Last Friday, September 28, marked the 40th anniversary of Citytv Toronto (call sign: CITY-TV). Contrary to expectations (my own, at least), the on-air celebration was quite modest, to say the least. There was a five-part special report about the station and its history aired during the station’s newscasts and posted online, two celebratory segments (one on Friday, another the Monday before) on morning show “Breakfast Television” both featuring chief news anchor Gord Martineau (who, incidentally, just celebrated his 35th year with the station), and an on-air gathering by the CityNews staff during Friday’s 6:00 edition, after they ran the last part of the anniversary special report. Not too much fanfare anywhere else on the station’s airwaves. A bit of a sad note, perhaps, to many Torontonians who grew up watching “the little station that could”. And for me, who, even as someone who had only been living in Canada and the GTA for five years, came to know and love the station.
To a generation of Toronto viewers, Citytv meant groundbreaking, revolutionary television especially during its prime in the ’80s and ’90s. It may not have become the top-rated station, but it definitely made a mark on both the industry and the city itself. To some, it was about being the music station even before the birth of MTV–with programs such as magazine show “The New Music,” music video shows “Toronto Rocks,” “City Limits” and “CHUM 30,” and concert simulcasts in stereo (along with now-former sister radio station CHUM-FM), and the fact that City spawned Canada’s first and original 24-hour music video channel, MuchMusic. To others, it was about the gutsy, action-packed, in-your-face reportage of the “CityPulse” news team, which perhaps became the ultimate personification of the station’s tagline, “Everywhere!” as they scoured Toronto and the GTA for the stories that mattered. For others still, it was about those “Great Movies,” “Late Great Movies” and even those “Not-So-Great Movies”, from box-office hits to the duds, all day and all night.
It was about the irreverent humor of “Ed’s Night Party” with cigar-smoking puppet Ed the Sock on Friday late-nights, or how lots of men secretly tuned in to every…uhm…extremely sexy “Baby Blue Movie”. For “Star Trek” fans all over the city, it was about being their “federation station”, being the home of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” through its entire run–and how City marked the series finale with a big screening event at the SkyDome (what is now the Rogers Centre). It was about how Brian Linehan surprised his celebrity interviewees every “City Lights” episode with his extensive research. Or how the beautiful Jeanne Beker took fashionistas around the world through their TV screens on “Fashion Television”–long before the term “fashionista” was even coined. It was about the CityPulse news team reflecting the diversity of the city, the smooth delivery and sharp, witty writing of the late Bill Cameron on the late-night newscast, the revelations and hard truths about Toronto in the CityPulse “Newserials”, the occasional antics of CityPulse sports anchors such as Jim McKenny and Peter Gross, how reporter/ombudsman Peter Silverman was not afraid to stand up for the TO consumer, and how Gord Martineau has always been there forever on the 6:00 time slot, with Dini Petty and later, Anne Mroczkowski as his sparring partner. It was about being part of the dancing crowd every weekend on “Electric Circus”, or the live audience of “CityLine” or “Lunch Television.” It was about having a minute to speak out or strut your stuff for just a dollar at the “Speakers’ Corner” booth (something that helped start the careers of such hometown boys who’ve made it big like Mike Myers, Scott Speedman, and the Barenaked Ladies), and how the station’s now-former home at 299 Queen Street West in downtown TO was called “the living movie”, where passers-by can easily have a look at how television is made. More importantly, it was about how “The Voice”–the late, great Mark Dailey–gave Citytv its distinct identity with his signature baritone and his quick, cheeky one-liners teasing every program, and injected his sense of humor into every Citytv ident ending it with his trademark line, “This is Citytv…everywhere!” Citytv was all about the city, and the people who lived in it. Eventually, I learned, even the world started to take notice. And a lot of it was because of one Moses Znaimer–Citytv’s co-founder and bossman through most of its history–who aimed to take local television out of the box.
City was the first local station I watched when I arrived in Toronto in 2007. I could still remember figuring out how to pronounce the last names of Anne Mroczkowski and Dina Pugliese everytime I saw them on the air, and how proud I was to see my Filipino lineage being represented in the station by some of their reporters at that time–Kris Reyes (whose roots, I learned, were from my parents’ hometown of San Pablo City in Laguna where I was also born), Richard Madan, Marianne Dimain, and later, Michael Serapio. I cannot exactly recall now how else it happened, but I easily related to City and its personalities. And the TV geek that I am (as some of you may recall from a previous post here on this blog), I began to read up more on Canadian and Toronto TV history, which, among other things, led me to YouTube and a ton of archival Citytv clips and idents–mostly from the Retrontario account, which I have since considered the “unofficial” digital archive of Toronto-area television. That was where I discovered bits and pieces of Citytv’s visual history and how valuable it had become to many a TV viewer in the city and beyond. And putting past and present together, I have since resolved that I would love to work for the station someday.
As the succeeding years since my move to Canada went on, it was also within the social media atmosphere where I found out what many of those who grew up watching Citytv have been lamenting all along: that the station is not the same as it used to be–not even a shadow of what it was. As most of them would point out, the corporate shake-up that began in the mid-2000s could be the biggest thing to blame: Moses Znaimer leaving the CHUM empire, then CTVglobemedia (later known as Bell Media, owner of leading Canadian private TV network CTV) buying all the CHUM assets but having to sell off Citytv (and its co-branded sister stations in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg) due to Canadian media ownership regulations–Rogers Communications, another telecom giant and staunch Bell competitor, being the eventual buyer of the City system. I, along with many viewers, witnessed some of those post-buyout changes on the air–things like the eventual axing of “Speakers’ Corner” and “Ed’s Night Party,” the remaining “Great Movies” primetime slots gradually being replaced by US network programming, the late-night “Late Great Movies” and “Baby Blue Movies” slots replaced by second-run reality shows and infomercials, and so on.
And there was that big lay-off in January 2010, the “casualties” of which included veteran CityNews reporters Laura DiBattista (now with CBC Radio), Merella Fernandez (now with CTV National), Pam Seatle (who eventually returned September that year for the station’s G20 Summit coverage, and has remained with City since), and the biggest “victim,” long-time 6:00pm co-anchor Anne Mroczkowski (now with Global Toronto). That event affected me so much as a viewer because to me, perhaps as with a lot of other viewers, those involved were people we trusted–people we considered “friends” or acquaintances, even if we just knew them through the TV screens.
Citytv has never been completely the same in the last few years. And in this day and age when the regulatory bodies seem to be more strict about broadcast standards, I don’t think that the Citytv most Torontonians knew and loved in its prime would be able to exist. However, the almost-eternal optimist that I am, I also think that all still isn’t lost. It’s in the way viewers could pack Yonge-Dundas Square even at the crack of dawn (with a few people lining up as early as 10:00pm the previous night) for “Breakfast Television’s” Viewer Appreciation Day event–which I’ve gone to for two consecutive years now. Or how their annual New Year’s Eve party outside Toronto’s City Hall still attracts thousands of people, whatever the weather. It’s about how the BT gang (particularly, main hosts Kevin Frankish and Dina Pugliese) unabashedly makes fun of themselves on live TV now and then. It’s about how host Tracy Moore and her panel of experts still make “Cityline” stay true to its aim of helping women coast to coast (not just in Toronto) live life better, perhaps more than previous hosts Dini Petty and Marilyn Denis would’ve ever imagined. It’s how sports anchor Kathryn Humphreys sneaks in a crazy one-liner or two while going through her sports highlights every night, or how fellow sports anchor Hugh Burrill writes his script for his weekly “HughLites” montage and how he once walked all over downtown Toronto in green tights–antics that could probably be reminiscent of their predecessors Gross, McKenny, Debbie Van Kiekebelt and Ann Rohmer. It’s about how the “Newserial” spirit seems to live on through reporter Avery Haines’ “Inside Story” segment on the 6:00pm edition–with such daring and eye-opening topics as the illegal drug called “bath salts” and female genital mutilation, and heartwarming ones like tonight’s story on a 16-year-old boy suffering from progeria.
It’s how the news team’s local focus is still there, as shown in tonight’s lead story on the 6:00 broadcast: a young cancer patient’s iPad stolen inside the SickKids Hospital. It’s about how viewers stood by reporter Cynthia Mulligan as she documented her battle against breast cancer, in the same manner that Mark Dailey did during his own bout with prostate cancer in the early 2000s. And speaking of Dailey, it’s about how the whole city and beyond–myself included–wept and stood by the station’s side when The Voice fell silent and succumbed to kidney cancer in December 2010. And the list could go on and on and on.
The little station that could has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 40 years. And while it is no longer the same Citytv that Toronto knew, I think we should still trust that the station’s old spirit will still be kept alive somehow by the stalwarts who were there during the glory years, and by new faces who still believe that the station will and should always belong to the city it serves.
Happy 40th anniversary, Citytv Toronto. I know that somehow, you are still loved. Everywhere.