When the robotic camera’s red light went on at 2:30 p.m. in B.C. that Labour Day in 2001, it marked the beginning of a bold bet, but it was also the end of months spent envisioning a new national newscast. Suddenly, what was theoretical became real.
We had very little time to rehearse — a day, if I recall correctly — because the new studio that had been constructed was wired up just before launch. Only two days prior, the TV station we were housed in near the Lougheed Highway in Burnaby had been a major CTV affiliate. Suddenly, it was to be a Global flagship station, where the new network had chosen to base a brand-new national newscast, replete with systems unfamiliar to most of the staff.
No one had tried to launch such an ambitious live daily Canadian newscast in almost 40 years.
Read more: ‘Global National’ celebrates 20 years in TV special — ‘Disruption: 20 Years of Global National’
As a result, that debut episode on a Monday mostly stumbled on-air with barely restrained panic. It was a feeling that wouldn’t leave for quite some time as a young, aggressive and inexperienced team tried to make a case with viewers for a third national newscast in Canada, hours earlier than the competition at CTV and CBC.
Global had promised the federal regulator (CRTC) it would spend $20 million on a western-based national newscast, public affairs shows and a series of “wellness documentaries” if given the licence for Canada’s third national network. By the time Global National debuted a year later, that allotment of money had been spread a little wider than that, and the show debuted with a budget of about $8 million and a small staff of 15 people.
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We had placed a big bet on doing things differently; we would need to count on the kindness of strangers in local Global newsrooms for the show to make it to air every day, and that’s still the case today, even with increased staffing, success and longevity of the broadcast.
My connection with the concept of Global National started back in 1999 at a backyard barbecue in Ottawa, where I had dropped in to shoot a documentary for ABC News’ Nightline — my place of employment at the time.
At the end of the evening with former colleagues of Global’s Parliamentary Bureau, the regional network’s news division president Ken Macdonald pulled me aside and mentioned that the company was about to propose a national newscast to the CRTC. He asked me if I’d like to be kept in the loop about it. It seemed like a distant concept then, but the thought of building something from scratch was creatively appealing, so I said, “Sure!”
I didn’t hear anything for several months, but in June 2000 the CRTC approved Global’s bid for full network status with the promise of a western-based national newscast attached to it.
I flew to Toronto for a clandestine meeting with Ken, where our discussion became much more detailed. We talked about what the show could be, the opportunity of doing things differently and the challenges of basing national news in B.C., Canada’s latest time zone.
Once back in New York over the ensuing months, I started to get excited by the prospect, and would drill into the details and concepts to build a more fulsome concept of the show. I sent a foundation document to the president of the network, and yet another secret meeting to “check me out” took place on one of his trips to New York in early 2001. I wanted the leadership of this fledgling network to understand a fully realized vision of a new national newscast so if they hired me, they knew the show I wanted to do. No surprises.
I guess I didn’t scare them off, because in May of 2001 I flew from New York to Vancouver, signed my contract as Global National‘s first employee, and announced the move less than an hour later to a group of reporters. For the following three months I remained the only national news hire until the team was assembled by August, when the equipment was purchased to bring the vision to life. Our full vision premiered in September of 2001.
Along the way, some interesting choices were made: We were the first daily newscast in the world to use Apple’s then-new digital laptop editing system, FinalCut. We were the first newscast in North America to use digital cameras alongside videotape.
The graphics chosen for Global National didn’t draw on traditional news design elements like maps and a spinning globe — instead, the logo featured red, orange and burgundy swirling circles we dubbed “the vortex of news.”
The musical theme was derivative of the Survivor score with its flutes and drums (a show that was new at the time, and coincidentally also a huge hit on Global).
We told our reporters they didn’t need to dress formally, they could talk and write like “normal” people, and it was OK to have some fun. The name of the show was shortened at the last minute. We were going with GNN (Global Network News) until the marketing department suggested something shorter and to-the-point. Global National was a stronger brand, they argued, and also told viewers precisely what they would see – global and national news.
There is a rule in the military that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
In our case, that “enemy” was the largest news event of our lives, which took place only six episodes in.
The terror attacks on 9/11 immediately hardened the newscast; it meant we were suddenly dispatching young reporters into war zones and coping with an accelerated pace of events, which, as we discovered, didn’t really let up for some time.
It took a lot of hard work, but by 2005 Global National was Canada’s leading newscast Monday to Friday, which earned it more staff, more foreign bureaus and strong loyalty from the audience.
There are some qualities of that original vision we managed to hang onto through 20 years, and today as a viewer I’m proud to see they remain. Global National is still dedicated to providing more context, stronger storytelling and technological experimentation.
Under Dawna Friesen’s watchful eye, it has grown into a trusted and reliable source of verified journalism, and is now a Canadian news institution. A lot of hardworking people have built and nurtured the broadcast over two decades, but as Global National‘s first employee I take particular pride in knowing how it all began, and satisfaction in watching it thrive today.
‘Disruption: 20 Years of Global National’ airs September 10 at 8 p.m. MT/AT, 9 p.m. CT and 10 p.m. ET/PT on Global. You can also stream live and on-demand with STACKTV and on the Global TV App. It’ll also air online at globalnews.ca/globalnational.
Global National and Global News are both properties of Corus Entertainment.