That time when Citytv was the street
"Print created illiteracy. Television is democratic, everybody gets it."
Moses Znaimer's 10 Commandments of Television are about the closest we'll ever get to un-covering his televisual hot sauce equivalent of the Colonel's secret recipe. Unlike most other highfalutin media gurus, Znaimer espouses theories which are practical, and which were very successfully put into practice both home and away. Citytv turns 40 years old today, and while its Teflon status as the most recognizable independent station in the world is no doubt off the hardworking backs of a multitude of souls, it was the single authorial and ethereal voice of Moses Znaimer who defined Citytv as an institution, an ethos, and forever a legend.
Cardinal to all of Citytv's tremendous achievements, whether it be in the field of News, Movies or Music, was the emphasis Znaimer placed upon democracy and ultimately, the street. From the anarchy of Free for All, hosted by eccentric William Ronald in a pink polyester cape holding court over a live audience who were encouraged to speak their mind about any subject they desired, to its slightly higher tech spiritual heir Speakers Corner, there was no doubt that Citytv was an egalitarian enterprise.
Znaimer also pushed hard for production, noting it was a mug's game to compete with deep pocketed CTV and Global in bidding wars for glossy American shows ("Produce or die" was his dire warning, obviously unheeded by modern Citytv). Instead they slowly but effectively built a stable of TV shows produced cheap and cheerful, than sold on the international market for a pretty penny. There were memorable imports as well: In an orgy of post-modern irony, SCTV was screened for years, while Star Trek: The Next Generation aired on "your Federation Station," as did M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone, no budget soap opera Ryan's Hope and even the Price is Right. Plus there were many and varied multicultural shows such as Sounds of Asia, Hello Japan, Chinese Television and Greek Paradise which reflected the real Toronto more than any other broadcaster at time.
Much of Citytv's early line-up was the kind of bizarro TV as carnival sideshow predicted in Sidney Lumet's Network (1976) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/), but it was happening here in Toronto! Thankfully there was no Howard Beale equivalent, although Mort Schulman probably came close a few times.
With the debut of Speakers Corner in 1991, the parameters of Reality TV were rather effortlessly defined (now you know who to blame), while the earlier Greed forewarned of its eventual excess. Singles Unlimited was eHarmony.com (without the fake profiles) while the City Nights posters were proto local blogs (without the snark). The Toronto Trilogy was sort of a civic pride version of YouTube, while the Great Diamond Hunt could have been The Amazing Race in 1983. Citytv even managed to start a merchandising phenomenon with the Toronto T's and sweaters, unheard of at the time.
"People City," the Znaimer commissioned Toronto lullaby by Tommy Ambrose, sound tracked both the station sign-on and sign-off, which marked the end of another day in the life of our city and invited viewers to personally write letters to Moses Znaimer at 99 Queen Street East. These relics of a bygone era offer an acid Polaroid of Toronto and the station itself in the 1970s and early 80s. When Citytv switched to 24 hour programming, there was no longer a need to sign on or off.
Aside from the blood sport politics and infinite sadness regarding its current state, Citytv casts a very long shadow across Toronto. Those who lived through its glory days will never forget the indelible mark it left, and those who missed it are lucky enough to play in an age where you can catch retro rebroadcasts on video sharing sites.
40 years ago today a small group of misfits led by a colourful gnomic revolutionary stepped forth into the breach and swiftly recalibrated both the art and science of Television. They came from, and understood the street. They boldly let the street inform their sexy little UHF station. That is the 40th Anniversary we should all be celebrating.
And If you ever wondered how things went from gutsy to gutless in the last decade, former Toronto Mayor David Crombie has a pretty good hypothesis, and in keeping with the prophetic nature of all things Citytv, this clip was filmed for their 15th Anniversary in 1987.
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.