I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

The Rape of Citytv

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.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , ,

28 Responses

  1. Ann says:

    I agree with your points about the destruction of the uniquely Canadian and wonderful CityTV brand.

    I am, however, enraged that you so cavalierly employed a rape analogy to express your points. Rape is analogous to nothing BUT rape; to apply it to the destruction of a media outlet is not only inaccurate but insensitive to a pretty amazing level.

    Rape is not something you can deploy to score rhetorical points.

    • WithHeld ByRequest says:

      Actually, Ann, the word “rape” is something that the author (or anyone for that matter) should be allowed to deploy, to score rhetorical points, to use as an analogy, or to use as you hold it to be. It’s called freedom of expression, regardless if you don’t like what’s being expressed or how.

      To suggest we can no longer use a word in its established figurative sense is ridiculous to a pretty amazing level.

    • Aaron says:

      Rape:

      an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside.

  2. WithHeld ByRequest says:

    I worked with someone who was a producer w/ the former CHUM-owned Space: The Imagination Station just after the dissolution of CHUM and the Bell-Globemedia takeover. He said the aftermath was the most depressing environment he’d ever experienced. He depicted it as the worst corporate-style workplace imaginable.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tori and Michael Lipka, Mondoville. Mondoville said: 'The Rape of Citytv' (per Howard Bernstein): http://j.mp/eZxfjj although, they're trying to repatriate weekend news: http://j.mp/hiIMQO […]

  4. Jim L. says:

    Glad to see you’re criticizing other media outlets than CBC, but I’m disappointed you just couldn’t let an otherwise-unrelated article go by without one slam.

  5. Cameron A. says:

    Do you think any station today comes close to 1970s CityTV, Howard? For me, Channel Zero’s version of CHCH is the closest to CityTV, for now.

    I’m not saying CHCH is without fault, oh no. The non-news CanCon is weak overall, although I enjoy Ed the Sock’s This Movie Sucks! CHCH also isn’t what it was in its Tiny Talent Time/Steve Smith heyday.

    At the same time, CHCH is better than it was in the Canwest era. It’s not the mini-Global it was in the 2000s. The American content doesn’t overwhelm the station, and I also like what CHCH is doing with its Sportsline revival. While CHCH isn’t airing shows like The NewMusic, I’d rather watch CHCH than Rogers’ bowdlerization of CityTV.

  6. Sharon Danley says:

    Agree with your comments completely. It is so sad that Canadians just can’t get good, thought-provoking, journalistic, not infotainment style, news.

    I am happy to report though that I have become a huge fan of Aljazeera English. All Canadian broadcasters would do well to get back to real reporting by taking a page out of this global broadcaster book on how to do job right.

  7. William Anderson says:

    The corporations who have taken over Canadian broadcasting, destroy these assets because they aren’t broadcasters and have no idea what to do with them. The only thing that matters in a corporation is return for shareholders. The only skill required is cost cutting. Consolidation of ownership only compounds the problem and reduces the quality of broadcast journalism available to us. The CRTC is powerless to do anything because they lack the vision, experience or authority to stand up the the corporations. Canadian broadcasting is on the verge of following the recording industry into total irrelevance.

    • hlbtoo says:

      I agree with you William except in the case where a station’s license guarantees are not being met…but then Global TV has seldom in its history met its license obligations and the CRTC barely noticed…

  8. Chris says:

    Having once worked at CHUM for almost a decade, I’m profoundly dismayed at what City has become. The New Music in particular changed my life…which is apropos, since what has happened to City is not unlike what happened to record lables back in the 80s, when media conglomerates started buying them up.

    Before, these small labels were run by true music lovers who understood the music business intuitively. But the inflated profits from people converting their music collections to CD was too much for the Time Warners and Sonys of the world to ignore. They scooped up these great labels for top dollar, and because their interest in them was limited to sales they tried to speed up their ROIs and in so doing proceeded to run them into the ground.

    However, that sad moment in music has given way to something more interesting…good artists can no longer expect to own a Spanish villa with a guitar-shaped pool, but they no longer depend on major labels to make a respectable living, and there are more revenue streams available to them than ever before. Perhaps from the travesty of City something as interesting and similar in spirit will emerge.

  9. DoreenatDMS says:

    Great post, Howard. (Although, and i know you know this, I would also add that along with CityTV’s visible and non-visible on-air representation early on, they also matched that with multilingual *content* for Toronto’s diverse population — a first, and oh-so groundbreaking — all those many, many years ago via Dan, et.al). A shame, crime indeed.

  10. backnforth says:

    Found the link to this article from fyi; and am sure glad I did… City TV always represented Toronto to me in a way that no other station ever could. From its diverse newscast staff, speciality programming, and so much more… As Ive gotten older and broke into this industry myself, its been really dis-heartening to see things move so far backwards in such a short time. I understand the money crunching/corporate structure/etc, but it bothers me everyday that so much has been sacrificed, and in 2011 the same values that got us here, arent the ones that will take us into the future:/

  11. Jason Paris says:

    There’s not much to add here. Excellet (albeit depressing) post all around. I think the decline of Toronto’s CFNY (radio) from something very special and unique is repeated with the decline of CITY-TV a decade or so later. The ownerships may have been different, but the same forces were at work.

    There’s not much hope either for the future. I don’t see the CRTC changing its ways. Of course, I’d love to look to our pubcaster to fill the void (and they do on the radio side), but CBC-TV continues to be mostly indistinguishable from private TV (although now making some noise that that could soon change). We’ll see.

  12. Moral Hazard says:

    I was always wondered what happened to CityTV, they used to play movies every night and the Ed the sock it was a great channel. The channel sucks now. big time. I cut off my cable several years ago and don’t watch the tv much anymore.

  13. Brian Perry says:

    I go back even further with CITY: when they first went to air in September 1972. The prime time schedule included a two and a half hour local news block hosted by the chain-smoking Warner Troyer – a one of a kind program that I never missed. And on Sunday nights for two hours there was Free For All, hosted by the late William Ronald: a program that let anyone sound off about literally anything.

  14. Brian Perry says:

    I go back even further with CITY: when they first went to air in September 1972. The prime time schedule included a two and a half hour local news block hosted by the chain-smoking Warner Troyer – a one of a kind program that I never missed. And on Sunday nights for two hours there was Free For All, hosted by the late William Ronald: a program that let anyone sound off about literally anything.
    The station’s catch phrase back then was “Gutsy Television” and that it was. No frills television, to be surr, and all the better for it. (Does anyone remember the night their newsman showed up drunk and had to be pulled off air rather quickly?).
    And those Baby Blue Movies..capturing close to a 60% ratings share! Was there anyone in TO who didn’t watch..at least once. Their opener was I Am Curious (Yellow), the Swedish film that had been through a lengthy obscenity trial a few years before. Znaimer admitted it had to be edited a bit -he didn’t want to lose his license the second day on air. (One film shown was actually busted but the case was thrown out of court).
    Those were the glory days of CITY….damn I miss them. Now just another American style corporate station consisting of programming that is frankly worthless. I knew the original format had a limited life span – not enough advertising cash – but i sure loved it while it was happening.

  15. Frontpage says:

    From the late 80’s to the early 2000’s I was watching new episodes star trek, every wednesday at 8pm. And I discovered many fond movies of my childhood on citytv’s late great movies. Then of course there was the great original content like Electric Circus, Ed the Sock, Speakers Corner, etc. Now all I ever see on the channel is the Bachelor.

    It’s tragic what’s happened to the channel. In fact I can think of one Canadian channel that survived to present day. Another tragedy – YTV. What the hell do kids watch anymore? Just more regurgitated american disney crap.

    If I wanted to watch these american shows I’d watch them from the source.

  16. J C says:

    While watching an nfl game, to my shock, I noticed a CityTv print ad in the background. Is whoever owns CityTv making roadway into the U.S. or has Canada already been sold to the U.S.? Josue.

  17. cornhole says:

    What happened to CityTV is sad, I grew up on it the same as many who have posted, and I can remember watching it since about 1980 or so. From 1987 onward it permanently changed the way I looked at presentation in media, and overall package. Chum-City took pride in their productions as well as the many free and paid events all over the GTA which they often sponsored and promoted, whether it was the CNE, CW, Harbourfront events, or the Airshow, CityTV seemed more like an ambassador of the people or a liaison between fringe subcultures and the average working joe.

    I actually blame the people who decided to unload Chum-City and all it’s assets, if that’s Moses himself so be it. I don’t know who the person or roundtable group would be but it should have been a duty and responsibility to keep 30 years worth of independently produced shows, specials, interviews and documentaries out of the hands of a filthy conglomerate such as CTV’s parent company.

    Next they will burn down Masonic Temple so they have an excuse to build foreign-owned condos at 888 Yonge Street. Nothing is sacred in this city anymore. It caters to the box-store-loving suburban reject who is addicted to social networking and burying their face into their zombiephone.

    When CityTV died, I think part of Toronto died too. They were the UHF Smithsonian of counter culture.

    Currently, most major cities across North America read the Metro paper in the morning, have regional blackouts when viewing YouTube videos, and have next to no independent media.

    Boycott some of these conglomerates such as Bell, Rogers, Verizon, Apple, Microsoft, Etc.. Or choose only one and boycott just one company. It will be hell and life will be miserable and you cannot win the battle but you will sure feel a lot better about yourself. I have been boycotting a handful of companies for over 5 years, my life sucks because of it but these media corporations are diluting not just media but life in general. They can go to hell.

    • Brian Perry says:

      Very well said. As I said in a previous post, I go back even longer with CITY – started watching as a teenager when they went to air in September 1972. They were a gutsy, fiercely independent station that catered to Toronto residents. Imagine, a whole four-hour block of local news programming in prime time.
      The rest of the story is about big bucks, influence and corporate greed. I knew then it was too good to last. The decline of CITY is one of the saddest stories in the entire history of Canadian media.

  18. Jimmy says:

    I put all the blame on MOSES when he sold out his companies thats when CITY TV ended.

  19. Jake R says:

    hated City TV from back in the day and glad to see it gone. Sorry we’re all not as nostalgic as some about Canadian crappo content.

  20. Jake R says:

    and Ann Mroczkwhatever was so stiff and bland that if you stuck a peice of metal on her head you could use her as a shovel.

  21. theeuprise says:

    Great article! I was hooked on CITY TV back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The other stations looked old and ancient in comparison. They had nothing interesting going on. With shows like “see tv”, “speakers corner”, “electric circus”, “ed the sock”, “fashion television”, “the new music” and of course “baby blue” 😉 CITY TV was fresh and exciting! But, what really made CITY TV unique was their multiculturalism. It was nice to see people of different creeds, cultures, race and ethnicities on tv representing the city that we all love. CITY TV embodied the spirit and image of toronto and I miss it so much!

  22. Jason says:

    When Rogers took over the name should have been changed. Maybe sh*ttyTV.

  23. Raymond Hietapakka says:

    I had the pleasure of having two short infamous careers there, many moons back. Boogie, MultiLingual, CityPulse… They should hire me again, for the third time…lol

  24. evilstew says:

    i laughed at their pathetic cp24 knockoff…. (which is ironic because CP24 itself was pretty much a citynews CNN knockoff)

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