Simon Bredin’s profile of the Power & Politics host charts a transformation from a brash magazine editor to someone who is very much a creature of television.

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In an interview teasing their highly anticipated politics podcast, the new hosts of CANADALAND Commons, Desmond Cole and Andray Domise, discussed with Jesse Brown their desire to create a show that will appeal to people who typically don’t care about politics.

It’s an interesting idea, but they’re not the first ones to propose it. In fact, that’s exactly what Evan Solomon set out to do five years ago when he launched the CBC’s flagship political affairs program Power and Politics.

My profile of Solomon examines the ways in which he has been forced to retreat from some of his more radical ambitions because of the sad state of our federal politics. In his debut episode, we see Solomon inviting protesters to his show and putting their questions directly to the environment minister. By the time I visited him last fall, he was trying (and failing) to extract answers from MPs in exchanges so frustrating they sometimes border on satire.

As a result Solomon has had to become the face of a very conventional program, and my story charts his transformation from a brash young magazine editor to someone who is today very much a creature of television. 

The hardest part of writing this profile was figuring out what to cut and what to keep. I have to thank my handling editor, Steve Trumper, for helping advise me in that regard, but even with his guidance it was hard to leave some of my favourite scenes on the cutting room floor. 

I kept a document called ‘Scraps’ as I was writing. I’m fairly certain that it was longer than the final version of the story that appeared in the magazine, which itself ran to 4,000 words. So much that happened. For example: October 22, the day of the Ottawa shooting. Very little of that made it into the final draft. As our instructor, Tim Falconer, told me: “No one is interested in reading 6,000 words about Evan Solomon except for me, and maybe his mother.”

The Inside Man

Power & Politics with Evan Solomon premiered on the day of a much-hyped rebranding that saw CBC Newsworld transformed into CBC News Network. It was also the same day as Health Canada’s troubled launch of the H1N1 vaccination program. Solomon’s debut, on October 26, 2009, began with a decidedly non-traditional approach. Rather than opening with the Health Canada story, he invited on three unknown environmentalists who’d staged a disruptive protest in the House of Commons over the government delaying the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311), before security forcefully ejected them. “We will actually have some of those environmental activists coming up right after the break. One of them still has blood on his face!” announced Solomon, sounding perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the segment.

After a commercial break, he rose from his desk and strode over to a bright-red plastic bench installed at his behest. “This is our Front Bench,” he said with evident relish. “This is the place that we’ve reserved in our studio to talk to people who are affected directly by policies that are created in Ottawa.” Seating the environmentalists on the bench, Solomon vowed to put their concerns to the environment minister later in the show, declaring, “I think it’s really important we open up the dialogue.”

As he prepared for that debut, Solomon thought carefully about how to distinguish himself and his new show. “I didn’t just want people with suits and ties on. I wanted it to be accessible to everybody,” he says now. “I took a lot of crap for that—‘Oh, that was a stunt’—but I thought that was democracy. Young people concerned about an issue, bloody nose—sounds like television to me.”

After five years on Power & Politics, as well as stints at other CBC programs including his literary show Hot Type and technology show Futureworld, Solomon knows good television; it’s what helped win him this job. Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News, chose him because she wanted a “different sensibility” for the flagship political affairs program. He didn’t come from political reporting, “which was sort of a plus and a negative at the beginning,” she says. To Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle, it was more of a negative, especially since Solomon was succeeding Don Newman, the well-regarded host of Politics, the network’s previous political affairs show. “As the whole country knows, Solomon is no Don Newman,” wrote Doyle in a critical review of CBC News Network’s launch.

McGuire knows such shows can alienate viewers. “What Power & Politics has done incredibly successfully is offer enough depth for the insider,” she enthuses, “but it is also entertaining enough that it brings in people who are more casual followers of politics.” Since 2009, the show has expanded its audience by roughly 65 percent—from 51,000 to 84,000 viewers, according to internal figures—while transitioning from inventive, egalitarian fare like the Front Bench to the more conventional: polls, punditry and panels.

The rise in viewership came during severe CBC cutbacks, thinning audiences for similar U.S. shows, and an increasingly toxic national political culture characterized by restricted access to newsmakers, enforced party message control and shameless displays of spin.

Although a 65 percent gain sounds impressive, the increase represents just 33,000 viewers, undermining McGuire’s assertion of incredible success. It’s positively anemic compared to the 800,000 listeners who tuned in to CBC Radio One on Saturday mornings this season for The House, a political affairs show also hosted by Solomon that features lengthier one-on-one interviews.

The assumption behind much of Power & Politics is that the core audience is politically informed, if not politically engaged. But to continue its ratings growth, the show will need to win more viewers outside its traditional constituency of Hill staffers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, politicos and assorted news junkies. As Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director of civic engagement non-profit Samara Canada told me, “Many political journalists are challenged with this question: how do you expand the audience for political news and political content beyond people who are already interested?”

To read the rest of “The Inside Man,” please go to the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s website, where it was originally published.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Falconer’s job title.

Illustration photo by Jessica Deeks.