Articles

EXHIBIT 'B' IN THE GREAT TV DEBATE

Exhibit 'A’ — the year we’ve had of public television — has earned both knocks and boosts. Soon four private stations will begin showing the other side of the picture and a Hamilton man named Ken Soble will become the video industry’s No. 1 man-in-the-middle

BARNEY MILFORD October 15 1953
Articles

EXHIBIT 'B' IN THE GREAT TV DEBATE

Exhibit 'A’ — the year we’ve had of public television — has earned both knocks and boosts. Soon four private stations will begin showing the other side of the picture and a Hamilton man named Ken Soble will become the video industry’s No. 1 man-in-the-middle

BARNEY MILFORD October 15 1953

EXHIBIT 'B' IN THE GREAT TV DEBATE

BARNEY MILFORD

Exhibit 'A’ — the year we’ve had of public television — has earned both knocks and boosts. Soon four private stations will begin showing the other side of the picture and a Hamilton man named Ken Soble will become the video industry’s No. 1 man-in-the-middle

IN CANADIAN TELEVISION’S non-stop propaganda trial—the great debate between the champions of public and private ownership —the jury has been confused by an overabundance of rhetoric and an almost total lack of evidence. One frustrated set owner put it this way: “The Massey Report told me that CBC television, paid for by my taxes, had to be wonderful and that commercial television, paid for by advertising, had to stink. How can I be sure until I see the two products side by side?”

Early in 1954 the two products will be visible side by side to at least some fraction of the nation’s unseen and up to now largely unseeing TV audience. Exhibit A, the CBC’s Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa chain, will have been augmented by CBC transmitters at Winnipeg and Vancouver; Exhibit B, hitherto absent from the court of opinion, will be open for inspection with the inaugural programs of four private stations in London, Sudbury, Quebec City and Hamilton.

These circumstances have suddenly elevated a tall, sad-faced Hamiltonian named Kenneth David Soble to the uneasy position of the industry’s number one man-in-the-middle. As president, general manager and onethird owner of the private station in Hamilton, Soble will begin his TV career approximately halfway between the polar extremes of North American telecasting. His station CHCH-TV will be flanked on one side by the CBC’s Toronto station, which represents Canadian public television at its most ambitious, and on the other side by Buffalo’s immensely popular WBEN-TV, which represents American private television at its wealthiest and slickest. Nothing the Massey Report had to say about commercial telecasting versus state-subsidized telecasting, and Canadian programming versus American programming, can be half so persuasive as what Soble will soon be saying over his new transmitter.

What Soble says now is that he will succeed and that the formula for success is absurdly simple: Give the public what it wants. He has already tested the recipe in a similar situation. As owner of radio station CHML, he has bucked the Toronto-Buffalo competition so handsomely that the

station’s profits average half a million dollars a year, third highest in Canada. He thinks it’s too early for profit-and-loss guesses for CHCH-TV, on which he estimates he and his two co-owners, the Hamilton Spectator and his radio rival, station CKOC, will have spent eight hundred thousand dollars before the first pattern is on the air. But he is certain the blueprint for attracting radio listeners will ultimately attract television viewers. Hence a study of Soble’s radio programs is probably the best substitute for a preview of the TV programs which he admits he isn’t yet prepared to forecast in detail.

Soble first drew a ripple of attention nineteen years ago when he organized the Ken Soble Amateurs, who performed on theatre stages and eventually on a national radio network in the fashion of the old Major Bowes Amateur Hour in the United States. He’d had no musical background and didn’t know a tap step from a back stoop but the public accepted his amateurs because, as he puts it, “I played the auditions by ear.” He listened to them and he watched them and if they appealed to him he knew they’d appeal to the public. “I have very average tastes,” he says. “I just used my own two ears. If I liked it, it seemed that the public liked it.”

He runs his radio station the same way, although here he is helped by audience surveys in deducing whether a program is popular. “I’m not stubborn,” Soble says, “if I think something’s good and the surveys show the people aren’t listening, off it comes. Generally, though, if I like it they all like it.”

On any given day between eight a.m. and midnight, CHML provides live broadcasts in thirty-seven percent of its programming, featuring staff employees many of whom the station has built into local celebrities. These include Jane Gray, who daily gives vent to a potpourri of poems, women’s interviews, domestic emergencies and cute sayings of children, with a liberal sprinkling of commercials; Gordie Tapp, a zestful comedian who conducts contests involving box tops and telephone calls; and Norm Marshall, an energetic and informed man-of-all-sports. These three will conduct similar TV programs. About ten percent of CHML’s live programs come from U. S. networks via the CBC. CHML carries no soap operas. “Jane Gray

and Gordie Tapp draw better,” Soble explains. The station is strong on community drives for charity, audience-participation quiz programs, sports and. like nearly all private stations, depends on popular records for the bulk of its air time.

In the beginning CHCH-TV will operate seven hours a day, from four p.m. until eleven. Toronto’s CBC television station, CBLT, has been on the air a year and still operates on a five-hour-a-day schedule. Soble expects bv the end of eighteen months to be televising from eight a.m. until one a.m. and he’ll charge sponsors three hundred dollars an hour for air time as compared to CBLT’s seven hundred and fifty.

Soble confidently anticipates he’ll be telecasting one hundred hours a week after a year. Ten and a half hours a week will consist of CBC network programs. Thirty hours of Soble’s one hundred will be live programs from CHCH-TV’s studio. Six hours will be remote pickups or sports and special events. The rest, or fifty-three and a half hours, will consist of films. Films will be to private television what records are to private radio.

Almost all films now being made specifically for television are American and some of TV’s most popular programs are thus available to Soble and the sponsors at a price. For example, I Love Lucy, which attracts forty million viewers a week in the U. S., costs the Amei'ican sponsor three million two hundred thousand dollars a year. Half-hour programs of Abbott and Costello cost from four hundred to four thousand dollars each, depending on the population of the area served by the station. Hopalong Cassidy costs from one hundred to twenty-nine hundred and ten dollars. One-hour wrestling shows run from a hundred dollars to four hundred. The March of Time costs from fifty to two thousand. Thousands of feature-length films of a wide variety of subjects—including fifty-two episodes of Amos ’n Andy - are available to private TV.

Soble also has access to nearly five thousand shorter subjects of fiveminute to thirty-minute duration. The task of his production staff will be to select the ones deemed most popular for Hamilton’s coverage area and then to sell them to sponsors, who’ll pay CHCH-TV’s time rate plus the cost of the film. To correspond with radio’s ubiquitous disc jockey television has made provision for three-minute films of orchestras, vocalists, dancers and instrumentalists which can be screened much as records are played on radio, with the local disc jockey chattering between “clips,” and of course delivering commercials. CBC regulations dictate that no more than four commercials can be delivered every fifteen minutes.

Canadian Talent Flocking Back Home

Soble already has mapped out some live programs. For children there are three, Teddy’s Picture Book, Uncle Alex, the Jack and Jill Review. Teddy’s Picture Book is a three-a-week quarter-hour program conducted by Teddy Forman, a girl who works with an artist, telling a story in many voices while the artist draws illustrations. Uncle Alex is a two-a-week, featuring stories told in song by Alex Reid, a pianist.

Women’s programs will feature Jane Gray forty-five minutes a day with homemaking tips, fashions, hobbies and invited guests. Women’s World will be a weekly half-hour program involving a cooking school, a homemakers’ club and practical fashions. Sports will include two sportscasts a day by Norm Marshall and panels featuring football, baseball and hockey in season. Soble, who now owns the Hamilton hockey rink as well as the city’s senior and junior hockey teams, will televise portions of hockey games, and hopes to get into football TV next fall.

Soble’s program director is Brian Doherty, one of Canada’s hest-known playwrights and directors. “We may have no TV John Barrymores in Canada,” says Doherty, “but we must have a great untapped source of actors, writers and directors who’ve never had a chance. Then there are hundreds of talented Europeans who’ve come over here. We mean to take advantage of European culture in television. Scores of Canadians who went to the United States to work in television want to come home now that the field is opening up and we’ve had applications from them. I’ve interviewed more than three hundred applicants personally in the last two months.”

Soble, for his part, is staggered by television’s cost. His operating budget will be about a million dollars a year, he estimates, once the station is in full operation—and the cost of getting to that point is jarring enough.

“One electric-zoom lens that brings in those long panoramic shots in baseball and football costs $6,030,” he exclaims. “A single camera chain without auxiliary equipment runs to twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. Two cameras for field pickups are $57,832 Continued on page 78

Continued on page 78

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 31

and a type TP6A professional sixteenmillimeter projector is $12,786. Hell, you can get an ordinary sound film projector for your living room for about four hundred!”

While money occupies a good deal of Soble’s conversation he insists that the mere accumulation of wealth breeds unhappiness and is a goal in which he has utterly no interest. These days, as he drives around Hamilton in his black Cadillac convertible or his blue Oldsmobile sedan, he sometimes reflects aloud that given enough money to get by on, a man can find true happiness only by helping others or, as in the case of his TV station, in overcoming a challenge.

In his forty-two years he has undeniably accomplished his full share of good deeds. During the Winnipeg flood, Hamilton raised just sixteen hundred dollars toward relief of the victims. Soble was chagrined at the smallness of this sum.

“No wonder the west hates the east,” he remarked in a discussion of the miserable contribution, “it’s a disgrace to Hamilton.”

He began to think of ways of raising money and decided that tickets on a model home could increase Hamilton’s contribution substantially. In a week of frantic organization he induced carpenters, electricians, contractors and painters to donate materials and services free. Soble supervised the aroundthe-clock building program, with as many as three hundred people working simultaneously. He organized a committee to sell tickets on the five-room brick bungalow for a dollar each. His radio station gave a nail-by-nail account of the dream home’s progress and exhorted Hamilton’s citizens to buy tickets. At the end of six and a half days the house was complete and Soble turned over the key along with two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from ticket sales. The lucky ticket was drawn and Soble went home to bed.

Since many of the projects in which Soble gets involved are handsomely publicized on his radio station it is frequently charged that the man is a promoter, not a real philanthropist. Recently, however, Canadian composers and music lovers were elated to learn that an all-Canadian concert would be staged Oct. 16 in Carnegie Hall where Leopold Stokowski would conduct a symphony orchestra in an all-Canadian program. Profits, if any, from this Canada - at - Carnegie - Hall night will be devoted to the presentation of similar programs in Canadian cities next season. None of the national publicity that greeted announcement of the event revealed that the program had been conceived, promoted and underwritten to the tune of twelve thousand dollars by Kenneth David Soble.

Three years ago Soble grew disconcerted at the failure of a number of Jewish organizations in Hamilton to raise funds for a long-talked-about community centre. One day Soble phoned a contractor, worked over the design of the place with him and told him to go ahead. Once the foundation was dug and the walls started going up Soble went around saying, “Look, there it is; how about some money?”

“When they saw the building actually going up they came through with contributions,” Soble says.

Soble called the two-story red brick community centre the Jacob N. Goldblatt Memorial building after a Hamilton friend “who did an awful lot of

good for people.” It cost three hundred and fifty thousand dollars and is nonsectarian. Close to forty percent of the members are non-Jewish.

Soble’s next project for the community is the building of a new fourhundred-thousand-dollar synagogue for which he has already purchased a large property of beautifully landscaped lawns, gardens and trees. He will head a campaign for fund-raising in the same manner he organized the building of the community centre.

On the night of March 15, 1948, on the eve of the then highest point in his career—the sod-turning ceremony for the three-hundred-thousand-dollar building which houses station CHML —Soble had a problem on his mind: Which of the many eminent guests he should ask to officiate? Hon. Louis St. Laurent, then secretary of state for external affairs, was to be present. So was Hon. Colin Gibson, Canada’s secretary of state; Lawrence Steinhart, U.S. ambassador to Canada, and the usual assortment of local dignitaries.

“Suddenly I thought: Who knows

best what this occasion represented to a guy like me? There was only one answer; my mother. 1 know, everybody has the best mother, but my mother — she’s gone now — was the finest. 1 thought of the fact that she didn’t speak very good English, and the thing was going to be broadcast . . . And then I asked myself what the hell kind of a heel I was, anyway, thinking things like that. I knew if I didn’t ask her to turn the first sod I wasn’t only being ashamed of my origin—I was being ashamed of my mother.”

Mrs. Rebecca Soble, assisted by Louis St. Laurent, who guided the tiny woman toward the microphone, turned the first sod the next afternoon and made a brief speech.

Soble says it sometimes frightens him that so many good things have happened to him. “ ‘Why me?’ I ask myself,” he says, “what’d I do to deserve all this? It sounds silly but all through my life I’ve found that helping other people has helped me.”

Soble had little enough to start with. His father, Jack, worked in a large clothing factory in Toronto when Ken was born June 12, 1911. He disliked school, probably because the family moved frequently and he started in at several schools. When he was thirteen his father became ill and had to stop working and the family rented an old building near Queen Street and University Avenue, where the Canada Life building now stands. They turned it into a restaurant and Soble’s mother ran it. When Soble was sixteen his father died and he left school to help his mother. When he wasn’t working in the restaurant he was trying other jobs, like mixing chloride of lime and water in his basement to produce javel water. He sold it at sixteen bottles for a dollar.

“The worst part was washing the bottles,” he recalls. “They’d often break in the hot water and you’d cut your hands.” He bought a Model-T truck for seventy-five dollars to make deliveries. Then he got on the night shift of the maintenance staff at Union Station, spearing waste paper and mopping the vast concourse.

“I hated it,” he recalls. “I’d meet people I knew and I’d be embarrassed. One thing it taught me; I never walk into a station now without first wiping my feet.”

One day back about 1928 he was sitting on a friend’s veranda when a woman stopped and spoke to him. She couldn’t get a taxi, she said, and she had to be at a radio station three or four miles away in half an hour. Soble

offered to drive her in his old truck and as they drove she told him her name was Jane Gray and she produced plays for radio. Soble watched the program at CKNC and drove Jane Gray home. He asked a lot of questions and she told him she’d give him a small part in her plays if he showed aptitude. He had a little, it turned out, and Jane Gray gave him a bit part once a week.

Still delivering javel water, he got. talking to a man visiting one of his customers. The man said he had a number of calls to make in Toronto but didn’t know the city. Soble offered to drive him around. He sold spot announcements in radio for a Montreal advertising firm and Soble got his first insight into commercial radio. Then Jane Gray got a sponsor for her plays and made Soble her announcer.

“I began to figure 1 could work both ends,” he recalls. “I started buying air time, selling spot announcements for it, writing the commercials and announcing them. Soon 1 was making thirty-five and forty bucks a week.”

In 1933 when he heard the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a new radio program from New York, he sensed such a program would sell in Toronto if there were a studio large enough to accommodate an audience.

“Then I heard that the old Grand Central Market was on its last legs,” he remembers. “I suggested that if they gave me some space I’d put seats in it and hold programs. I pointed out that if people came to watch they might buy something at the market. It must have made sense to them or maybe the space was just going to waste; anyway, they rented me the hall for a dollar a year.”

He bought four hundred second-hand seats from a vacant theatre and talked a couple of engineers at CKCL into working for him in their spare time on speculation.

That launched the Ken Soble Amateurs who, through the next ten years, grew into one of the most popular radio programs in Canada. At one period they appeared on a twenty-five station national network. For years they broadcast from theatres all over Ontario on a provincial hookup. One of the early winners was a twelve-year-old jazz pianist from Montreal named Oscar Peterson who used his prize money to buy a piano his family couldn’t afford. Peterson today is one of the most successful popular music pianists on the continent. Soble still holds amateur contests on a small scale. Each year CHML carries the program for eight weeks.

In 1936 when the Amateurs were getting nicely under way Soble was visited by a pianist from Hamilton named Todd Smith who needed a job. Sohle had no opening, but he gave Smith a note to a hotelman who owed him some money, asking a room for Smith in return for the debt.. After unsuccessfully looking for work Smith returned to Hamilton. Two months later Soble got a telephone call from a man who identified himself as Senator Arthur C. Hardy of Hamilton.

“1 own radio station CHML,” the voice stated. “I want you to be its manager.”

“Sure, sure,” replied Soble, feeling it was a gag. “Why don’t you come to my office and we’ll sign a contract.”

An hour later a distinguished gentleman entered Soble’s office.

“I’m Senator Hardy,” he said, offering his hand. “How much money do you want?”

Soble recalls that when he recovered his composure he signed a five-year contract, obtaining a verbal commitment that he could buy the station if the senator ever decided to sell.

CHML was losing money; Soble signed for a salary and a percentage of increased business. One thing bothered him; why had the senator picked him?

“You were recommended, most glowingly I must say, by a young man at our station,” the senator told him. “A young piano player named Smith.” Smith later changed his name to Todd Russell, moved to Toronto where he became a leading m.c. for radio quiz shows and today is successful in television and radio in New York.

“It was when the senator mentioned Todd Smith that I began to wonder about this business of helping other people,” Soble reflects today. “I’d driven Jane Gray to a radio station and she got me into the business. I’d helped a guy from Montreal find his way around Toronto and he’d shown me the inside of commercial radio. Then I put Smith up in a hotel and he helped me get the manager’s job at CHML. I’ve tried to help people ever since and the dividends are sometimes frightening.”

Soble became owner of CHML in 1942. “Tn spite of my verbal agreement with the senator, Jack Kent Cooke of Toronto somehow talked me into signing an option,” he recalls. “Cooke came over to Hamilton and told me he’d just bought the station. I asked: ‘What happens to me?’

“ ‘Why, Ken,’ Cooke said, grinning. ‘You’re out.’ ”

Then, Soble says, he wrote to every member of parliament whose name he knew and to the CBC’s board of governors, reminding them of a recently announced policy of discouraging multiple ownership of radio stations. Cooke, wrote Soble, owned the station at Rouyn, Que., and therefore should not be eligible for a license to operate CHML.

Jane Was a Surprise Package

A different version is given by Roy Thomson, owner of several radio stations and newspapers and a former partner of Cooke.

“Cooke didn’t own the Rouyn station,” Thomson says, “I did. And Cooke didn’t negotiate with Senator Hardy. I did that, too. Cooke might have gone over to Hamilton and sounded off because he was associated with me.”

Cooke says he doesn’t recall telling Soble he’d be fired. “My recollection of the transaction coincides with Roy Thomson’s,” he says.

At any rate it was Soble who bought the station, and he has operated it successfully for eleven years. His policy, he says, “is to pay a little more and get the best.” Advertisers are charged for production costs and the money is divided between the announcer, the commercial writer and the operator. For some of CHML’s top people it amounts to as much as two hundred and fifty dollars a week in addition to their salaries. Almost all of CHML’s announcers earn at least nine thousand dollars a year, according to Tom Darling, the general manager. Jane Gray and Gordie Tapp, approach twenty thousand a year in Hamilton, a city of two hundred and seventy thousand people.

Jane Gray, who introduced Soble to radio, was barely making a living four years ago, and asked Soble for a job.

“I offered her a cheque and she wouldn’t take it,” Soble relates. “We gave her an audition. Both Tommy Darling and Denny Whitaker, the advertising manager, agreed she wouldn’t do. I shared their lack of enthusiasm. She seemed too folksy and chatty for me. I happened to tell my mother Jane had been in looking for a job. She asked me if I had given her one,

and I told her that I had not.

“ ‘You give that woman a job,’ my mother said solemnly. ‘If it wasn’t for her you wouldn’t be in radio.’

“ ‘But, mama,’ I said, ‘there’s no place.’

“ ‘Make a place.’

“So I told Tommy and Denny we were hiring Jane. They thought I was crazy. T thought I was, too. For two months we tried to persuade Jane not to bother working, just to pick up her cheque. Suddenly, we started getting a trickle of letters, then a deluge. We discovered she was the most-listened-to personality we had. Today there’s a waiting list of advertisers anxious to get on Jane’s two hours a day. She makes more money for us than anyone we’ve got. I think I’m doing someone a favor—although it was all my mother’s doing—and look what happens.”

Soble, his wife Frances and their three daughters, Joan, twelve, Donna, nine, and Marlene, five, live in a tenroom house in Hamilton’s east end. Frances, tall and gracious, does not have help and runs her home with a quiet serenity. When Marlene heard her daddy had bought the Hamilton Arena she was overjoyed.

“Does this mean,” she asked, “that we can get into hockey games free?” “I. suppose it does,” Soble replied. “And can we have hot dogs free?” asked five-year-old Marlene.

“No, it doesn’t mean that.”

“Well, what’s the sense of buying the rink then?” she demanded.

“You can. hear the hockey broadcasts,” her father teased, “and check the commercials for me.”

“Commercials!” yelped Marlene. “I hate commercials.”

Commercials, the life’s blood of radio, have made Soble the wealthy man who became the most talkedabout person in Hamilton last March when three deals broke within two or three days of one another. He purchased the gloomy Hamilton Arena, took over ownership of the senior and junior hockey teams and acquired, along with the two publishing families, the Siftons and the Southams, a license to operate the television station.

“I know absolutely nothing about hockey and stayed away from the arena because it was dirty and rundown,” he relates. “But last winter our hockey team lost forty-six out of forty-eight games in the Senior OHA and Hamilton became a laughing stock. One morning a headline in the paper heralded the team’s first victory in twenty-five games and that’s when I decided that Hamilton was through being a joke.” He is spending half a million dollars on renovating the arena and putting money into better players.” “It’s what the people want,” he says, going back to his own formula for success.

Soble applied independently for a television license four years ago and applications also were received by the CBC’s Board of Governors from the Southam and Sifton publishers. St. Clair Balfour, publisher of the Spectator, acting on behalf of the Southams, recalls that the three of them got together to apply for a single license on his suggestion. “With all three of us seeking the one channel there was the possibility we’d all lose out,” he explains, “so I suggested to Soble and Clifford Sifton, who runs radio station CKOC here, that we get together ” The other two appointed Soble president and general manager. “As far as I’m concerned he’s one of the best men in the field,” Balfour says. “I think Soble now is very interested in making a contribution to the community.”

“I give them what they want,” says Soble. “It’s the human touch.” ★