When I first met George Stroumboulopoulos almost two years ago, he had just left his VJ duties at MuchMusic to helm his own show at CBC Newsworld. In less than a month, his four-days-a-week, news-oriented talk show, The Hour was going to debut and he was a bit jittery about it.
"It'll work really well or it will fail miserably," he joked, only half-kidding.
Considering he was hyped as the second coming of CBC News, he had every reason to be nervous. Stroumboulopoulos' hiring was already met with skepticism, described in the media as a desperate attempt by the CBC to appeal to youth, and the network's pre-launch, hard sell promotion didn't help. "It's not a newscast. It's not a magazine show. This time, it's personal," read a breathless CBC promo.
When the show finally premiered on Jan. 17, 2005, with expectations heightened, the hype left a bad taste in some journalists' mouths. "BS seems to be the show's organizing principle," wrote Eye Weekly's Adam Nayman. "From correspondent segments that play like pale imitations of The Daily Show (admittedly not a bad model if you're trying to please cynical teenagers) to ill-conceived features… The Hour's attempts at ‘infotainment' fall flat." The Globe and Mail was particularly harsh, too, with TV critic John Doyle calling the show "condescending crap" and describing Stroumboulopoulos as "a huge kid doing a grownup's job." Even within the CBC, This Hour Has 22 Minutes threw barbs saying, "The CBC trying to be young and hip is like an old lady wearing a thong — it's embarrassing for everyone."
It was a rough start, to be sure. Though, ironically, after CBC's big push and the resulting backlash, The Hour became an underdog of sorts. It's mix of news and divisive commentary from Stroumboulopoulos was delivered with verve, was quickly paced, and worked more often than it didn't. And despite the critical darts, the show gradually became Newsworld's top-rated original program in its second season, attracting 263,000 viewers a night on a cable network that normally struggles to reach six-figure-sized audiences.
As a result, the once hesitant Stroumboulopoulos is much more at ease with his place at the CBC. The Hour is entering its third season as an established hit, big enough to air on the main network following The National in October. The 34-year-old Stroumboulopoulos is clearly not only a popular guy on TV, but inside the CBC as well.
At the 2006-2007 CBC TV Season Preview, Stroumboulopoulos was one of the most requested media interviews and when it was Popjournalism's turn in the queue, he was delayed slightly as he had to converse with a colleague and then as we headed in to the interview room, he got an approving shout out from CBC Sports' Scott Russell from the opposite end of the hallway.
Once we got into the interview room, Stroumboulopoulos states the obvious: "Everyone here has been really supportive."
When Stroumboulopoulouos finally made the leap from MuchMusic to join the CBC — previously he turned down offers to become an anchor and also to host an entertainment program — he insisted on a guarantee of two years for the The Hour to grow. However, the most important factor was that he would be allowed to remain himself on air—frank attitude, trademark black T-shirt wardrobe and parent-irritating piercings included.
"I was told, we don't want you to change," Stroumboulopoulos says. "And to be honest, I wouldn't have come here if they wanted me to."
Heaton Dyer, director of programming at Newsworld, says he knew Stroumboulopoulos' success would hinge on retaining his host's individuality within the Mother Corp.
"The last thing we wanted to do was CBC-ify George," Dyer says. "Certainly we had a grown up conversation about his nose ring, but we were hiring George as George. In the early days, it was seen as a pure youth move, but this was not just a play for younger viewers. Sure, we wanted to be different and have a show that would be noticed, of course, but we didn't want it to be typecast as a young person's newscast."
Yet, despite Stroumboulopoulos luring more 18-to-49-year-olds than your typical Newsworld program, like most news shows, a majority of The Hour's audience is aged 50 years and older.
"I may look different than most people on TV, at least to people maybe 55 years or older, but I have fans that are 80 years old and write to me, too," Stroumboulopoulos confirms. "I mean, everyone has their own preference, so if I'm not the kind of person you want to get your news from, that's fair. But I believe what you say is more important than how you look."
And it's what Stroumboulopoulos says and how he says it that makes The Hour stand out from the suit-and-desk crowd. As a personality-driven show, he is not shy about sharing his opinion on stories of the day. It's a quirk that makes him hard to categorize. Is he a capital "J" journalist or a pundit? Or something in between?
"I would describe myself as a presenter," he says. "When I started at the CBC, I was told that I could either be a commentator, an anchor or a journalist. I said, ‘Can't I be all of them?' And I was told, ‘No, you have to choose one.' I told them I couldn't and it ended up that I was allowed to called be a ‘presenter.' As a presenter, I introduce every story with an appropriate filter. I don't necessarily offer my opinion, but a point of view. All of the political parties are upset with me because I don't affiliate with any of them. If I do have a bias it's that I'm a citizen who spends money on taxes and wants the most from that."
However, Stroumboulopoulos does feel free to align himself with mentor and National anchor Peter Mansbridge, who often makes surprise appearances on The Hour.
"He comes to me to ask for advice and I go and ask advice from him," Mansbridge says. "We talk almost every night, since we do our shows on the same floor and our work areas are adjacent."
While the pair's relationship and Mansbridge's advice helped ease Stroumboulopoulos into the work culture of the public broadcaster, there was a moment of awkwardness in July when Stroumboulopoulos became the host of The One: Making a Music Star, an ABC summer singing contest simulcast on the CBC — a show that Mansbridge publicly railed against because it bumped The National by an hour in major time zones.
"My major concern was that he would be leaving the CBC," Mansbridge says. "When he took the job, I was very happy for him."
Though hiring Stroumboulopoulos helped to offset some of the negative publicity surrounding CBC's scheduling treatment of The National, the news arrived just eight days before the show was going to air, and behind the scenes, the short notice caught everyone by surprise—including Stroumboulopoulos who was in the midst of his summer vacation, touring North America on motorcycle.
"It came out of nowhere when I got the call from his manager," Dyer says. "The opportunity to have visibility in the US market was terrific, as there have been overtures of interest in showing The Hour in the U.S. But there's no question this program was going to be a risk for the CBC. The One generated a ton of publicity, a lot of it obviously negative, but everybody went in eyes wide open knowing it was a risk."
Unfortunately it was a risk that didn't pay off. After two short weeks, The One was cancelled by ABC — and by extension, also the CBC — due to low ratings. In the U.S., the show had the smallest debut audience on network television in 16 years and in Canada, the show at one point drew a dismal 150,000 viewers.
"Had The One had worked — and hindsight is 20/20 — George would have had a great international platform," says Kirstine Layfield, executive director of CBC network programming. "No matter what happened with the show, George was the best thing about the show, and he came out quite unscathed."
Indeed, few are counting The One's performance against Stroumboulopoulos.
"You're made better by the failures you deal with than your successes," Mansbridge says. "Not that George had anything to do with that show's failure, in fact, the common opinion on both sides of the border was that he was the best part of that show."
With The One behind him now, Stroumboulopoulos is preparing for The Hour's season premiere on Oct. 9. He says his already loaded schedule is going to take an even bigger hit amidst the increased pressures of being on the main CBC network.
"I'll admit that I don't sleep or eat very well," Stroumboulopoulos says. "You know, it's funny, I was with the Stone Temple Pilots for MuchMusic while they were doing a show in Austin, Texas and I went to visit [lead singer] Scott [Weiland] and he had this huge plate of pasta. I looked behind him and they had a travelling chef with them. How cool was that?"
Is he trying to drop a hint for the CBC to hire him a personal chef?
"I wish, man," he laughs, "But we're a public broadcaster, you know."
How uncool is that?
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.