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CTV, The Network That Means Business

by Michael Nolan
405 pages,
ISBN: 0888643853


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Birth of a Network
by Stephen Knight

Much like Canada's history, the history of the CTV television network is filled with a few swashbuckling entrepreneurs, lots of politics and plenty of bureaucratic machinations.

That's the sense one gets reading CTV: The Network That Means Business, an attempt by University of Western Ontario journalism instructor Michael Nolan to address what he says is a dearth of scholarly writing about the evolution of Canadian broadcasting.


It's a good start, but it's not the last word.

Nolan traces the beginning of CTV back to the late 1950s when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which was created in 1936 and went on the air in 1952, was, in addition to being a broadcaster, also the regulator of the private broadcasting industry. The private broadcasters of the time argued long and loud for some kind of independent body to oversee the industry. They eventually got their wish.

In 1958, the Bureau of Broadcast Governors, the forerunner of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, was created and levelled the playing field for the private networks somewhat. Previously, argues Nolan, the private networks were seen as purveyors of low-brow culture and were consequently not viewed culturally ű or legally ű as important as the CBC.

Three years later, on January 1, 1961, CFTO, CTV's Toronto-based flagship station, hit the air with an 18-hour broadcast of a telethon for the Association of Retarded Children. There were anxious moments for the network, including a loss of audio seconds before its launch, but nothing as embarrassing as the oft-told story of CBLT, CBC's Toronto station, going on the air in 1952 with its identification slide upside down.

Nolan paints a colorful picture of CTV founder Spencer Caldwell as an opportunistic promoter and energetic entrepreneur who saw business ideas all around him. Among other things, Caldwell got the TelePrompter franchise for Canada and was a pioneer of closed-circuit television. He aimed to make CTV attractive to advertisers, not university professors. A populist alternative to the CBC was born.

The author recounts how the Canadian Football League was an important impetus for getting CTV on the air, and for bringing together Caldwell and newspaper magnate John Bassett, turning former rivals into partners. Sports and news¨along with cheap but popular American programs¨became staples of the CTV programming menu, since they both drew big audience numbers. Sports was relatively inexpensive. News, while more costly, helped build the CTV brand, allowing it to distinguish itself from its arch-rival, the CBC.

Nolan divides the company's history into four eras: The upstart network was a private company for its first five years and then ran as a co-operatively owned operation¨with each of the network's affiliates a member of the co-op-from 1966 to Š93, after the stations bought out the original investors. From 1993 to Š97, under John Cassaday, CTV was run like a conventional company, with majority rule rather than unanimity carrying any given motion. Now, CTV is part of Bell Globemedia Inc., a media behemoth under the BCE umbrella that includes Web sites, production companies, specialty and digital cable channels as well as The Globe and Mail.

Though the material is often, of necessity, dry, Nolan has done a bang-up job recounting the ownership squabbles and regionalism of the early years as well as the many coups that CTV pulled off at the expense of its high-minded, publicly-funded competitor¨including earning the broadcast rights to the 1972 Summit Series hockey showdown between Canada and the Soviet Union and the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary and wooing news anchor Lloyd Robertson over.

One of the problems of a book like this is that the Canadian journalism business is a small club and everyone knows each other. And Canadians, being eminently diplomatic and just plain nice, are loath to criticize former competitors and/or colleagues. As a result, Nolan's interviews, though extensive, lack a certain punch, something he cannot be faulted for. After all, today's competitor can be tomorrow's colleague, so why burn bridges?

Nolan also does a solid job detailing the periodic confrontations between the head honchos at CTV and the bureaucrats of the BBG and later, the CRTC, at license renewal time. The broadcast regulator, much as it does today, was always pushing for more and better Canadian programming, while CTV, the nation's largest private network, went through mathematical gymnastics¨and occasionally specious ones at that¨to prove that it was providing its share of Canadian content.

Sometimes the network would take the opposite tack, explaining that cheap but popular American sitcoms were crucial to the network's survival because of the ad revenue they produced, which, eventually, would underwrite more and better Canadian programming. Despite regular grilling by the regulator, CTV rarely lost a battle with the CRTC, which, some critics say, is a toothless industry watchdog.

Nolan rightfully points out that elections and leadership conventions of the 1960s changed the way television is broadcast, but unfortunately doesn't delve much into how TV has changed politics. The audience numbers for so-called event television are indisputable, but has the age of the sound bite and the shoot-from-the-hip quip replaced meaningful political discourse?

The most annoying thing about the book is Nolan's heavy use of the word "clearly". It's an old debating tactic that suggests the preceding statements inevitably lead to the concluding statement. Not only is it not necessarily the case-worse, it suggests the reader is somehow deficient as if she can't see the line of argument for herself.

And when discussing sports coverage, Nolan inexplicably mentions-three times-a National Hockey League team called the Montreal Canadians. Not the type of gaffe one can get by Canadian readers.

Though there is brief mention of the difference in corporate cultures between the CBC and CTV-the public broadcaster more bureaucratic; CTV more entrepreneurial and spontaneous-more mention of CBC's reaction to the new kid on the TV block would have added another dimension. After all, the two dominated the Canadian TV landscape for 20 years before other private networks such as CanWest Global started carving into advertising revenue.

As the more colourful characters of the early days of the Canadian TV business - Lloyd Robertson, Johnny Esaw, Trina McQueen and Knowlton Nash spring immediately to mind - begin their leisure years and put their lives in the business into writing, hopefully we'll see more edgy commentary and some memorable anecdotes, but for now Nolan's effort is a comprehensive, though occasionally choppy, primer on the history of Canada's largest private TV network. ˛

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