving.”

               The result of the 1993 change in strategy — the heavy branding campaign using the hospital’s sunshine logo combined with direct mail and a strong television presence, created a massive jump in public awareness for the hospital — to 93%. And the resultant momentum has carried through financially: last June’s telethon brought in $5.5 million. As the foundation has an endowment which covers its administrative costs, all funds raised go directly to the hospital– less the cost of staging the telethon which, last year, was $323,000.00.

               Which, if you think about it, isn’t bad. That’s for a week-end on Global Television, with sets which have to be built, technicians and staff who have to be paid. Then there’s the cost of producing the telethon’s video presentations. Much of the telethon’s visual content is four-minute video vignettes — patient stories including interviews with doctors, nurses, family members. Along the way, comedians perform to keep the energy up and the whole thing is meant to be a happy, cheerful celebration of caring and giving, although events can occasionally alter that.

               “We had started to tape a vignette on a child, then it became apparent that her treatment wasn’t working,” recalls Morton. “The child died but we ran the vignette anyway, as a tribute to her. What we do is desperately serious and it’s not a bad thing to occasionally remind people of that in a tasteful way.”

               As the telethon is the culmination of all of the committees’ activities for the previous eight months, a good deal of time is also spent on volunteer and donor recognition, which takes the form of on-screen acknowledgments and cheque presentations from committee delegations. There are, of course, the phone banks and, to keep people calling in the off hours, there are Fast Five Minute segments where sponsors give away products to those who call within those five minutes. Callers can have $25.00 donations added to their telephone bills and, this year, the foundation brought in new technology to facilitate increased call-in donations.

               “We set up a 1-900 line a month prior to the telethon with a voice mail tree which allows people to donate without having to talk to anyone,” says Morton. “People have turned to that in a big way.”

               As mentioned, smaller-market telethons have to turn to the satellite feed for entertainment from the Children’s Miracle Network, which is taking place simultaneously in Florida. BCCH, however, is lucky to have a large talent pool; enough to fill 14 of the 21 telethon hours with local content, so it uses the satellite feed only from midnight to 8:00 a.m.

               The BCCH telethon isn’t about entertainment anyway. “We’re an educational telethon,” says Morton. “We’re showing people what we’re here for and how, with their help, we’ve been successful. Every telethon has its own voice and its own way of broadcasting — the educational, up-beat route is most effective for us.”

               And what about the rest of the Children’s Miracle Network members? While you would think that the American hospitals would be way more aggressive as fund-raisers, given their lack of choice, Morton says that they’re not yet up to the BC speed.

               “We go to the Children’s Miracle Network conferences and discuss strategy with other markets. They’re smart, capable people and we learn from them, but many are taking baby steps. They are either not as far along with road or they’re not being innovative.

               “Our telethon is the most successful because we have extremely high brand awareness and we are a simple proposition. We’re in the business of making sick children better — that’s compelling and easy to understand for everyone. The other side of the equation is cerebral and is fulfilled by managing our business well, having thousands of creative and energetic volunteers and communicating to the public in an extremely sophisticated and effective fashion.”


On Money for Media

Blitz Magazine, January 1999


The TV commercials which currently make me most grateful for my mute button are for Scotiabank. This campaign offers a series of homey scenarios, over which some guy with one of those squidgey, vaguely-creepy voices describes, in a stream of sentences annoyingly beginning with ‘Because’, why the people in those scenarios are Scotiabank customers. All age groups in the middle-class target are covered; extra comfort (for Riverdance fans at least) comes from Celtic music. And I now know that, if I ever lose my mind and want to work on my lap-top while perched on a stool in the middle of a lake, my account with Scotiabank will allow me to do that.

          Condescension is insulting. Humour works best. And, as we’ve seen with Richmond Savings’ successful ‘Your Money Is Our Money’ campaign, humour does work for financial institutions. For what they pay for creative, surely the Big Banks can come up with something funny.

          For example, envision a 35 year-old woman meeting with a Big Bank loans officer. She has a terrific, original idea for an interactive, educational game. She has a business plan, a marketing plan and a solid resume. She needs $100,000. and doesn’t want to liquidate any assets to raise it. But she has trust fund statements, photographs of the West Vancouver police arriving at her mortgage-burning party and notarized promissory notes offering her children as collateral. And the loans officer says: “So you call this ‘New Media’? Hmmm. Could you get your ex-husband or parents to co-sign?” Ha ha ha ha.

          Well, that’s not funny but it’s pretty much the way it is, even in this supposed Age of Big Bank Enlightenment. Which is why anyone trying to get ahead in new media and/or film needs access to money. Lots of it. With easy, patient terms and helpful, co-operative administrators.

          For extra advice, you can book a lunch date with Kim Campbell, the Canadian Consul General to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, while you’re down there, you can also drop in and say hello to the guys at Totally Hip Software. Now, thanks (they say) to the BC government’s lack of support, they’re there too.