Media

Picturing history

How the news a staple of small screen

MARCI MCDONALD January 20 1997
Media

Picturing history

How the news a staple of small screen

MARCI MCDONALD January 20 1997

Picturing history

Media

How the news a staple of small screen

MARCI MCDONALD

At 9 p.m., the interview, which began just after 2 p.m., is ostensibly winding up. Beyond the roomy command post of the CBC’s fourth-floor documentary unit, the corridors are deserted. But after seven hours of waxing both lyrical and apocalyptic about the state of television, executive producer Mark Starowicz pulls on his rumpled trench coat with reluctance. “I’m going across the street for a hamburger,” he says. “We could continue the conversation there.” That invitation promptly turns into another three-hour monologue. But then, for more than a quarter of a century, Starowicz, the onetime Wunderkind of the airwaves, has been pushing the limits of the possible—and managing to lure Canadians of all stripes to tune in.

On every wall, his office is festooned with testimonials to that feat. Over the sofa, Barbara Frurn’s face stares out from a 1975 poster for As It Happens, where he turned a handful of studio phone lines into a feisty nightly gabfest with far-off officials or any passer-by who picked up the receiver in a phone booth near a Soweto riot. By the door, another ad trumpets the 1976 launch of Sunday Morning, his second line of attack in what became known as the CBC Radio revolution. And above both soars the silver logo from The Journal, his $11-million technical crapshoot that retailored the country’s prime-time viewing habits in 1982 to become a national public affairs institution.

But 10 years later, when The Journal was peremptorily axed, Starowicz’s own stellar rise in the CBC screeched to an ignominious halt. Now, when the last pillars of his broadcasting legacy are under

budgetary assault, the former enfant terrible is back in the spotlight with another act of bravado. At 50, after four years of fostering a new crop of Canadian documentaries for his weekly Witness showcase— Starowicz has produced Dawn of the Eye, a five-part chronicle of the TV-news business. Designed to underline the impact of what he calls “the most powerful information instrument in human history,” it is also an attempt, as he puts it, “to streetproof the audience.”

Starting on Jan. 19 and running on four successive Sunday nights, the $2.4-million co-production with the BBC—already sold to the History and Arts & Entertainment channels in the United States— traces the growth of broadcast news from turn-of-the-century American peep-show arcades to the mass-media circus that tracked O. J. Simpson’s white Bronco getaway ride live, via satellite, around the globe. In other hands, that 100-year panorama might have been merely a celebratory romp. But Starowicz exposes a less savory view, including staged battle scenes from First World War cameramen, who were actively discouraged from recording the unprecedented carnage. Marvels Starowicz: ‘You think, ‘Nine million die and all we’ve got is this sanitized footage of generals shaking hands?’ ”

At a time when critics are lamenting the increasingly blurred lines between newscasts and three-ring current affairs tabloid shows, Dawn of the Eye also brings an uncomfortable reminder that newsreels were born as the opening act for travelling circuses. Later when Hollywood studios churned them out to serve up in movie theatres before the Second World War, they confined their reportage to heroism and fluff. “For a 15-year period,” Starowicz notes, “there was no Depression, no breadlines, no Jews, no Nazis.”

He argues that those delusions persist in today’s vaunted Infor-

mation Age. As exhibit A, Starowicz offers the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which the Pentagon succeeded in enforcing a media no-trespassing sign on the battle zone. ‘We have all the equipment, all the satellites and the biggest combat operation since the Second World War and, with the hubris of technology, we boot it,” he says. “It was a total victory for the military.” Still, his greatest censure is reserved for those networks that mobilized massive resources to capture the minutiae of the Simpson trial but failed to turn up at last year’s massacres in Rwanda until the body count had reached genocidal proportions. “In the so-called electronic era, is it possible for one million people to be slaughtered outside the gaze of the camera?” he rails. “What kind of wired world is this?”

For those who know Starowicz, his invitation to question televised reality comes as no surprise. SaysTVOntario chairman Peter Herrndorf, his former CBC boss and mentor: “From his earliest days in broadcasting, Mark has been fascinated by the role of the media—its strengths and weak-

nesses, its obligations and follies.” Seven years in the planning, the series is a testament to the defining passions of Starowicz’s life: history and journalism. He recalls that at 14, after seeing Humphrey Bogart play a dauntless editor in Deadline U.S.A, “I thought, ‘OK, I don’t need any more career counselling.’ ”

An only child of Polish immigrants, he already understood that heroism was the unspoken subtext of the Montreal household. His father was a decorated Royal Air Force bomber pilot who found work as an Air Canada mechanic. His mother, who died last June, had been an equally decorated member of the Polish resistance, obliged to become an accounts clerk at General Electric. At McGill University, Starowicz hurled himself into editing The McGill Daily and working part time at The Gazette. In those days, Brian Stewart, now senior correspondent for The National, was a Gazette reporter. “Even just walking across the newsroom as a 20-year-old, Mark had an air about him,” Stewart recalls. “He was going to take journalism to a higher plane.”

Starowicz made no secret of his dream to become a foreign correspondent like one of his heroes, Edgar Snow, who had written Red Star over China. But in 1970, after getting fired from The Toronto Star, he found himself a studio-bound producer at CBC Radio in Toronto. “This was ending up in what looked like kindergarten,” he admits. “I was an ink-stained newsman.” At the time, the public radio network was under a death threat, scrambling to justify its continued existence. But out of that crisis emerged a generation of programs that continue today. “One should be careful about doomsaying,” Starowicz cautions now. ‘There was no more desolate place in 1970 than CBC Radio.”

His first plum assignment was As It Happens, a tree-form phone show that was spinning out of control. The 24-year-old whiz-kid, whose office resembled an obstacle course of old newspapers and dirty laundry, stunned everyone by imposing iron discipline and structures. It was a gift he would later take to Sunday Morning and to The Journal. Recalls Trina McQueen, his former boss at CBC TV, who now heads The Discovery Channel: “He was like the Henry Ford of radio production—developing an assembly line that was very good at putting out very high-quality, uniform programs.”

But initially that structural wizardry threatened to unravel in his tensions with the host who was to become one of his closest confidants: Barbara Frum. “We hated each other’s guts,” he admits. “I knew what I wanted and I’m sure I wasn’t very diplomatic about it.” Finally, she invited him to lunch. “We shook hands, and it lasted a lifetime.” In 1982, it was he who pleaded with her to enlist in his new technological adventure at The Journal with one of his trademark military metaphors: “Barbara, this is the Normandy invasion of television. Don’t you want to be there?”

Ten years later, Frurn’s death was the beginning of the end for Starowicz—and The Journal. Within five months, he found himself summoned into the office of Tim Kotcheff, the vice-president of television who had just been hired from CTV, and told that, in the planned amalgamation of The National and The Journal in a new 9 p.m. time-slot, there would be no place for him. But Starowicz found a fresh challenge in creating a new CBC documentary unit.

Four years later, Starowicz refuses to gloat over the disastrous Prime Time News experiment that followed, when CBC viewers defected by the thousands to CTVs newscast—many permanently. Still, as he watches the exigencies of the bottom line quash what he used to boast of as “the national marketplace of ideas,” he admits feeling “not hopeless, but tremendously sad. We can’t afford to be on the front lines of history any more.”

Now, the man who can still recite prime minister R. B. Bennett’s speech to Parliament on the national broadcasting act is concerned that, in the fragmented hurly-burly of the 500-channel universe, government budget-cutters may be decimating the last best hope for Canadians to tell their stories to the world. But Starowicz is at work trying to rectify that. To the astonishment of many, he regularly bends the ear of CBC president Perrin Beatty, who, from all reports, has been heeding at least part of his advice. Recently, Beatty approved a definitive, 30-hour documentary series recapping the country’s history. Now, as the clock edges towards midnight in a hotel lobby café, Starowicz ignores his congealing hamburger for a chain of cigarettes and enthuses about “restaging the Battle of the Plains of Abraham with 2,000 people. The deportation from Acadia. Wow!” Suddenly, the room is alight with possibilities—and in that glimmer may lie the future of the CBC. □