A fond farewell to CityTV…

Posted: May 26, 2010 in Reel Life
Tags: , , , , , ,

CityTV suddenly fires 60 senior on-air and production staff and axes almost all their local news

What a shame. What a tremendous loss for our city.

CityTV has long been a beacon for Toronto, showing us our triumphs and our failures on an epicly moving landscape. I was at the party for the launch of CityTV in the early 70’s and mostly I remember how incredibly excited everyone was. There was a palpable feeling that this station was going to be different. And different it was.

Spurred by a desire to innovate and forced to be inventive as the result of a constant cash shortage, City transformed the way we saw our Toronto – and the way we watched TV.

I remember in the early days you never knew what was going to happen on the air. On-air personalities were given broad discretion to do it differently, the camera was always moving, and many early shows were live, meaning that some pretty audacious stuff got on the air. Led by media visionary Moses Znaimer, CityTV took the gloss off of our city and got down and dirty with the rest of us.

Early offerings included Boogie, which was the bold forerunner to Electric Circus. There was Forum, which featured live debates, often quite audacious, and shows like the New Music that forever changed the face of music on television. Indeed, the New Music would later morph into MuchMusic, which also trail-blazed the way for a whole new era of entertainment TV.

In my youth I used to spend a lot of time down at the station, which in those days was at 99 Queen E., on the other side of Yonge, and I’ll never forget the energy that rippled through the place on a constant basis. Everybody who worked there loved their jobs even if City was one of the most infamously cheap employers in the industry. You didn’t work at City to get rich, you worked at City to be a part of the evolving brave new frontier that was the ascension of TV in the 70’s and 80’s. You worked there because you believed in what Moses what doing and you wanted to be a long for the ride.

Even though it didn’t pay much, at City you got on the air – whether you were ready or not. Some of the more famous City personalities today have been with the station for over 25 years and we have grown along with them. Gord Martineau, Kevin Frankish and Anne Mroczcowski have all been there for 25 plus years and are considerably more polished now than they were way back then.

And it wasn’t just the on-air style that shook things up – where the building became the set and everything and everybody were part of it – it was what they put on the air. The Baby Blue Movie forever changed the standards of what is permissible to air on a public station. City Pulse News did away with the anchor desk and put it’s broadcasters right into the thick of the action and shows like Fashion TV and Sex TV have become ubiquitous in markets all over the world.

It was always a dream of mine to work at City, to be close to that marvellous energy. I was childhood friends with Jay Switzer, who would go onto become the President of City during it’s biggest growth boom, and my parents were close with the Swtizers, who lived a few houses away from us. They were a TV family through and through. Sruki Switzer, the father, literally invented the technology that made cable TV possible and his wife, Phyllis was one of the original three founders of City TV.

City was always in my blood and as a neophyte film maker I used every excuse I could think of to hang around down at 99 Queen E. I just wanted to be close to that unmistakable energy, to be around people who loved what they did and who knew that they were making a difference. In later years I would do a fair bit of business with City, whose penchant for innovation matched some of my fairly audacious ideas, and although I did interview there once for my dream job (and didn’t get it!!) I never successfully leveraged any employment out of the grand dame. Pity. That would have been fun, indeed.

But, like all good things, City eventually grew up and the little station that could became the cash-box that was a well run station in the new millennium. Over the 90’s CityTV grew exponentially. They launched station after station, taking broad advantage of the new CRTC rules which allowed for cable speciality channels. Overnight there was Space, SexTV, CP24 and about 20 other niche stations that are still making their shareholders very rich. And that, of course, was the beginning of the end.

City couldn’t hide its burgeoning revenues from the street and in the early part of this decade they were snapped up by broadcasting giant CTV. At the time, CTV seemed to recognize the inherent uniqueness of their new property and pretty much ran things as per usual. City looked a little slicker but it was still a “little” station. However that couldn’t and didn’t last and in 2007 CTV was forced by the CRTC to divest itself of 5 City stations across Canada due to rules that prohibit any one entity from owning more than one broadcast station in any one market. And who ponied up $375 million for this broadcasting plum? Good ‘ole Rogers Media.

Now, even though Rogers was led by it’s own media visionary, Ted Rogers, their styles couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. Where City was wild, Mr. Rogers was conservative. Where City dared to boldly go, Rogers preferred to tread more cautiously. And aside from their local Cable 10 operations and the ownership of OMNI, Toronto’s multicultural channel, Rogers had little experience in running a national broadcast presence. And it didn’t take long for the axe to start to swing.

Immediately, the first to go was Speaker’s Corner, a marvel of television democracy that let any body grab some air time – and just for a loonie. In many ways Speaker’s Corner was an important symbol of City’s guerilla status. Famous for launching many careers – the Barenaked Ladies, Mike Myers and Scott Speedman all got their first exposures on the Corner – Speakers Corner suggested all that was right about what CityTV was doing and stood for. Often irreverent, frequently shocking and always entertaining, Speaker’s Corner fulfilled Moses Znaimer’s central philosophy that suggested that television was for every one and every Saturday night at 6:30 you could turn on your TV and see some extraordinarily democratic TV.

Many observers who watched the axing of Speaker’s Corner had a pretty strong premonition of what would be next. Slowly, over the next two years, City gradually became more and more polished until you couldn’t automatically identify which channel was CityTV when you were flipping through the channels. Rogers moved them out of their shrine to TV, the marvellous and innovative building at 299 Queen W., and slowly began dismantling everything that was special about the little station that could. The old CityTV used to feel a little like Improv TV, where anything could, and did, happen, and the new , emerging CityTV became slicker and more polished until it’s current, almost unrecognizable, state.

After Rogers began cleaning house, all of the original staff, who had poured their very best years into that station, gradually began to go, becoming replaced by Rogers’ bean counters. By early this year there was practically no one single holdover from the early days still on the executive roster. And today, the axe fell again.

In a bold and unsettling display of corporate power, Rogers gave pink slips to 60 of some of City’s most recognizable faces. Veterans like Anne Mroczkowski, Laura DiBattista and Pam Seatle were all given their walking papers – effective immediately. Their bios were unceremoniously yanked from the web site and many of the veterans who we have come to know and love were summarily dismissed. City’s mantra used to be Movies, Music and News, and they did all those things very well but today Rogers announced that it was cutting the Noon News, City at 5 and all the weekend newscasts, as well, putting a final dagger into the heart of a once thriving mediatropolis.

I have been watching the devolution of City for some time now and over the past few years have had a number of conversations with some of the senior staff there about what the future held for CityTV. None of them were very optimistic and all were already looking afield to greener pastures. And while they were losing their jobs, I was losing a friend. City has been an integral part of my life ever since I can remember and it feels like something important is missing today from the fabric of this city. One of our best and most insistent voices has been silenced.

A few years ago I was down in Bogota, Colombia, where CityTV has a flagship station – also called CityTV. This incarnation was templated off of the original City paradigm and when I walked into the studio it was like walking into a time warp – but in Spanish. It was the same half-cocked craziness that used to make every City broadcast seem like an episode of SCTV. I stood amidst the chaos and revelled in the energy I felt and it was immediately apparent to me that our CityTV had lost its edge, in comparison. They were doing it the way they wanted because they seemed to understand that the very energy they were producing there was what made City different. It’s what made City special.

I have been sadly watching the slow death of my old friend for several years now and I think that the loss of the old CityTV is a much bigger loss for our greater City of Toronto. We used to have pride in CityTV. We liked that it was imperfect because we were imperfect, too, and in some way City’s irreverence and pluckiness came to symbolize greater Toronto’s more irreverent character and nature. When we turned on City we were looking at ourselves and all the imperfections and roughness made us feel a little bit better about our own less polished overtures.

People were in tears and in shock as news of the cuts rippled through the industry. Suddenly, everyone seemed to viscerally understand what others had been observing for some time from afar – that CityTV was no longer the maverick it used to be and that it was now certain that some things seemed destined never to be the same again.

Today some very nice and very capable people lost their jobs but I’m afraid that the City of Toronto has lost a lot more. If CityTV was tele-democracy in action then its new, evolving, more corporate image means that we are losing an important voice in our entertainment and cultural landscape. CityTV used to speak for all of us – in a language that we all understood – and it gave a voice to that most ambiguous of entities – our city proper. We live in a more heavily branded, more corporate world than we ever have before and without a voice for the underdog I fear that the corporatization of our media infrastructure will soon be complete.

And as those old familiar faces are escorted out the door by unsmiling security guards, Toronto is losing a lot more than a few newscasts. We are losing an important part of our civic identity. Yes, it’s true, that we won’t have CityTV to kick around any more and I, for one, am feeling very sad for us all.

Goodbye old friend. You’ll be missed…


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