The Electric Circus
Tune into Moses Znaimer's boffo local news show and get wired on the events of the day
A mid-November Thursday after, noon in the reception area of Citytv’s trendy downtown Toronto studios, ensconced in a funky old black-painted building that once housed a chocolate factory and, later, the Electric Circus discotheque. Two young receptionists sit behind the desk snapping bubble gum as they watch Billy Idol flash his flesh on Toronto Rocks, one of the station’s rock video shows.
Preceded by members of a heavy metal band lugging gear and a huge silver battle-axe, political reporter Colin Vaughan and show-biz interviewer Brian Linehan amble in, chatting amiably on their way to the elevator. Entertainment reporter Kathy Kastner floats by, all Chiclets teeth and Betty Boop eyes. She’s soon followed by TV columnist Peter Gross, who barges in, his cameraman hard on his heels. “Hot video!” he shouts. “Sex!”
the cameraman chimes in. “Scintillating video,” hisses Gross as they head up to the fifth-floor CityPulse newsroom. As more reporters and production people file into t~e cramped, cluttered premises, preparations for the six o’clock newscast slip quietly into high gear. Four newswriters bang out copy, two of them on battered antiques with their guts exposed. In a bare room at the front, a cameraman tapes to the wall the front cover of the December, 1984, issue of Penthouse for a story on obscenity charges being laid by the provincial government. Many of the staffers munch on popcorn and chips. Co-anchor Dini Petty perches on a desk and obsessively primps in the black and, white monitor as she prepares for the news hour’s five o’clock teaser.
Despite all the state of-the-art hardware scattered about, the place has a loose, slapdash, low budget feel to it. If the standard cliche to describe a busy newsroom is “buzzing,” change that to “dull hum” in City’s case. The working position of choice is to be slumped well back in the chair, feet propped up on the desk.
Sports anchor Jim McKenny emerges from the ancient elevator dressed in a yellow T-shirt and sloppy slacks. “For a first down we’re lookin’ good, right? Wrong!” he booms in a rah rah voice to his imaginary audience.
The elevator is plastered with memos, notes and the usual office jetsam. One reads, “The old horse started to smell, we’re flogging a new horse now. All VOs must be :30 + :10 in length, even if the script is only two seconds long. This does not mean you cut 40 sex of art. Cut the viz to the length of the script provided, and pad it out to 40 sex.” A second, from managing producer Stephen Hurlbut, congratulates a cameraman on an award he took for his documentary about a rubby: “It’s reassuring to know that art can exist within the heart of the newsroom. Danny’s success is our success in that only in an environment such as ours can the individual flourish.”
It’s 5:53, seven minutes to air, and reporter Lorne Honickman is wailing Pretty Woman with a couple of guys hanging around the writers’ desks. Downstairs on the ground floor, in the sleek, dark cavern of the control room, bathed in the aquarium light of the TV monitors, Hurlbut leans back in his chair at a desk just behind the switcher’s console. As the show unfolds with only a couple of technical glitches and some minor miscues, he twirls his long locks, smokes, jumps up suddenly to bark orders into the telephone and confers with Gord Haines, director of information programming.
It is apparent that he enjoys tremendously what he is doing. Orson Welles’ suggestion that having access to a Hollywood studio is akin to a boy receiving the greatest toy train in the world comes to mind.
Only this particular train carries news. Of a sort. You don’t so much watch the show as swim in its buzzing electric current.
The current’s direction has changed markedly since 1972, when media wunderkind Moses Znaimer founded City along with ex-journalist Phyllis Switzer, media lawyer Jerry Grafstein and entrepreneur Edgar Cowan. At that time City’s answer to the predictable one hour of news-weather-sports that filled other stations’ six-to-seven slot was a groundbreaking two and a half hours of local news and public affairs programming. Anchored by Warner Troyer and called simply The City Show, it was an “attempt to answer the complaint often made about TV that it only scratches the surface,”
according to Ron Haggart, the former Star and Telegram reporter who was The City Show’s first executive producer. “It was clearly designed as alternate programming. We didn’t feel we were in competition with the other stations. “
Despite its limited technical and financial resources and tiny audience in the cable and UHF markets, The City Show was a serious attempt at in-depth local coverage that wasn’t afraid to be controversial, even provocative. To compensate for the rough quality of the field reports-all videotaped on black and-white Sony portapaks, the crude precursor of today’s ubiquitous electronic mini-cams-the studio was used extensively for interviews, debates and thorough reports on a wide range of topics. The show thrived on the ferment of the day, says Haggart, who left in 1975, lured away by Peter Herrndorf, then setting up the fifth estate at the CBC.
Maggie Siggins was City’s news producer and municipal affairs reporter from 1972 to 1974. She believes that during that time innovation and the solid journalistic credentials of the staff combined to produce a truly exciting show that was strong on substance and purpose: “We had personalities, but they were personalities who did some work. They were good journalists and knew what they were talking about. It was TV like you’ve never seen it.”
The City Show owed a lot to the vanguard This Hour Has Seven Days school of journalism at the CBC in the mid’60s, one of whose star pupils was Znaimer. In 1965, fresh ol:rt of Harvard with his MA in government studies, he brought vitality to such shows as Take 30, Cross Country Checkup and The Way It Is and produced an acclaimed 13-part series on the Russian Revolution. In 1969, when the top brass didn’t take to his newest ideas for experimental programming, he left to join Helix Investments as manager of a venture capital fund. Two years later he jumped at the chance to be in on the birth of a new TV station. But as the station struggled for survival over the years, marketing came to playa bigger role.
By 1976, City was racking up losses in the millions and Znaimer was approaching the Bronfman clan in Montreal and Toronto’s John Bassett. A partnership with the Bronfman’s Multiple Access Ltd. ended suddenly in 1977 and in 1978 Allan Waters, president of the CHUM Ltd. Empire which at the time included 11 radio and six TV stations, the Ottawa Football Club and the Vancouver, Calgary and Ontario Muzak franchises-bought a 70 percent share of the station for $13 million. Waters gobbled up the remaining 30 percent, owned by the four founding shareholders, in 1981. Znaimer reportedly got $3 million worth of CHUM shares in the deal.
With the aggressive drive of CHUM’s beefy sales force to boost advertising revenue, City was eventually brought around and is now considered a profit centre in the CHUM group, but in 1977 it was still bleeding badly. That’s when Jacques de Suze, a news show doctor from the Fairfax, Virginia, TV consulting firm of McHugh & Hoffman Inc., began making house calls on the station six times a year. The City Show was scrapped and CityPulse was born, its title borrowed from Pulse News at CFCF- TV in Montreal, a Multiple access holding. De Suze’s role was-and is-to confer with City’s producers about ratings and “promotional issues.” It was de Suze who prescribed the VIP formula-visuals, involvement, people-that now characterizes CityPulse News.
Znaimer is unapologetic about City’s consequent shift from journalism with guts, ideals and a will to experiment to the slick packaging of formula TV news. “There is no alternative to growing up,” is the answer he gave to a NOW magazine reporter in 1982 when asked about the seeming betrayal of old ideals on the occasion of the station’s tenth anniversary. “There is nothing as necessary as biology. The biology of a television station is no different from the biology of a person. You can be nostalgic about the days when you were young and pimply, when things seemed to matter more and less at the same time. But if you contrive to remain a child when you should be an adolescent, and an adolescent when you should be an adult, you’re just a failure.”
These days, City’s mission is to “cross-reference the Toronto experience,” in the words of Bruce McNab, former senior writer on the six o’clock show and now a writer-producer for the MuchMusic network. To fully capture the feel and immediacy of that experience, CityPulse dispatches a crack team of 16 video cameramen, urban media guerrillas decked out in their nifty City uniforms, ready to mug reality at the squawk of a radio call. Ideally, the sounds and images they come back with should convey some of the flavor of life in the big city, some of Znaimer’s beloved “natural chaos.” They should depict the 14 reporters as concerned, involved observers who are in on events as they take place and not mere scavenging journalists swooping in on their share of the carcass. And they should get the human, emotional angle. “No news is about nobody,” Znaimer’s credo, is applied diligently.
For Znaimer, traditional news broadcasts “impose a stilted precision that’s wholly unrealistic. Universally, they do a reportage of conclusions and I’m much more interested in a reportage of process; to shoot the story as it happens, not after it’s been discovered.”
The VIP formula is Znaimer’s systematic attempt to counter “institutional network-type stuff,” what former New Yorker TV critic Michael J. Arlen has described as “a news of important people talking to other important people, or about important people.” Znaimer favors this technique because it’s more lifelike, more intimate. “It feels realer. You can decide that news is 24 discrete mini-events delivered with the voice of doom or you can say, as we do, that it’s the daily soap opera of Toronto.”
As far as the news hour’s cast of characters goes, soap opera is an apt description. City Pulse’s more passionately devoted viewers closely followed the progress of Dini Petty’s pregnancy in 1980 and lit up the switchboard for news of the birth. And when heartthrob co-anchor Gord Martineau was married in 1981, a team of reporters and cameramen covered a protest party they staged outside the wedding hall for not being invited. Last year, it was sports co-anchor Debbie Van Kiekebelt’s turn to provide the on-camera excitement of yet another mother-in-the-making. One news item had Debbie and hubby attending a prenatal class. It’s real, it’s captivating, it’s cheap and easy to do-and it works. Reporters become the news.
The chummy folk who guide viewers through the maze of tough lifestyle decisions confronting them daily are hand-picked by Znaimer. Lorne Honickman used to perform at Yuk Yuk’s comedy nightclub in Toronto; Peter Gross was an out-of-work actor driving a cab when he picked up Znaimer one day and asked him for a job; Jim McKenney had a brief career as a defenceman with the Maple Leafs; crime reporter Mark Dailey was a cop in Girard, Ohio; political reporter Colin Vaughan is a former Toronto alderman; co-anchor Dini Petty was the Pink Lady helicopter pilot who did the traffic reports for a local radio station; Van Keikebelt was an Olympic athlete. “I cast everybody on the air ,” says Znaimer. “Generally I purge journalists. I get rid of them. Real though they [City newspeople] are, they are precisely archetypal. I’m bringing the technology of fiction to the business of delivering information.”
But Znaimer is so preoccupied with the “theatricality of living life” that delivering information seems to take a back seat to the fictional devices. Of course, high-profile archetypes boost ratings and raise advertising revenues, especially when you’re targeting-as City does most strenuously-the group advertisers lust after: the 18-to-35 set with its deliciously disposable income.
Happy Talk News, News You Can Use, Participation TV, Disco Journalism-whichever name it goes by the format peaked years ago in the United States, where it first flashed its stupid grin at Chicago’s WBKB in 1966 and was later refined into high ritual in the ’70’s by Al Primo at New York City’s W ABC. Marshall McLuhan called Eyewitness News the first format created specifically for TV, saying it induced a sense of participation, of sharing the news with the newscasters and he gave the formulahisbenedictionin a W ABC promotional brochure.
Recently Znaimer and de Suze have also been squeezing fresh ideas from the austere style of PBS documentary filmmaker Frederiek Wiseman, known for his probing black-and-white featurelength surveys-without narration or interviews-of American institutions. De Suze admires Wiseman’s “totally experiential” approach: “For an hour and a half all you have is dialogue and the actuality of people going about their daily business.” Besides creating exciting viewing, “you give the viewer a sense that you got more than just the facts,” he says. “City has discovered that an awful lot of people out there can make up their own minds [about a news story] if they hear the words of the people who lived it. You have to go into the neighborhood of the people being rezoned, talk to the little old lady who was knocked over. You could say that because it wasn’t just facts it was flashier than a politician just telling me. But it may not be necessary to have all those facts. The human perspective is also fundamentally important.”
In the claustrophobic editing suite, editor Kathy Priestman holds forth on the latest word from Znaimer concerning high-impact visuals. The point is to “let the actual sound and visuals tell the story.” A shot of a bunch of union guys on the picket line screaming at scabs being trucked in, for instance, is video heaven. It’s called actuality viz. Process viz. “You tell the story without having to explain it, without YO [voice-over]. Less show and tell and just show.” As to the “facts behind the story,” Znaimer wants as much as possible to say those things with keys, according to Alisa Kerr, also an editor. Keys are the titles, subtitles, graphics and digital time that are electronically inserted into the image to put the story in context.
But only one in 10 images is good processing material, continues Priestman. To make up for all those occasions when the cameraman couldn’t get any good actuality viz, the latest gimmick is sound bites. Little hooks and grabbers to pull the viewer into the story. A sudden burst of applause, an explosion, screeching car tires, howling babies. Priestman describes the three basic variations she uses in the application of the formula. There’s “YO off the top, then let it simmer with a sound bite and finish it with a little bit of YO.” That’s “YO-bite-YO.” Or “bite to intro and let the bite go,” replacing it with YO. That’s “bite-YO-bite.” Then there’s “bite- YO-on cam,” with a “bite off the top” and a YO followed by an on-camera reporter doing a stand-up delivery. But the less stand-up the better. “No somber, creeping dignity reporters, heavy of jaw and full of pipe,” is another of Moses’ commandments.
Znaimer’s fascination and constant tinkering with the video image through tricks such as sound bites and actuality viz have enhanced his reputation as a shrewd media operator. More than anyone else in the Canadian TV business-certainly in TV news-he cleverly appropriates different styles and techniques from a wide array of sources that include rock videos, movies, American news shows, painting, performance and video art and advertising. He gathers the fallout from high-, middle- and low-brow culture in his quest to perfect the look of CityPulse and, not incidentally knock stolid old CFfO, CTV’s flagship station, out of its number one slot. (The latest BBM Bureau of Measurement ratings, released in December, 1984, show City’s six o’clock newscast in second place and edging closer to CFTO.) As far as Znaimer is concerned, the other stations’ news directors have little insight into the true nature of television and thus fail to exploit its inherent power over the viewer. As he told a reporter last year: “If you can come up with a relatively harmless narcotic, you can make a fortune. And legitimately so.”
De Suze sees nothing wrong with presenting the news in an entertaining, emotional fashion. To criticism that CityPulse goes too far with its happy talk, personality-oriented brand of journalism, he responds that the show is being faulted only for being “very much in tune with modern contemporary life.” The “soap opera quality” referred to by Znaimer is the familiarity and trust that builds up between the viewer and a reporter who is “in touch.”
But as flashy and standardized as the show may be, it still retains a rough, unpredictable edge to it, a sense of anticipation, of excitement. It’s a tease. Much of the tension and drama are derived from the merging of a street~ wise, raw documentary 100k-Freder~ ick Wiseman-style-with the slick and fast cutting techniques and the larger- than-life cast archetyping its way over the airwaves.
Maggie Siggins, however, believes the show was more in touch with events and issues in its predoctor days. When she returned to City in 1979, after five years of freelancing and working for the CBC, she found that the innovative journalism she had been a part of from the very beginning was dead. The show doctor killed it, as far as she’s concerned. “He would never talk about the quality of journalism, just getting involved and what the reporters looked like.” Siggins was infuriated that concepts developed on the basis of American market research were being applied to a Canadian show supposedly committed to covering its own city on its own terms. (Now, ironically, de Suze shows tapes of City news~ casts to some of the 40 other North American stations his company advises.)
The rise of yuppiedom and a generally conservative climate, advancing technology and marketing specialists who read the BBMs with the dedication of medieval scholars all contributed to the transformation of the original pro~ gram into a sleek, slim show, according to Haggart. From its beginnings as a bold, innovative experiment-one of the first attempts in Canadian television to treat local news seriously and in depth-Siggins believes the newscast has surrendered utterly to flash and trash. “It was journalism on show. The look was everything. I was into journal~ ism.” She lasted one year after her return.
Toronto video artist and critic Marien Lewis had an even briefer sojourn. She was cast by Znaimer in 1983 as a weekend entertainment reporter but her “audition” lasted about five weekends before it became obvious that she just wasn’t his kind of archetype. “I failed because they said I was boring,” says Lewis. “Moses didn’t want content.” She can’t comprehend an approach to news that calls for the reporter to be in the kitchen with the widow of a car crash victim making a cup of tea. “I was given lectures on it by various staffers. I would just laugh. I couldn’t believe these people could take themselves so seriously.”
Given that City covers Toronto’s frenetically busy culture industry more thoroughly than anyone else, Lewis is amazed at the dearth of solid information that comes through. The only reason for this, she believes, is “that they feel they have to bring the excitement of Toronto into people’s homes. Their approach is to bring joy, life, light, voyeuristic excitement into the cold, grey lives of everyone at home.”
In its self-referential, self-conscious, Moses and the marketers inspired way, the show cultivates the presentation of news as event, as image, as performance. Cheryl Bernstein, author of Performance as News: Notes on an Intermedia Guerrilla Art Group, suggests that television news is one of the richest sources of imagery and modern performance art in our society. No local TV news show better exemplifies that theory than CityPulse. Call it escapist real~ ism, the triumph of form over content, of personality over substance. The primary journalistic objective of making sense of one’s environment is magically meshed with the need for fantasty and escape. And the dividing line between news and show biz-not well defined to begin with-is blurred absolutely. Total involvement and emotional identification are achieved at the expense of insight.
As a viewer of CityPulse, you don’t just consume the news. You also consume the archetypes and the consuming lifestyle they embody, and, by extension, the things being sold in the ads it carries. The reporters and anchors are ghosts in the CHUM machine, slipping effortlessly into the haze of videoland, mingling with every other character who cracks oneliners, chases crooks in screeching cars, sells beer and slinks through rock videos.
City Pulse reporters don’t cover the news. They make the scene.
Bertrand Marotte was the Production Manager for the Spring 1985 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.