TELEVISION

Those Air of Death hearings have left an after-smog that could stifle even the boldest television producers

DOUGLAS MARSHALL May 1 1969

TELEVISION

Those Air of Death hearings have left an after-smog that could stifle even the boldest television producers

DOUGLAS MARSHALL May 1 1969

TELEVISION

Those Air of Death hearings have left an after-smog that could stifle even the boldest television producers

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to Air of Death, the CBC’s controversial program on air pollution, since it was broadcast for the first and last time on Oct. 22, 1967, shouldn’t happen to a sleazy 8-mm underground movie. It’s a pity the people of Canada haven’t had a chance to see a repeat performance. Air of Death was, beyond question, one of the most powerful and relevant documents presented on Canadian television in recent years. Yet this dramatic example of TV’s potential has been subjected to two costly investigations, and the crucial issues raised by the program have largely been obscured by the clamorous debate over how they were put across.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Air of Death, the first of three projected hour-long specials on pollution, was produced by the CBC’s farm and fisheries department — a group that hitherto has tended to confine its sensationalism to reports on the fall of world grain prices. With this show, however, producer Larry Gosnell deliberately set out to shock, to provoke a nation-wide response. His team worked for nearly a year accumulating enough research on the problem to fill five filing cabinets. CBC management was sufficiently impressed to give the program prime time by pre-empting Ed Sullivan.

Alas for the CBC’s good intentions. Pollution is a dirty word and it gets dirtier when the corporate and political power structure are directly involved. If journalistic merit can be called into dispute, what price pollution now?

There are indications of this negative approach in last December’s report by an Ontario government committee investigating fluoride pollution near Dunville. As Air of Death showed, the pollution is caused by a fertilizer plant owned by the well - connected Electric Reduction Company. CBC management was asked by the committee to justify its handling of this touchy problem but declined to co-operate. The committee under Dr. G. Edward Hall, former president of the University of Western Ontario, concluded that fluoride had damaged crops and animals in the area (although it hadn’t endangered human

life). However, these findings tended to be overshadowed by the verbal lashings the committee administered to the CBC, accusing the program of making “unwarranted, untruthful and irresponsible” statements designed “to create alarm and fear.”

There’s no doubt the Hall report cast serious doubts on the integrity of Gosnell and everybody else connected with Air of Death. Although filming was completed for the second pollution special, dealing with pesticides, its broadcast was delayed. Says Gosnell bitterly: “If we put it on the air people would simply dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh, that was made by Larry Gosnell, the well-known CBC liar.’ ” It wasn’t until the Canadian RadioTelevision Commission convened a special three-day hearing in Toronto a few weeks ago that Gosnell got a chance to present his case.

The first two days were mainly devoted to demonstrating that all reasonable care and unusually intense preparation had gone into Gosnell’s production. It wasn’t until the third day, when the floor was thrown open to a general discussion on controversial programming, that the CRTC found what it was evidently looking for all the time: an explanation of what television is all about.

A panel of experienced broadcasters and documentary film - makers — Douglas Leiterman, CTV’s Murray Chercover, John Grierson — were asked to provide the explanation. Using phrases like “honest bias” and “creative anarchy,” they hammered home the point that television is a volatile medium in which imbalance is not only permissible but sometimes essential in order to generate public awareness. Total objectivity is a myth; a perfectly dispassionate producer is a lousy broadcaster; good documentaries are the work of one informed man committed to a point of view. In short, Air of Death, far from being irresponsible, was a commendable example of how informational TV ought to be produced in the future.

The CRTC indicated it had grasped these points. But does that mean the way is now cleared for even more daring documentaries? Regrettably, it

does not. For one thing the threat posed by the Hall committee remains with us. Will any provincial government that feels its amour-propre has been shaken by a CBC report now be able to set up a similar inquiry and make similar accusations? The situation is ludicrous.

Then there’s the unsettling question of the CRTC itself. The commission, while informing itself in Toronto, did considerable psychological damage. The advocates of boldness within the CBC are unmistakably unnerved. “Let’s face it,” said one veteran producer. “The next time somebody comes to me with a controversial idea I’m probably going to duck away, I don’t want the CRTC on my back with another Air of Death mess.” If

that attitude persists, we’re all losers.

WHEN Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

switches to the CBC network next season, Canadians will laugh longer. CTV, in order to squeeze in more commercials, has consistently chop-

ped three minutes out of the original NBC version taped in beautiful downtown Burbank. The CBC may snip out as little as one minute. At LaughIn's pace, two extra minutes could mean about 20 extra punch lines.

Incidentally, Laugh-In has profoundly changed the lives of a number of relatively obscure people. It nursed the seedling talents of Tiny Tim. It brightened the old age of Henny (“Take my wife”) Youngman and rescued Pigmeat (“Heah come de judge”) Markham from oblivion. But perhaps most surprising of all is what the show has done for a staid, morocco-bound-dictionary firm with the running gag, “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.”

“Our sales have jumped 20 percent because of Laugh-In," says a spokesman at the firm’s New York headquarters. Far from being offended by the Laugh-In digs (the latest line accuses Funk and Wagnalls of being “anti-semantic”), the firm is exploiting the gag’s publicity value, and the situation couldn’t be more copacetic. Look that up in your new Funk and Wagnalls.