Peter Mansbridge says ‘significant change is coming’ to The National
As he prepares for his final broadcast hosting The National on Canada Day, the anchor, and CBC Television’s flagship newscast, face a great unknown.
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Peter Mansbridge is ready for his goodbye.
We are sitting in his condo, a modern space with an oddly rustic vibe that floats in the sky like a UFO, more than 40 floors above a bustling intersection. Living in a high rise was strange at first. For a long time, Mansbridge eluded the balcony the way a cat avoids water. He still doesn’t look down.
On this humid morning, the clatter of downtown Toronto — construction, traffic, sirens, church bells, the swoosh of commuters who, unlike Mansbridge, are not retiring on July 1 — infiltrates the balcony door.
Mansbridge leans back in his sofa, looking like he’s test-driving an ensemble from a boutique called Unburdened: short-sleeved black shirt, resort-friendly pewter slacks and Sperry sneakers with the laces removed, as if he’s so done with the rat race and internal politics, he can’t be bothered tying his shoes anymore.
Who can blame him? After a lifetime in the broadcasting trenches, where he catapulted to fame while absorbing the brunt of anti-CBC hostility, Mansbridge will soon be liberated from the constant siege.
It almost makes him want to say nothing at all.
“I can be such a lightning rod for the CBC,” he says, gently bouncing a clenched fist on the couch and explaining why he’s hesitant to discuss his farewell. “It’s not worth it for them. It’s not worth it for me. It’s not worth it for my family. I’ve played such an out-front role. I’ve taken hits. I’ve taken praise. You get it all when you’re in this role. So I’d rather just go out quietly.”
Then as if struck by the absurdity of thinking he can vanish into the shadows like a midnight road paver, Mansbridge surges into a low-octave rumble of a laugh that could set off a seismograph.
He rubs his chin and sunlight bounces off a silver bracelet that is clamped to his right wrist. He bought the replica band in South Africa while covering Nelson Mandela’s funeral. It is stark in a Medic Alert way, engraved only with the numerals “46664” — Mandela’s prisoner number on Robben Island.
You are free to debate the symbolism.
Next Saturday, as the nation uncrates the fireworks and flags and birthday hats to celebrate Canada 150, Mansbridge will do what he’s done 34 times already. He will preside over Canada Day festivities from Parliament Hill.
At the end, he will gaze into the camera and then, for the last time, he will swallow hard and say, “I’m Peter Mansbridge. Thanks for watching.”
Now in his 50th year of CBC service — or, astoundingly, one third of Canada’s existence — the live telecast will serve as his swan song. While he’s looking forward to his next act, which we’ll get to in a bit, he also winces when reflecting on the friends and colleagues he is leaving behind.
“Obviously, the people I work closest with are kind of worried about the future,” says Mansbridge, referring to The National, CBC’s flagship newscast. “Significant change is coming. It will be a different program.”
Thinking about CBC News without Mansbridge is like trying to imagine McDonald’s without Ronald or Breaking Bad without Walter White. I don’t mean this in any clown or drug dealer sense. It’s just that, externally, the chief correspondent really was the face of CBC News. And, internally, he really was the ringleader.
“Peter was the commander-in-chief, no question about it,” says Fred Parker, The National’s chief director and 40-year veteran of CBC News who has dined with Mansbridge before every studio broadcast for the last 30 years.
“There are legions of people here who have the same commitment as Peter. But there is not one person — not one — who will not point and say, ‘He’s the leader. He’s the one who has spoken up for us and pointed the way.’”
Or as Susan Bonner, host of CBC Radio One’s The World At Six, tells me: “Peter is a huge presence in the organization. And to have that gone, we’re really going to feel it. It’s going to be hard. When there is a big story happening, I walk into his office. When there is something going on in the world, I want to talk to him.”
“What people don’t see is the energy he gives off on the inside.”
Losing this energy creates something of a black hole. This may explain why CBC managers have agonized over what comes next, conducting more strategic meetings since the fall than was required for the British North America Act, 1867.
Talk to insiders about the new National, set to debut in October, and you’ll hear “a complete reimagining” and “everything is on the table.”
“You don’t want to lose the core audience,” says Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News. “But to innovate, you have to push an audience a little bit. That’s the line. So we are spending a lot of time understanding the key relationship people have with the show and defining what we think the opportunity is in terms of expanding both the range and the presentation style.”
The plan is to go with three hosts and reveal these names in the days ahead. But since the CBC has known about Mansbridge’s exit plan for years, why has the succession dragged on like a Proust novel?
“This isn’t American Idol where you just choose your favourite contestant,” says Michael Gruzuk, senior director of content experience with CBC News and a key mind in this reimagining. “Because of the legacy that Peter established, we’re looking at what are the parameters we need. And because he’s so hard to replace, how do we do this in a way that addresses where we’ve been in the past and where we are going in the future.”
To make The National more forward-looking, managers are reverse-engineering every building block — number of stories, length of stories, format, tone, style, visuals, editorial stance, digital footprint, newsgathering flows — in a bid for transformation and, ultimately, relevance in an age of continuous news.
The goal is to attract new viewers without alienating the stalwarts.
The National has an average nightly audience of 525,000 viewers this season on so-called linear television. By comparison, CTV National News with Lisa LaFlamme, the top-rated newscast in the country, pulls in an average of 1 million viewers. (The numbers, provided by both networks, do not include repeats or showings on CBC News Network and CTV News Channel, respectively.)
Internal CBC data underlines the rising importance of digital: The National this year has an average of 760,000 streams per month on all platforms. On Facebook, meanwhile, the show has an average daily reach of 314,888.
So, three more numbers: 1. Yes, it was Mansbridge who decided to leave the anchor job he assumed from Knowlton Nash in 1988. 2. Yes, the CBC sees this as both a body blow and a historic chance for rebirth. 3. Yes, the thrill of conquering a new promised land is blunted by the fear of losing the map.
“I can tell you there are alternating waves of enthusiasm and terror,” says Wendy Mesley, who now anchors The National on Fridays and Sundays, and who was once married to Mansbridge. “I think everybody is realizing that things are really going to change. Some people are very excited about that and other people are like, ‘Oh my goodness, what does that mean for me?’ It’s terrifying.”
Back at the condo, Mansbridge cites the “long shortlist” to replace him.
“Look, I could sit here and write 15 names out for you,” he says. “All of them could do this job. Are some people going to be disappointed? Absolutely.”
I ask if contenders have solicited advice.
“Oh yeah,” he says, “And when they come, I say, ‘You really don’t want me to be associated with you. You don’t want to be seen talking to me. It’ll probably hurt you more than it will help you.’”
He’s joking — I think.
Mansbridge, you see, has pulled a Jeff Sessions and mostly recused himself from the reimagining. The National was his baby. He changed its diapers, gave it food and shelter. He watched it graduate from college. Now it’s all grown up and embracing independence. So it will either flourish and learn to succeed on its own or it will develop a drinking problem and start sleeping under a bridge.
“I deliberately did not go to the meetings,” Mansbridge confesses. “They wanted me to go. But I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘You gotta have one host. Or you gotta have three hosts. Or you gotta have no hosts.’”
I furrow my brow. No hosts?
“That was an option at one point,” he says, shrugging. “No hosts.”
He tilts his head back and blinks at the ceiling.
“I’m 69. I’ve seen a lot and I have lots of institutional knowledge. But I am not the new wave. I’m happy to watch the new wave and take part in the new wave. But I am not the creator of the new wave.”
There is also the issue of his second wave.
When he analyzes the future of The National, Mansbridge can sound as dire and cautioning as a highway patrolman who just clocked you doing 170: “You’re playing with fire if you abandon everything that you’re known for.”
But when he talks about his own future, he gets serene. Mansbridge can even sound giddy, so footloose and carefree, I half-expect him to pull out a bong.
It’s strange to hear that soothing baritone deviate from the headlines and get unleashed on rowing machines or almond milk smoothies — “I make them with a banana or berries or what have you.”
Soon, his early-morning routine — in the gym by 6:30, five times a week, for 40-minute sessions of cycling, rowing, weights and a “basic stretching” that, depending on how much sleep he’s going on, might resemble slo-mo twerking — will be much more flexible.
The National is starting over with a blank slate. And so is Mansbridge. He clasps his fingers behind his neck, like he’s spitballing with a career counselor.
“You know, at one point I thought, ‘Maybe I should do a podcast.’ Then I thought, ‘Really? I’m going to wake up at 5 every morning to figure out a podcast?’ I don’t think so.”
These are the whimsical plans of a man unshackled and on the move.
“If I wake up in the middle of the night, I don’t think, ‘Oh my God, what have I done? I should have never left this job,’” Mansbridge says. “I don’t ever think that. I do think about how this is going to work in the future. How do I do what I still want to do?”
Mansbridge’s overlords hope he will remain in their freelance ecosystem.
“They want me to stay connected to the CBC and they want me to be doing at least two major prime time documentaries a year,” he says. “I’m intrigued by the idea of documentaries. That path is wide open for me to do what I want to do. It’s kind of a Peter Mansbridge Presents.”
He has also received offers “outside of broadcasting.” He’s avoided serious discussions so far due to a fear of conflict. That won’t be a concern after Canada Day: “I assume I’ll soon be having a number of those conversations.”
When I press for a clearer definition of “outside of broadcasting” — will he enter politics or academia or become a pitchman for a new line of almond milk smoothies, purring a modified tagline, “I’m Peter Mansbridge. Thanks for drinking” — there is a sigh.
“Outside of broadcasting means outside of broadcasting,” he says.
Fair enough. But can a journalist who is conditioned to the hurly-burly rhythms of live television and insane deadlines adjust to life outside of broadcasting?
“I didn’t miss doing the daily shows at all because I had done it for 41 years,” says Lloyd Robertson, who retired from CTV in 2011, entrusting the anchor desk to Lisa LaFlamme. “But I did miss being there for the big events, at least for a while. You wake up. You see something happening and you think, ‘I should be there.’”
Before I can ask Mansbridge if a news junkie can live without an hourly fix, I get my answer after catching him orient like a startled prairie dog to an MSNBC chyron that flashes on a muted Panasonic flat screen behind me.
“When I hear a siren,” he explains, “I still go look to see what’s going on.”
Leaving the CBC isn’t the only transitional event in the Mansbridge household. His son, Will, is starting at the University of Toronto this fall and will depart the family abode in Stratford, where Mansbridge lived on weekends while anchoring. This has created a kind of hybridized, superannuated, pre-emptive empty next syndrome.
“I’ve got the nervous breakdown put in the datebook for when Willie leaves home,” says actress Cynthia Dale, Mansbridge’s wife. “No, it’s just going to be different for us. And I really think change is good.”
As for her husband’s breakup with his longtime mistress, The National, there is relief: “I think he’s allowed to have the rest of his life now.” And a warning: “It’s not going to mean he’s hanging around all the time. I’ll kill him if he does that.”
I also ask Dale what the CBC is losing and she offers a Jenga analogy.
“They are pulling out a major brick. Actually, the major brick is walking away. And they have to fill that space up. And that brick is so much a part of the foundation. That brick was there before some of those people were even born.”
To some of those people, Mansbridge is a mentor like no other.
“He’s incredibly supportive of young journalists, more than anybody that I’ve seen here,” says Lara Chatterjee, a senior producer with CBC News. “But he is also tougher than a lot of senior people that I’ve worked with. He’s tough on himself. He’s tough on the people he works with. He’s tough on me. But always with the eye on making us better journalists.”
To that end, Mansbridge has waged many wars, tangling with CBC presidents, board members, managers and politicians, anyone who might conspire to give short shrift to the news department on resources and scheduling.
If you bump into him this summer, ask him what he thinks about the CBC broadcasting NHL games despite not earning a nickel in revenue because Rogers holds the rights. Caution: before you ask, make sure your shoes are laced up real tight and you can run for cover before his head explodes.
“There is no other network in the world that screws its flagship newscast like the CBC does to The National!” he thunders, when the issue comes up. “Look, I love hockey. I have season tickets for the Leafs. And I’ve had them for the Jets as well in Winnipeg, so my grandkids could see. But for the life of me, I do not understand why we are still running hockey for two months a year and making nothing out of it except saying, ‘Well, we haven’t had to program those hours.’”
Thinking about how often The National was pre-empted by hockey, or how much potential revenue the CBC forfeited that could’ve gone to news, makes his face corkscrew into a morph of Gordon Ramsay and Caillou.
“Every survey I’ve seen, whether it’s done by us or outsiders, is that what Canadians value most about the CBC is news and current affairs. So why are we screwing them? You tell me. Why?”
“Guess it’s good you don’t have to worry about this anymore,” I say, trying to lighten the mood before he starts pelting me with Canada 150 pucks.
But the truth is, Mansbridge will always worry about the CBC.
In recent months, as he’s slowly exported his belongings out of Front St. — “People really didn’t like seeing the cardboard boxes” — he’s also toured the country, moderating town halls and panels with foreign correspondents for The National.
There is something about these rococo scenes, in a nerdy news sense, that is not unlike when legendary rock bands reunite for one last hurrah.
“Yeah, The Who’s last tour,” quips Mansbridge. “There’s been a little bit of that, only because we’ve been doing so much travelling.”
At every stop — including Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary, London, Charlottetown and Halifax — admirers have queued to shake Mansbridge’s hand and pose for photos, to thank him for the decades of calm, measured and trusted chronicling of current events, big and small, breaking and broken.
“There are still a lot of people out there who believe in the CBC,” he says. “They may not like some of the things we do and they are vocal about that, as they should be. But they believe there is a need in this country for a national public broadcaster. That our country is still young, it is still heavily influenced by what we see from south of the border. And there should be somewhere they can go where they instantly know this is Canadian. The CBC fails if they can’t do that.”
The outpouring of love has forced him to reflect on his own role as one of Canada’s prized narrators in what amounts to a first draft of history: “I feel extremely lucky to have been at some of these major moments in the life of a country.”
Which is not to say the last half-century has been a carnival ride. Mansbridge has taken many hits, to use his word. He has seething detractors, including those who believe his retirement is long overdue. He knows there are big game media hunters who still fantasize about displaying his scalp in their trophy cases.
This might be why he is so protective of his “personal space.” His only condition for our interview is that I not reveal the precise location of his condo. I suspect he fears the hidebound critics, who’ve howled at the moon from the sewers, may triangulate his coordinates and rappel down to his balcony with a new batch of placards: “Tell us about your pension!”
“Have there been difficult times at the CBC?” he asks, smirking the way one does when the answer is both obvious and grating. “Absolutely. For me personally and for us as an organization.”
Does he have any regrets about staying?
“No,” he says, flatly. “No, I don’t. I never forget what my roots are.”
These roots include “high school dropout,” a biographical bullet that is somewhat hollow now that Mansbridge has 13 honorary degrees, including the three bestowed this spring. His origin story also includes a job at Churchill Airport, where as a 19-year-old, he loaded cargo until fate intervened.
One day, the airport was short-staffed and Mansbridge was asked to make a flight call for Transair. A manager for CBC Radio, waiting in the terminal, was mesmerized by the voice on the PA system. He offered the gangly teen a job on the spot.
“I got this opportunity through a fluke and took advantage of it,” says Mansbridge. “I don’t think I still owe them for that. I think I’ve paid back my dues many times over. But they’ve been incredibly good to me. They’ve given me so many incredible opportunities. My life has been based on my good fortune at the CBC.”
On a wall in the condo hangs an impressionistic painting by Phillip Craig, a gift last Christmas from Cynthia and Will. It’s the view from Mansbridge’s log cabin. Built by hand in 1982, on a little island in Gatineau, there is a nearby rock.
On his birthdays, Mansbridge plunges from this rock into the lake.
“That’s always been a big deal,” he says, gazing at the painting. “So I definitely want to make it to jump off there when I’m 70. It is one of those things where it doesn’t seem that high until you’re up standing on top of it. And then you think, “Oh my God, that’s a long way to the water.’”
The funny thing is, when flanked by loved ones, he always looks down.
As I’m leaving, Mansbridge leads me into a small room that is crammed with mementos and enough framed photos to overwhelm an Umbra staffer. He opens a photo album. With a wistful grin, he nods at a press credential, the first exhibit in a scrapbook — and a life — of flashbulb memories.
“That’s my very first ID badge,” he says, staring at an impish lad with a shock of dark hair who looks like he’s just come from throwing darts with Lennon and McCartney. “I was covering the Queen in 1970 in Churchill.”
Mansbridge has been on TV so long, I’m suddenly reminded, he literally lost his hair in our living rooms.
The album is like a fossil record, highlighting a career that has spanned 50 years, a career that started in the era of black-and-white television and devoured 14 federal elections, 13 Olympic Games, 12 Remembrance Day ceremonies, four D-Day anniversaries, three Royal weddings and, yes, every visit by the Queen since 1970.
He flips through the pages and, for the first time, he is silent. A blur of Peter Mansbridge headshots flash before our eyes like laminated ghosts.
“It’s a little bit odd,” he says, closing the album. “But I’ll get over it.”
Peter Mansbridge’s Top 5 Memories as the CBC’s Chief Correspondent
1. Travelling through the Northwest Passage in 2007 and broadcasting The National live from the deck of a Coast Guard icebreaker.
2. The chaotic marathon — on the air for 44 hours — in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
3. (TIE) Anchoring from the Berlin Wall the weekend it came down November 1989 and anchoring from Vimy Ridge (2007 and 2017) and Juno Beach (1994, 2004 and 2014) for numerous anniversaries of the ultimate in Canadian sacrifice.
4. Interviewing Barack Obama in the White House in 2009, the only Canadian journalist to interview the former U.S. president.
5. Witnessing Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” in his final public performance, at the Opening Ceremony of the 2006 Torino Olympics.