Robert J. Ballantyne
Wendy Mesley and Diana Swain are on the phone. It’s an event that involved months of planning, but both are on the line from their respective homes: Swain in Winnipeg and Mesley in Toronto.
Swain is familiar to most TV viewers as the anchor of CBC Manitoba’s supper-hour TV news and Mesley is the former host of CBC TV’s media and technology newsmagazine Undercurrents. Together, they will co-host Disclosure, the first new current affairs program on the main network in nearly a decade.
Debuting on November 13, 2001, the hour-long investigative newsmagazine will be based out of Winnipeg and Toronto, with satellite bureaus in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa. As indicated by its name, Disclosure will set out to uncover scandals, secrets and hidden agendas, and vows to break new journalistic ground.
But exactly how those teams will work to do this is another question.
“Who knows?” laughs Mesley. “It’s a work in progress.”
“We’re just developing this as we go,” adds Swain. “Wendy is just coming off of holidays and I’m just going on holidays, so that’s a question we could probably answer when we’re on the air.”
What they do know, however, is that details will be sorted out through many conference calls and e-mails between bureaus. Disclosure is a major undertaking for the CBC, with a budget to match. After years of cutbacks, many at the show hope Disclosure represents the first sign of recovery for the beleaguered news and current affairs division.
“It does feel like a real change,” says Swain. “Especially coming from the local environment, where cuts were something that happened every six months. People were just waiting for the tap on the shoulder. You feel less like you’re jumping over a cliff with your eyes closed when starting a new show, because there is so much ground-level support within the CBC for it.”
Mesley agrees. “I hope this means a change in the tide entirely, and that people will watch this and good times will be ahead for the CBC.”
According to Winnipeg-based executive producer Cecil Rosner, a program like Disclosure had been in the works for many years. Rosner took part in some discussions and created a formal proposal. Afterward, the network wheels began to turn and the show was on its way.
“Money for this show didn’t appear out of nowhere,” Rosner says in a separate interview. “The creation of this show involved saving money in other operations. But thanks to a recent federal grant, the era of cutbacks seems to be over for a while.”
Swain was a natural fit for the show, considering her location and the fact that her star value at the network is at an all-time high, thanks to her Gemini Award win for Best Anchor last year. Even before that win, it was no secret that she was being courted for other network positions. Swain says the opportunity hadn’t worked out for her personally until now.
“I really didn’t intend to spend that much time anchoring,” says Swain. “For me, it was always a personal consideration. To start my family, it made sense to do it in a job that was a little more structured than the reporting I’d been doing before. In the last year, we’d been talking about me doing something different. We just hadn’t figured out what or where it would be. When it looked like the show was going to happen, and Cecil was going to be involved, it all came together.”
Mesley came aboard later, but she acknowledges leaving Undercurrents for Disclosure wasn’t completely her idea. “Well, Undercurrents was cancelled to create this. It wasn’t my decision. I’m happy that it’s happened, but it wasn’t like I went to them and said, ‘Find me a new job.’ They got this opportunity to do this fabulous, new one-hour show and spend money for once. And they didn’t have room on the schedule for other shows, and so they came and asked whether I’d like to be involved and I said sure.”
F.M. Morrison, co-founder of Undercurrents and now a Disclosure producer, says that saying goodbye to Undercurrents was tough. “It was a mixture of sadness to see Undercurrents go, but at the same time, there’s a definite excitement about the new show.”
In other words, the program has network support, a good time slot, heavy promotion, a large staff and a sizable budget – everything Undercurrents lacked.
For those unfamiliar with Undercurrents, the media and technology show explored corporate manipulation and media techniques among other topics. Visually, it was a news program for the MuchMusic generation: stylish, controversial and innovative.
The show was also notorious. After being cancelled and subsequently revived in its second season due to audience outcry, rumours flew that the cancellation was due to pointed analysis directed at the CBC in some stories. While that was never confirmed, the show was bounced from time slot to time slot, given tight budgets and light promotion. In its final years, the show aired on Sunday evenings in a time slot that VCR programming was invented for. It wasn’t exactly confidence building.
“People would ask us why we were on so late,” reflects Morrison. “We’re getting into prime time now, so [Disclosure‘s] time slot is nothing to complain about.”
Even Mesley had a hard time catching her own show. “I found it often impossible to stay up, it was a terrible time slot because you wouldn’t get to sleep until 11:30 at night. You get up at 6:30 in the morning and you’re exhausted. I couldn’t understand how anyone with a family would be watching my show, unless they needed a lot less sleep than I did.”
Despite the cancellation of Undercurrents, Mesley remains resolute in the agenda she pursued for six years on the show. “I’ll always be looking for the undercurrent of a story, which to me, is a story that has not been told before and makes people think in a new way about something. Basically, it is usually an intellectual examination of a corruption, silent corruption, some form of manipulation, some form of abuse of power.”
Swain chimes in. “Now with a bigger budget.”