For Peter Mansbridge, it seemed so out of character. It was the second night of the Olympics and he was walking the streets of Whistler looking adrift, like the kid not invited to the party. He was on camera, reporting for The National about how it feels to cover the Games without official access. For the first time in 16 years, the public network didn’t have the Olympic broadcast rights, and Mansbridge was feeling it. “Friday night,” he recalled, “I’m miles away from the opening ceremonies, hanging out on the balcony of a bar where inside the crowd is having a ball watching it all on TV—not our channel. Ah, the perils of broadcast rights. When you’ve got ’em you’re the cock of the walk. When you don’t, you’re working real hard just trying to find somewhere, anywhere, you’re allowed to go to tell the story.”
So Mansbridge made that the story, drumming up an odd mix of protest and pathos in a bit of verité confession that played like a YouTube blog. “Look up there,” he marvelled, with disingenuous awe. “That’s the fancy CTV Whistler location, home base for their skiing and luge coverage. It’s very impressive, and we joined the tourists who were checking it out. Even this nice CTV fellow agreed to snap a picture of us.” Then, with an uncharacteristic note of sarcasm, Mansbridge added: “A wonderful gesture on the part of CTV to have our picture taken.”
More than once, Peter insisted he was not complaining. But he was. That was the conceit behind this weird digression into confessional journalism. And his frustration was palpable. Here was a blockbuster Olympic narrative like nothing Canada had seen, the proudest showcase of national sentiment since Expo ’67. And the private sector had blithely outbid the public broadcaster, with an unholy alliance of CTV and Rogers Communications (which owns Maclean’s) forking over a record US$90 million for the rights to the Games. Veteran Olympic host Brian Williams, once the CBC’s man, followed the money. Adding insult to injury, the ubiquitous Donald Sutherland emerged as the unofficial guru of the Games, exhorting us to believe and voicing commercials for Bell, joined at the corporate hip with CTV. In the year of Own the Podium, Mansbridge could not own the medium.
“We got outbid by an awful lot,” he said. “That’s all fair game. We remember what it was like when we had the broadcast rights and CTV and Global didn’t. They had to sneak around to try to get the pictures they needed to tell the story. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
At an Olympics where early losses became a test of national character, the humbling of the CBC icon fit right in. Putting on a game face, Mansbridge would anchor The National from the streets in various versions of athletic gear—most weirdly, a form-fitting powder-blue top. But he was clearly chafing in his role as runner-up in the spectator sport of Olympic media coverage—there was almost an air of mischief in his lament from Whistler, as if he was trying to get even by subverting his own authority. The informality was jarring. Mansbridge was doing a David Letterman—taking a post-modern plunge through the fourth wall that divides performer and audience. Undermining the gravitas that is his brand, the dispossessed anchor was straying into This Hour Has 22 Minutes territory and doing fake news—news about news. His cameraman was even shooting him guerrilla-style, using the HD video function of a small still camera. And as if to stress that he was in virtual civilian mode, Peter was wearing glasses.
During that night crawl through Whistler, Mansbridge bumped into Canadian Olympian Manuel Osborne-Paradis before his race in the men’s downhill. A stroke of luck. The CBC had been trying to get at the downhill skiers, and had been told to wait until after the race. “Guess what, it turns out he’s a CBC fan,” says Mansbridge. “Rights, shmights, let’s talk.” So they conducted an impromptu interview, with jolly banter about Valentine’s Day, which Osborne-Paradis celebrated with his girlfriend. “It’s good you remembered that,” Mansbridge chimed in. “Some of us forgot!” As they parted, he added, “What a nice guy, so Canadian as they say. So courteous, so nice—alone on a Saturday night.”
Banter goes a long way when you’re on the outside looking in. And Peter could find solace in one familiar routine, his flirtatious back-and-forth with CBC weather lady Claire Martin, the sweetener that caps The National each night. She, too, was in B.C., reporting on rain. At least she didn’t need accreditation to get access to the weather.