The Feminine Mistake
When the Women's Television Network needed to increase its ratings, it brought in Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore and cancelled a promising public affairs show that represented everything WTN claimed it wanted to be
The commercial break is over. A camera pans the studio of the current affairs program POV: Women and then pulls in tight on host Sylvia Sweeney’s face as she begins her introduction. She tells us that her next guest is Carol Camper, a woman of mixed race and author of Miscegenation Blues. Sweeney turns to welcome her.
They talk briefly about the book and Sweeney asks the standard question. “Why did you write it?” Camper responds and then the conversation heads in another direction as Sweeney slowly leans towards her guest, readying to pose more personal questions. She wants to know what it’s like being a woman of mixed race. She wants thoughts, feelings, fears.
“What is the issue-the most prevalent issue-that is troublesome to you?” “Well, I think just identity, just the self. Who am I? Who are these women? It’s not just ourself according to our own concept of self, but where do we fit in in our particular society?”
Camper, who has one black and one white parent, goes on to explain the trouble she faces trying to fit into white communities. She says her white friends expect her to be one of them. They want to know her so they can prove they’re not racist, yet they don’t want to learn about the problems she faces because she’s part black.
After another commercial break, the two are joined by Katie Brock and Karen Hill (two more women of mixed race) and Jeannette Ong, the second of POV’s three hosts. The five women sit together around a coffee table and continue the discussion as the cameras move back and forth around them. These are the “talking heads” that by this February 1995 evening have come to symbolize the Women’s Television Network, which airs POV. The program doesn’t use any special graphics and the interviews are nearly always in the studio, hence the talking heads. Visually, this arrangement isn’t enticing, but I find that the women’s stories are: each grew up afraid of the pain and rejection that resulted from questions like “What are you?” or “Where do you come from?” They know people ask these questions for different reasons.
Since this isn’t standard television, the hosts throw their own personal experiences in for discussion: Ong is Asian, but grew up with a white family in England. Sweeney is black, but had a white boyfriend whose mother was concerned about what colour her grandchildren would be.
After nearly 10 minutes, Sweeney wraps up the interview. She manages to cut off Ong in mid-sentence, but that’s another little problem the show needs to work out. This is just one of the many times that transitions from segment to commercial are too abrupt-done more often than not with a quick, “Thank you, we’ll be right back,” as the interviewee’s mouth hangs open.
Each edition of POV lasts an hour and usually has four to five segments that deal with such issues as: women and health; women in the professions; women and politics and women’s movements. On this particular evening the third host, Helen Hutchinson, returns after the break to discuss the subject of women and heart disease with two female physicians. This is followed by a conversation about battered women who try to claim refugee status.
I watch the program intently. It’s earnest and raw and unlike anything I’ve ever seen on TV-a strong journalistic forum for women, one in which serious issues can be debated openly and at length. Little did I know at the time the program would only be on the air for another month.
POV was designed to be the flagship program of WTN, one of six new English-language specialty cable television networks that debuted on January 1, 1995. According to early news releases, WTN’s mission was “to address the many facets of Canadian women … from their diverse backgrounds and family life to the pressing issues they face today.” Its programs would “focus on women’s roles, relationships and expanding horizons within the worlds of business, politics, science, technology, medicine and the arts.” Those shows include GirlTalk, which looks at teen issues; HerStory, a women’s history program; and Songbirds, a show that profiles female singers. POV was an essential part of the mix. Nothing resembling a women’s news program had ever before made it to air.
The first week of programming set the tone. POV offered studies on female genital mutilation, HIV babies and women’s hockey. It covered gender wars and native issues, with quirkier pieces done on video games for girls.
When I first visited WTN’s Toronto office, it was a late-February 1995 afternoon, and a group of women had just gathered in a small room to discuss a story idea for POV-the abuse of women in an Ontario penitentiary.
Months earlier, the office had been vacant. Susan Stranks, the executive producer, remembers having to sandblast walls and pour concrete for the floors. She was in charge of putting together WTN’s Toronto operation. It wasn’t easy. The network had been granted its broadcasting licence only six months before it was scheduled to start broadcasting. Stranks recalls the period with a little dismay. “It was hell. When I started, we did not have these offices. We did not have a studio facility. We did not have staff. There were three women working in another office, a very small little room. And basically, we had to put together an in-house production unit in Toronto to produce four programs-one of them a daily show and three of them weekly. That’s a lot of hours of programming. Getting ready was a nightmare. I remember coming on one day. I looked around and cried. There was nothing. Not a computer, not a stick of furniture.”
Solving the problem of where to get hardware was easy compared to the task of figuring out how to do POV. There was no example to follow. As Stranks says, “It was like inventing the wheel. You’re trying to figure out what kinds of stories you should be doing. What issues should we be covering? We don’t like saying women’s issues because we figure most issues are of interest to women-some more than others. So what is a good current affairs story for POV: Women? Well, it could be sornething as obvious as a medical breakthrough in breast cancer. Or it could be something less obvious like tap dancing. It can run those gamuts. What are women interested in? They’re interested in all kinds things, but they have specific health concerns, they have specific financial concerns, they have specific concerns in all areas and in mainstream media those concerns are considered to be soft. They’re not considered to be part of a traditional newscast. You will find that, proportionately, much more of the stories they do on women slide into the back half of the program or the last five minutes of the news unless the woman happens to be murdered, raped or cuts somebody’s penis off.”
“What we’re saying is that we don’t have hard and soft stories. We don’t differentiate between the two. What women are talking about now is what we consider current affairs for our audience.”
Reviewers were not impressed. A February 6, 1995, Maclean’s story is representative. It stated that POV was “too constrained by a women-only focus” and that its production values were “typically subpar.” In an early report card on the six new specialty stations, Antonia Zerbisias, The Toronto Star’s editorial media writer, stated that she felt WTN sometimes looked as if it were run by amateurs. As for POV, she said it wasn’t as strong as it could be.
Others were more aggressive and attacked the network as a whole. A January 30, 1995, article in Alberta Report stated that “the network is burdened by the intellectual portmanteaux of modern feminism: the exaltation of victimization, the weepy white guilt over the fate of the Third World, the wild revisions of history.” Susan Ruttan of the Calgary Herald was a little calmer, stating that she appreciated the efforts of the women who launched WTN, but that she, too, was uncomfortable with the restrictive concept of a women-only channel. “It’s like the women’s pages newspapers used to carry-they implied the rest of the paper was for men.” Still, many felt POV was a program that had potential despite its many flaws. But it was never given the time to correct them-the time to work out technical problems; the time to find creative ways of breaking up discussions that could be too rambling and indulgent; and the time to develop some attitude (guests and hosts always seemed too darn polite).
By March 1, only two months after it went to air, WTN was last place in the ratings. The network realized that to draw more viewers-and thus more advertising revenue-it had to be more entertaining. And so the boring show with the talking heads had to go-and with it the dream that there could be room for at least one serious women’s news program in the 500-channel universe.
It’s a late afternoon in November 1995. The small meeting room in WTN’s Toronto office is empty. Stranks isn’t in her office anymore either. She left the network months earlier and has been replaced by Barbara Barde, former VP of programming for WTN.
POV has also been replaced-by Take 3 , a magazine-style program that deals with a variety of topics. Barde describes the program as a look at women at work, at home and at play. Within the hour there are close to 10 segments, all of them designed to be short. Why so many? “If there’s a segment that really didn’t interest you, i.e., you weren’t a parent so you didn’t want to watch the parent segment then you know it’s not going to last forever,” says Barde.
Take 3 is a far cry from POV. It’s livelier, quicker, certainly more entertaining. But heavy-duty journalism it’s not.
Segments such as “WomanTalk,” “ManTalk” and “MoneyTalk” are usually service-oriented-financiers tell women how to budget, or shopping experts provide details on what to look for when buying certain products, like in-line skates. Then there are entertainment pieces, which include discussions with performers like actors Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless or singer Liberty Silver. There’s also an interactive service called “Go To The Pro,” which allows viewers to call in with queries (for instance, “What’s the hardest language to learn?”). Take 3 investigates and then broadcasts the answer. In addition, there are usually two “streeter” segments. People are stopped and asked simplistic questions: What’s your idea of a romantic evening? Would you rather work for a man or a woman? Who was your first crush? What would be the worst job? Discussions similar to those on POV do exist (Barde refers to them as panels), but there are only four per week. Topics have included fertility, breast cancer and stalking. These are held in the studio and are conducted by one of the three hosts: Helen Hutchinson, Jennifer Rattray or Kit Redmond. (Ong didn’t receive a contract renewal for the new program and Sweeney left the show when her contract ended in December.)
Barde explains the new program rather simply: “We’re providing fresh information and/or entertaining information. It’s different. It’s not the same stuff you’re going to read in Chatelaine and it’s not the same stuff you’re going to read in any kind of magazine. It’s like being on the cutting edge, but at the same time providing interesting profiles of people that you might not know instead of just the rich and famous.”
Barde is wrong when she says her show doesn’t offer the same kind of content that magazines like Chatelaine do. The content is exactly the same. Still, her program does have its merits. The panel discussions deal with topics that a female audience would be interested in, such as women in the workforce or women in theatre. During one discussion, three women debated the pros and cons of breastfeeding. Megan Lafore, a mother and filmmaker, Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr from Growth Spurts magazine and Elisabeth Sterken from the Infant Feeding Coalition were joined by Helen Hutchinson. Sterken emphasized the need for women to make informed choices about feeding infants, but threw in something that caused a little debate-she stated that breastfeeding is better than using formula. Lafore snapped back, stating that her comment was offensive to those who are unable to breastfeed. Hutchinson closed the debate by referring to the stir caused by Margaret Trudeau when she was seen breastfeeding in a Toronto restaurant. “That incident,” she said, “seems symbolic of where we still stand on the issue.
By fall 95 WTN had done more than introduce Take 3. Old favourites like reruns of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda were added, as well as decorating shows like The Renovator and Debbie Travis’ Painted House.
Although the network chose to become more entertainment-oriented, Stranks says the replacement for POV could actually have become a true current affairs program like the fifth estate. But an investigative program, admits Stranks, takes a lot of money and skilled people-neither of which, she adds, were readily available.
Barde has similar sentiments. “It’s really hard to do current affairs if you don’t have a lot of money. It’s really hard to he immediately reactive. You don’t have enough staff or money. You can’t compete with all the current affairs shows that are out there and if you try to compete, it’s really hard to do it well.”
And so we are left with a show that at least tries to incorporate journalistic analyses, but also a show that presents something called “ClassAct,” a segment that “tackles prickly etiquette situations” for those “afraid to make a faux pas.” Its host is a grandmotherly woman with a sweet smile who advises Canadian women on social do’s and don’ts. She’s already told viewers how to handle introductions and even how to be good houseguests. On other shows, we learned how to talk intelligently about wine and got the ins and outs of laundry room manners.
Whenever I watch her, I can’t help but think of former WTN president Linda Rankin’s intentions for POV: Women. “We’ll look at what’s going on in the world through the eyes of women,” she said. “For example, Bosnia. What are the women’s stories coming out of Bosnia?” And while I admit to sometimes wanting to know how to tackle prickly etiquette situations, I’d much rather watch what Rankin promised-courageous women dealing with prickly life and death situations.