One recent evening while enjoying a small dry sherry and listening to my Andy Williams albums, I was in the mood to reminisce about the great controversies and flapdoodles of Canadian TV news. Don’t judge, about the sherry or the music, because l’affair LaFlamme has impacted many of us in different ways.
It occurs to me, as it should to you, that the controversy over Lisa LaFlamme not having her contract renewed by CTV is another in a long list of errors and malfunction in Canadian TV news.
To reminisce is to remember when the country stopped and watched The National on CBC, followed by The Journal. This was around the time the Maple Leafs were genuinely terrible, owned by Harold Ballard and the most shocking thing on Canadian TV was a guy on City-TV in Toronto standing in a cemetery near an open grave and declaring the Leafs would keep failing until Ballard was in that grave. This TV moment actually happened.
The Journal was usually anchored by Barbara Frum, who would often ask those she interviewed, “Are you bitter?” My cat at the time was a Barbara Frum fan. As soon as she heard Frum’s voice, she knew it was time for her bedtime snack and would start making a fuss. One of her favourite tactics was to pick up my winter boots in her mouth and drop them loudly to get my attention. Frum’s voice set this in motion. “Are you bitter?” I’d ask the cat.
After Frum passed away, and the country mourned, as it should, nobody at CBC TV knew what to do. That’s when everything went to heck in a handcart. In 1992, CBC bosses did a big shake-up. A shocked country looked aghast as a new flagship news package called CBC Prime Time News was launched. It aired at 9 p.m., not 10 p.m. This caused terrible, terrible confusion. The program was co-anchored by Peter Mansbridge and Pamela Wallin.
While trying to deliver both the day’s news and maintain a mini-version of The Journal at the end, the newscast also had a unique approach. Instead of starting with the top news story of the day, Mansbridge and Wallin discussed what was the most “interesting” story of the day.
It didn’t go over well. For a start, in that time of yore, viewers were keen to see their favourite drama or comedy at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. That was tough competition, and annoying. Viewers were being asked to skip Seinfeld or Frasier to watch Mansbridge and Wallin interact awkwardly on a poorly organized newscast. Were viewers bitter? Yep. One result was that ratings for CTV National News, airing at 11 p.m., improved immensely.
Eventually, CBC Prime Time News moved back to 10 p.m. and had a more conventional style, looking more like the old The National/Journal package. For some years after, whenever I met a CBC executive, they were at pains to say something along the lines of, “You know, Mr. Doyle, I had nothing to do with that decision about 9 p.m.” Sometimes it was the first thing they’d say to me, without prompting. In those days, of course, CBC and CTV executives talked to me. These days I might as well ask my cat Rita for explanation of what CBC or CTV is up to.
At around that time, in 1995, Lloyd Robertson, a true gentleman of broadcasting, was the anchor for CTV National News. He’d been doing it for years. When Robertson wasn’t there as anchor his main replacement was Keith Morrison, who was then co-anchor of CTV’s Canada AM. It was widely assumed that Morrison, who has extensive experience at NBC in the United States, would replace Robertson when the time came.
And then, in one extraordinary week that year, the anchor roles at CBC and CTV became headline news. Pamela Wallin told the Toronto Star that she understood she had been fired as co-anchor of CBC Prime Time News. CBC said no, that wasn’t true and she was being reassigned, perhaps her role would be reassessed. Wallin told the Star’s Antonia Zerbisias, that she was “angry, upset, dismayed.” And said, “My future, my life, my reputation and what I do for a living are at stake.”
That same week, Keith Morrison was taken off Canada AM and he hired a lawyer. No, he wasn’t going to be the main backup anchor for Robertson anymore. He didn’t even work for CTV anymore. Thank heavens Twitter didn’t exist then.
Hana Gartner then turned up as co-anchor with Mansbridge. Morrison returned to NBC and eventually became the legendary voice of the true-crime show Dateline NBC. Wallin returned briefly to CTV, then was host of an interview show, Pamela Wallin Live, on CBC and Newsworld. Later she was host of a Canadian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire on CTV, served as Canada’s consul general in New York and was later appointed to the Senate. Yes, all that happened.
Not much occurred for a few years and then along came George Stroumboulopoulos. Strombo, as everybody called him, a fascinating fella when not on TV, looked like CBC’s best bet for a youthful audience-grabbing personality. He was host of The Hour on CBC Newsworld and did it well. Then something happened. In the summer of 2006, Stroumboulopoulos was hired to host a new summer reality TV series on ABC, The One: Making a Music Star. At that time American Idol was a big deal but The One, based in LA, promised a more in-depth look at creating music and becoming a star.
CBC then made an extraordinary decision. It decided to simulcast The One (a U.S, network reality show!), which meant that on one weeknight The National was bumped to 11 p.m. to accommodate ABC’s show. There was uproar. The One was reported to be the most expensive summer series made by ABC, but nobody watched it and it was cancelled after just two weeks. At the time, yours truly had little to say about the debacle because I was in Germany covering soccer’s World Cup. Danke for that coincidence.
Some years later, while waiting to board an Air Canada fight at the airport in Los Angeles, a man dozing on a nearby seat got up, approached me and said, “Let’s take a photo!” It was Strombo, who was in good fettle and yep there’s a photo somewhere of me and Strombo beaming and bleary-eyed. He suggested that the next time I was in L.A., we should get together and he’d show me the town, “his L.A.”
Regrettably, I suppose, that’s not my kind of thing. Here I sit with a small dry sherry as Andy Williams croons Days of Wine and Roses. There have been, you might say, many days of whine and poses from TV news executives and, there will be more.
Airing/streaming this weekend
Santo (streams on Netflix) is an eight-part thriller, a Spain/Brazil (in Spanish and Portuguese) production from creator Carlos Lopez, who also co-wrote the extraordinary thriller Hache (also on Netflix). The man called Santo, whose face has never been seen, runs an international drug cartel that is organized like a cult movement. Two police officers who go after him, Cardona (Bruno Gagliasso) and Millan (Raul Arevalo), are initially at odds but they collaborate. It’s visually stunning, seething with a relentless sense of doom even as its action sequences are thrilling.
The U.S. and the Holocaust (starts Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m.) is a six-hour series (airing on three consecutive nights) from Ken Burns and his team. It examines the U.S. response to the Holocaust before, during, and after the Second World War. Peter Coyote narrates the series, which also utilizes the voices of Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Werner Herzog. It is emotionally harrowing and illuminating as it focuses on both major figures and the stories of ordinary families.
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