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Canadian newswomen shut out of primetime

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Female news anchors around the world have welcomed two new members to an exclusive primetime club. Diane Sawyer was recently appointed as anchor to ABC's World News in the U.S. Sawyer follows in the footsteps of CBS's Katie Couric, who became the first solo female anchor in the U.S. three years ago. And in Australia, Chris Bath is set to become the first solo female news anchor in that country.

While the U.S., U.K. and Australia have moved to introduce solo female news readers on primetime weeknight newscasts, there are currently no women featured on the three national newscasts airing primetime weeknights on English-Canadian networks. Instead, women continue to be consigned to noon-hour shows, local newscasts, "fill-ins" and weekend spots: the only women regularly anchoring national English-language newscasts -- CTV National News' Sandie Rinaldo and Global National's co-anchors Carolyn Jarvis and Robin Gill -- are featured on weekends; journalist Wendy Mesley acts as CBC National's back-up anchor.

Yet, this unfortunate phenomenon does not repeat itself in la belle province: Quebec's networks were the first on the continent to feature solo women anchors on primetime. Quebec's Sophie Thibault and Céline Galipeau anchor weeknight primetime news on its two main television networks, Radio Canada and TVA.

So, why has it taken so long for women to be introduced on primetime news?

While at first it appears that English Canada's media has fallen behind regions like the U.K., U.S. and Australia in media gender equality, the increasing prominence afforded to women anchors in those areas may not strictly be the product of progressive values at work, but may also result from a change in the perceived import of the anchor position. Sadly, media commentators have speculated that women are finally being given opportunities on primetime news only because these programs are becoming obsolete.

According to the Washington Post, over the last two decades broadcast television news in the U.S. has suffered a steady drop in ratings as viewers turn to cable or the Internet for their news, or avoid the news altogether. The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that "the three newscasts collectively attract 20 million viewers, half the size of the audience 15 years ago, with a median age of 61.3." CNN's Carole Simpson -- the first black woman to anchor an evening news program -- notes: "It took almost 40 years for this unique state of affairs. Why are women getting these opportunities now?" For Simpson, the answer is clear: "The reason is that broadcast television news is dying."

In this light, dwindling audiences and slashed news budgets have made the job of the network news anchor far less attractive than it once was -- and as such, many men no longer want these jobs.

Passed over twice for the position as World News anchor, Sawyer has hardly walked into a dream job. Aside from having to entertain (as opposed to inform) increasingly fickle audiences, getting blamed for falling ratings and media pundits' predictions of (or is it longing for?) a Sawyer-Couric "cat fight," the reality is that female television anchors are also held to higher standards by the public than their male counterparts. Like all women in the public eye, female anchors are expected to adhere to unrealistic beauty ideals and live under constant scrutiny about their personal lives.

Still, the challenges women face working in a still sexist industry seem easily surmountable when compared to overcoming those posed by a still sexist society. To this end, if the industry did their small part in giving the many qualified newswomen more screen time, perhaps the positive effects would be felt across society.

With that in mind, could Sawyer's appointment trigger a string of high-profile appointments for women in Canadian broadcast journalism? Candidly, probably not: Couric's appointment three years ago didn't change Canada's broadcast news landscape and Sawyer's isn't likely to either. Despite the downturn in broadcast news ratings, surely, ratings would perk up across Canadian mainstream networks if audiences saw fewer older white males and more representation from members of the other half of the population. In an industry where women purportedly hold only three per cent of "clout positions," having more primetime newscasts anchored by women may be just the tonic the ailing industry needs.

Alex Samur is associate editor of rabble.ca.

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