I have been intending to write about the rape and pillaging of Citytv for many months now. In what has to be a series of the most heinous crimes perpetrated on a network of successful television stations in Canadian broadcasting history, CTV and Rogers have systematically cut and chopped what was once the most distinctive service available in Canada.
Most Canadian TV aficionados are well aware of the pioneering little station that grew up in Toronto under the unusual but brilliant tutelage of Moses Znaimer. Citytv was always true to its name. An urban, downtown feel and a more than slightly cheeky presentation style characterized the station. As long as Znaimer was running the place and CHUM Ltd. were the owners the station had a youthful, multicultural approach that seemed to win a strong local audience that remained very loyal long after viewers hit middle age.
Long before CFTO in Toronto and Global abandoned what looked like a racist “all white” presenter policy, Citytv was hiring an eclectic mix of visible and non-visible minority reporters and anchors for their newscasts. When CFTO tried to get Gord Martineau to change his name to Gord Martin Citytv hired him away and insisted he go on air with his full name. Ann Mroczkowski, Jojo Chintoh, and Thalia Assuras were part of the ecumenical fabric of the station that dared to be different.
Sure anyone who was in Toronto in the mid-seventies remembers the “Baby Blue” movies, the first soft porn anyone I know had ever seen on broadcast television, but what really made Citytv stand out was the outstanding Canadian shows the station produced. The station claimed to produce more local television than anyone else in Canada, which I suspect was true. Some of those groundbreaking shows included Fashion Television, MediaTelevision, SexTV, CityLine, the amazing Speakers’ Corner that allowed citizens to record their thoughts for replay on the weekly program and my personal favorite, The New Music which I liken to a TV version of Rolling Stone Magazine.
In today’s broadcast world, it seems darn near impossible that just one little station could accomplish so much quality local programming.
Citytv didn’t just produce new and interesting content, it changed the way content was presented, and not just in Canada, but in the U.S. and around the globe. First came the hand held cameras that gave the newscasts a “street” feel while everyone else was insisting on using tripods and looking perfect. Then came the news videographers, one person acting as camera person, sound operator and reporter. That allowed Citytv to cover way more stories than anyone else who had to send out three and eventually two person crews. Then the in studio performance began to match the “in the streets” feel. The news desk disappeared. Gord and Ann were free to roam the newsroom live, to deliver the news standing or sitting on stools. It was groundbreaking, unconventional and most important, felt natural and interesting to watch. It only took CBC News thirty years to attempt something similar and they managed to thoroughly screw it up.
In news it was not only style that won audiences, it was Citytv’s famous speed. They developed the slogan: “Citytv, Everywhere,” and they were everywhere. I remember one crew at CBC local in Toronto coming back to the office flabbergasted when they were sent out to cover a fire right around the corner from our offices. They reported back shocked that Citytv had beaten them to the story even though they had to cross town to get it. We were in serious awe of Citytv’s ability to get to every story first.
I have to admit here that I was never a fan of the quality of Citytv’s journalism. Most often it was tabloid coverage that never dealt with context or answered the question why the event happened or was important. Pictures and style took precedence over story telling. But that’s what they were aiming for. It wasn’t a thoughtless failure to produce great journalism, it was a thoughtful decision by some very smart TV people.
After three decades of success in Toronto, City finally expanded to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. It also picked up affiliates in Western Canada and provided its Canadian content to stations in the Maritimes. The CHUM-City group was actually making money in 2006 when everyone else in Canadian broadcasting was complaining of losses and blaming the 200 channel universe. True City was not making as much as they had in the past, and perhaps they saw the writing on the wall because in that year they sold all their stations to CTV Globemedia and that’s when the rape and pillaging began. On the very same day that CTV announced it was buying the Citytv stations, it was announced that supper hour, late night and weekend newscasts would be cancelled in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. This meant that hundreds of news staff could be laid off almost immediately.
The CRTC did not allow the sale to go through as is, because they deemed that CTV should not be allowed to own two broadcast stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. So a deal was quickly made to sell the City stations to Rogers. I guess the fact that Rogers already owned Omni stations in Toronto and Vancouver was overlooked by Konrad von Finckenstein and his colleagues at the CRTC. Oops, that’s fodder for another blog.
It didn’t take long for Rogers to wreck what was left of the old Citytv. Rogers blamed the global economic meltdown in January of last year (by the way, at a time when the economy was already beginning to make a strong comeback) and announced the cancellation of Lunch Television in Vancouver, CityNews at Noon in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, Your City in Calgary and Edmonton, City OnLine and CityNews at Five in Toronto, The CityNews List in Vancouver and Citytv’s national and international newscast, CityNews International. That meant another 60 CityNews people could be laid off, most shockingly, including long time anchor Ann Mrocskowski.
The obvious questions have never been answered. How can huge money making conglomerates like Rogers or CTV Globemedia justify the massive cuts? How could these TV giants take a small network that was making money and turn it into a failing asset so quickly? Why did Rogers buy City if they had no intention of keeping what was so special about it? How can the CRTC sit on their hands when two of the broadcast giants in this country dismantle something that was so special?
Citytv still has the gall to use the slogan “Everywhere.” How can you be everywhere when you are not on the air on the weekend? The news looks tired and its ratings are dwindling. All those great Canadian shows I talked about were either taken by CTV or are gone. Citytv is just another Canadian broadcaster now, or should I say just another American rebroadcaster. U.S. sitcoms, reality and dramas make up the entire prime time schedule. It’s a more than a shame, it’s a crime.