citytv news history

That time when Citytv had a pulse

According to Gord Martineau, it was former Toronto Mayor and all around Citytv fanatic David Crombie who once said in deference to the CityPulse news team's cramped studio space at 99 Queen Street East, "the city is your newsroom." The program had debuted in May of 1977 with its own striking subtitle — a day in the life of Toronto — and a very strict remit from Citytv's visionary man upstairs Moses Znaimer: "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."

If CityPulse was the daily soap opera of Toronto, then Martineau is its Victor Newman. He recently celebrated 35 years at the helm looking roughly the same as he did when he started, even as everything around him has changed fundamentally. But change is paramount to the Citytv success story. "There is no alternative to growing up" Znaimer told NOW magazine in 1982 while discussing Citytv's 10th 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."

From its very first anarchic transmission on September 28th, 1972, the crown jewel in Citytv's schedule was The City Show, fronted at first by the pensive chain-smoking Warner Troyer, a nightly 2 ½ hour marathon of in-depth discussion of local events, public affairs and news which at the time was a welcome antidote to Toronto's thirty or sixty minute news programs which aped the U.S. model. The City Show was more indebted to CBC's house style, unsurprising as Znaimer cut his teeth at the Mother Corp in the 1960s.

Unfortunately this gutsy but ponderous approach did not result in a sustainable serial, although it ran for half a decade and marked Citytv's first bold attempt to remould the stolid institution of news. The station then sought help from "news doctor" Jacques de Suze, a U.S. based consultant who proposed a series of revolutionary tweaks to the format based on his due diligence (rumour has it that upon being summoned, he holed up in a hotel room and watched nothing but Toronto area news for weeks on end). Filtered through Znaimer's Marshall McLuhan inspired temperament, and wunderkind Ivan Fecan's toiling, a new kind of news style came alive, a Frankenstein's monster crafted of equal parts music video, performance art, Hollywood sheen, and carnivalistic sideshow. This was the pulse.

While some saw the slick rebranding a betrayal of Citytv's earlier earnest commitment to hardboiled, old school journalism, CityPulse was in fact the most progressive and prophetic form of news gathering and telling ever broadcast. No surprise it's formula would go on to transform news reportage around the world, as well as confound and then reshape viewer's expectations. One of Znaimer's commandments at the time was "let the actual sound and visuals tell the story."

Clocking in initially at a whopping 90 minutes length, CityPulse soon settled into a fast paced 60 minute edition at 6 P.M., followed by another at 10 P.M., later known as CityPulse Tonight. The after-dark broadcast used the jazzy grooves of Grover Washington Junior's "Masterpiece" to soundtrack stories of our city, later Graham Shaw's mighty "Pentatus" while the 6 P.M. show deployed "Gonna Fly Now" (Rocky's Theme) to great effect, with assignment editor Glen Cole's introductory holler sounding like that of a wrestling announcer.

Znaimer populated his soap opera with real people, not reporters. Not only that, the people he enlisted actually reflected multicultural Toronto. It all seems so utterly Martian now, but at the time most major Toronto news outlets were anchored by silver haired, grandfatherly males, most of whom smoked pipes and wore un-ironic elbow patches. Citytv's diversity not only led to better quality news reportage, but better business as well, and by the mid-1980s CityPulse was close to slaying stodgy old dragons CFTO (CTV) and CBLT (CBC).

With a shrewd casting instinct to rival that of Robert Altman, Znaimer and company assembled a large and varied cadre of characters who established a bedrock of trust with viewers and became celebrities in their own right. Martineau was the very first, lured away from CFTO (where he had been forbidden to use his full surname), complimented by now legendary folks like Dini Petty, JoJo Chintoh, Brian Linehan, Bill Cameron, ex-Maple Leaf Jim McKenney, Peter Gross, Mary Garfalo, Jim Tatti, Kathy Kastner, Lorne Honickman, former provincial NDP leader Stephen Lewis, Toronto alderman Colin Vaughn, consumer affairs advocate Peter Silverman, athlete Debbie Van Kiekebelt, The Honourable David Onley, Anne Mroczkowski, Greg Rist, Jeanne Beker and later J.D Roberts, Monika Deol, Ann Rohmer , John Burgess, Terilyn Joe, Teresa Roncon, Bob Hunter, Libby Znaimer, Ben Chin, Harold Hosein, John Saunders, Laura Di Battista, Pam Seatle, Thalia Assuras, Denise Donlan, Lance Chilton, Dwight Drummond, Kathryn Humphreys and John Gallagher, to name but a few.

Another pivotal hire was ex-RCMP officer Glen Cole, who later shepherded former policeman Mark Dailey into the CityPulse family. Both men brought with them strong ties to law enforcement, invaluable for covering every nuance of crime in the city, and both elevated awareness of organizations such as Crime Stoppers and many other charitable causes. Both are also sadly deceased. Dailey passed away after battling cancer in 2010, sparking a public outpouring of grief for the much loved "Voice" of Toronto. It is a testament to Dailey's enduring iconic status that Citytv still hosts their moving tribute to him at Citytv.com.

Over the years CityPulse ushered in many new technological advances, but few were as prized or ultimately important as those which granted the ability to accurately predict the state of the atmosphere.

In May 1987, CityPulse moved into a new home base at 299 Queen Street West. The bright orange set remained, but the static anchors and crash zooms were gone. The newsroom became electric with a new found sense of space where anchors walked around and interacted with one another in the midst of their messy technology. The guts of a modern studio were purposely exposed and celebrated, but there was no "studio" per se. This was also the age of the Videographer, lone wolf cameramen who shot, reported and edited their own stories. Pioneered by Dominic Sciullo, this style of reporting spilled over to other broadcasters before becoming standardized. Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account is a Videographer.

Adding to the mythological stature of the brave CityPulse cameraman whose "eyes were on the beat of Toronto" was the fleet of CityPulse cars and trucks which tore around the city with wild abandon, beating their rivals to the drop on political scandals, car accidents, rowdy picket lines or murders. They were everywhere! After years of hard service in the field, dust ups with streetcars and various fender benders, the original Live Eye truck was retired, shipped off as junk then rescued from a scrapyard near Gladstone moments before it was to be crushed into a cube. Built to last and wired to the gills by technical boffin Ron Reid, the original Live Eye truck became the ultimate Citytv objet d'art, immortalized forever as a Toronto landmark on the side of 299 Queen Street East. The new owners of the building have since repainted the truck with the colours and branding of CP24, causing understandable umbrage amongst original Pulse personal at such a vulgar act of revisionism. Long live the original CityPulse Live Eye!

As with CNN, Citytv's coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 was a catalyst for major innovation in the upcoming decade. While other stations were off air, the anchor-less assignment desk scrolled news updates throughout the night, eventually using night owl Kevin Frankish to host spots which bled smoothly into Breakfast Television. By 1998, the CityPulse team had refined their technique to the point they were ready to give Toronto its very own 24-hour news channel, something which Znaimer had envisioned creating as far back as the 1960s: CityPulse 24 (later CP24, and now controlled by Bell Media (http://www.bellmedia.ca).

The 2000s proved to be a tumultuous decade for CityPulse, with the departure of Znaimer, ownership of the station flipping thrice (from Chum to CTV then finally to Rogers), a name change to the less immediate CityNews, the death of Mark Dailey and Bob Hunter, and most damaging, a near ruinous gutting of the news division (this sordid moment is covered brilliantly by Lindsey Aubin in her piece "No Pulse left at Citytv". Reflecting back over 35 years, one can't help but feel the whole enterprise has been defanged in response to a stifling advertising and corporate climate. Has the punch up the bracket, crusading style of journalism shuffled away indefinitely from the homogenized universe of broadcast television and into the scrappier, more street savvy realm of blogs and social media?

Would contemporary CityNews ever deliver something as taboo as when Dini Petty gave birth on camera? Or as emotionally devastating and raw as Dan Petkovsek's report on Toronto skid row alcoholics "Raymond - No Fixed Address"? Or even want to help in toppling a sitting Mayor, as CityPulse did in 1980 when Colin Vaughn exposed John Sewell's canard about why he skipped out on a policeman's funeral?

If anyone understands the need to stay true to the CityPulse roots, it's first man in, last man standing Gord Martineau. After 35 years on the Hogtown beat he still considers the murder of Toronto police officer Michael Sweet the most shocking story he has had to cover (Mark Dailey used to say the same thing). He is a consummate professional with a deft sense of humour, as evidenced by his cameo roles in The Last Polka (1985) with John Candy and Eugene Levy, and Dirty Work (1998) with Norm McDonald and Artie Lang, and the countless years he MC'd the Citytv New Year's Bash. In the early 1980s he hosted a variety show for the Cash for Life lottery, and even cheekily defected to Global News for a short while ("A coffee break" as he describes it now).

After being booted from 299 Queen Street West, Martineau recalled David Crombie's sublime description of CityPulse when he passionately argued the case to Ted Rogers that Citytv absolutely must relocate to the Olympic Spirit building at Dundas Square, as opposed to selling out completely and absconding to posher digs in the north end favored by bean counting MBAs with no understanding of the streetwise stuff CityNews, nee Pulse, was once upon a time made from. "Ted drove down there, looked at it with his wife, and wrote the cheque". No matter what else may change, the Pulse legacy is safe with Gord.

Gord Martineau 1980s

Citytv will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with the airing of Citytv: 40 and Fab, a 5-part news special airing next Monday, September 24 through Friday, September 28 during CityNews at Five, CityNews at Six and online at www.citynews.ca. It promises a no holds barred look at the good old days, with interviews from many of the classic Citytv personal. Colour us intrigued.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.


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