WHAT’S BEHIND THE NEW WAVE OF TV THINK SHOWS

ROBERT FULFORD October 5 1963

WHAT’S BEHIND THE NEW WAVE OF TV THINK SHOWS

ROBERT FULFORD October 5 1963

WHAT’S BEHIND THE NEW WAVE OF TV THINK SHOWS

This fall the CBC is spending more of our money to show us more new public affairs programs than ever before. In many ways it’s the most significant gamble in television for them and us

ROBERT FULFORD

A FEW DOZEN ME AND WOMEN, scattered across the country but concentrated most heavily in Toronto, Produce the public affairs television programs on the English-language network of the CBC. They are among the most influential people in he country. They channel more political opinons and impressions into C anadian homes tha& any other group, and it can be argued reasonably that they p*ay larger roles in forming th£ n&tional consensus than most politicians. Sowne of them achie\e celebrity. as Ross McLeain did when he proceed Close-Up\ others wok.k permanently in obicurity. Together they (Constitute, it seems to an outsider, a separate social and professiotal class, like geneticists 'jor quarterbacks.

At the moment th î CBC public affairs pee pie are preparing a &eason of television which may well make theun even more influential than they’ve been, ar’*d probably this is a good time to look at who lí hey are and what they do.

Certainly their work is crucial to television, and has been since television began in Canada in 1952. When people say that TV has failed to realize its great promise, what they usually mean is that it has not often enough conveyed to the millions of people who watch it a clear, understandable and enlightening view of the world. This is precisely the role of public affairs television, as opposed to TV news (whose role is to convey quickly what has just happened in the world). Within the CBC. public affairs shows are even more crucial than in television as a whole. CBC public affairs programs light up fewer TV sets than Ed Sullivan, and bring in less revenue than hockey games, but in the CBC’s scheme of things they have to be considered more important than any other programs because they are what the CBC does that no one else can do properly. (On the commercial network, CTV public affairs show's — unlike straight news amount to very little.) Public affairs programs are, that is to say, the main reason why Canadians continue to pay about sixtecn-dollars-perhome-per-year in taxes to support the CBC, and w'hy many of us think that price is low indeed.

Good public affairs producers are hard to find, and hard to train. The corporation has never had to deal with an excess of talent in this field, and it is one of the ironies of television today that if by some miracle the CBC

budget were suddenly doubled, the public affairs department would have great difficulty finding the talent to spend the fresh money. A public affairs man. at his best, is both a serious journalist and a showman, and the combination occurs infrequently in applicants for work at the CBC.

Self-criticism among the brains of TV

Public affairs producers make less money than people with similar responsibilities in private business, and sometimes less than university professors with similar experience. They start around seven thousand dollars and may work as high as twelve thousand dollars: only with spectacular success do they rise higher. They usually have university education: in many cases a graduate degree, in most cases some sort of graduate work. They read a great deal and talk even more, and much of their talk is devoted to criticism of themselves and their colleagues. In politics they tend to be mainly reformist — they vote NDP or Liberal, though in 1957 many voted Conservative. They drink more than academics but less than journalists, and they worry more than either.

In the last year or so, these people have developed a kind of collective restlessness, and it is beginning to be apparent that when they grow restless the whole country begins to shift uneasily in its chair. Their restlessness — their

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dissatisfaction, really, with themselves — has led to an important revision of the CBC television schedule, and may lead to more revisions in the near future.

The public affairs shows we’ll see on television this season are the first result of a process of self-scrutiny the department began about this time last year. This month, as CBC public affairs television moves into its second decade, you may notice that it is also moving into a new style or possiblv several new styles. Documentaries will be longer, more expensive and more carefully prepared. Opinions, possibly, will be stronger, and there will be more of them. Political satire will rear its head, possibly testing the federal government's tolerance of the CBC more rigorously than it has been tested before. And at the same time the programs will be — or will try to be — more entertaining and more involving than they have been in the past.

These arc some of the programs which will reveal the new approaches:

• Horizon, an hour-long documentary, every other Sunday, at 10 p.m. EST, replaces CloseUp. The Lively Arts, and, till next spring, The Mature of Things, and consolidates not only their budgets but also their talent. Horizon will have no fewer than four senior producers, three story editors and a supervising committee of five. It will tackle large, tough, ambitious subjects: how well criminal law is administered in Canada, the crisis in higher education, the expanding universe, the permanent poor — and Pablo Picasso, for one hour. Begins Oct. 13.

• Let's Face It, a half-hour review in English of the fortnight’s news, at 10 p.m. EST, comes from Montreal on alternate Sundays, with a mixture of French-Canadian and EnglishCanarilan talent. It’s the sort of program where the producers sit around purposely not talking aboufrtthe BBC’s That Was The Week That Was. It will treat the news, and particularly political news, lightly but incisively, if possible. It is Kthe first regular national public affairs

These are the off-camera stars oí

A'THE MEN WHO THINK FOR THE THINK SHOWS

show' from Montreal, and one of its functions is to unite the Canadian people by giving English-speaking Canadians a chance to see talented French-speaking Canadians. So. naturally, the producer. Byron Riggan. was born in Alabama. the editor. Edgar Sarton, was born in Germany, and the performer who may well turn cut to be the star an intense. throat\ comedienne named Daisy de Bellefeuille was born in Austria. Typical Canadian show. Begins Oct. 20.

SELF-EXAMINATION FOR VIEWERS WHO THINK

• Question Mark, a probing half-hour program of controversial opinion, from Toronto, following Let’s Face It every second Sunday at 10.30 p.m. The producer is Del Mackenzie, wi o says, in explanation of his program: 'Tm not trying to elestroy anybody’s beliefs. 1 he in ent of the show is to make people face up ,o the logic of their arguments.” People with strong beliefs will be interviewed sternly by Lister Sinclair, Charles Templeton, and others.

The host is J. Frank Willis. Begins Oct. 20.

• Inquiry, the half-hour documentary show from Ottawa, with its budget expanded (by one quarter) and its mandate extended to cover international as well as national affairs, every Monday at 10 p.m. Some of its subjects: a sociological survey of Quebec attitudes to separatism, financed jointly with Maclean’s and Le Magazine Maclean: a profile of socially sick Indians in a Manitoba community: an inquiry into the case of a Negro procurer who was hanged in Toronto last year; and a discussion of defense policy, working from the presumption that, as one of the show’s producers says, "There must be something useful to do with all that dough." Begins Sept. 30.

• The Observer, a new one-hour magazine show, Thursdays at 6 p.m. from Toronto, on the eastern network of Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal, produced by Harry Boyle who now. at forty-seven, after creating such radio shows as CBC Wednesday Night and Project, moves into TV for the first time. Begins Oct. 3.

THESE CHANGES, and the new mood of restlessness among public affairs people, have both been produced by the curious history of public affairs on CBC television. It was only a few years ago that many viewers — most viewers, perhaps — regarded CBC public affairs shows as hopelessly highbrow or hopelessly dull, or both.

And. indeed, the public affairs people at the CBC have, more often than they care to remember, produced programs that were boring to many members of their audience, if not to a majority. For a broadcaster this is the ultimate sin because in a subliminal way it suggests to impressionable members of the audience that not only the program but also the subject is lifeless, and this can do nothing but harm: the child, watching a badly prepared history program, decides finally that history is a bore: the adolescent, watching the politician drone through a speech on TV, may possibly lose all interest in the subject of politics.

hinking television: 5 leading public-affairs producers

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Public affairs audiences are big — but they're still much smaller than they need to be

Because some public affairs shows have been failures, and because the drive for commercial revenue has obsessed some parts of the CBC. public affairs programs have rarely been given the prominence in the CBC schedule that they deserve and even need. This season, in the best hours of the evening — eight to ten o'clock, when most people are watching TV — there is not so much as a single half hoar of the public affairs department's material on view'. (There is, however, Telescope, at 9.30 p.m. EST on Friday, produced by Ross McLean; it comes from another department, TV features.) Sometimes a public affairs show' is assigned to this period on an early draft of the schedule. but usually the C BC pushes it aside in order to sell the time commercially. just as a private network would. (The CBC has for the last six years worked desperately to sell as much commercial time as the market and its ow'n principles will bear.) The result of this is that audiences for public affairs shows are a good deal smaller than they need to be. According to the best surveys, three people, on the average, are watching each TV set at nine o'clock; at ten, the average is about two. The missing viewer, of course, is as likely as not a child, w'hich means that the nonfiction shows (and the shows which concern Canadian affairs) are failing in one of their main purposes, to help educate children.

For years the obscurity in w'hich public affairs programs seemed to live w'as one of the touchiest aspects of the CBC's existence. C BC producers

liked to say that the CBC didn't care about ratings, only about letters and other more serious indications of audience reaction, but in fact they knew' all along that someone up there in Ottawa was studying the surveys. In recent years, however, reading survey results has been a pleasant occupation for even the most dedicated public affairs man. for nonfiction TV has achieved some quite striking successes with many of the people who pay for it.

One month last year, for instance, a rating survey indicated that 896.000 homes were tuned to The Nature of Things, a popular science show', 753,000 to Inquiry, an Ottawa political show, 600,000 to Close-Up, and 551.000 to Explorations. This didn’t make those programs the country's favorites — Saturday night hockey apparently had 1.430,000 homes that same month — but it did suggest that, working often against tough competition, the programs that had once been classified as minority-audience shows were now being watched by millions of Canadians. It is a measure of the public affairs department’s success that Viewpoint, the televised editorial that follows the new's on a minority of stations, is not regarded as a special triumph — though in fact, last March, it was apparently watched in 273.000 homes. That figure, if it can be believed, means that Viewpoint is considerably more popular than most printed editorials and columns.

With this record behind it, the CBC might be expected to coast through the next season or two on the programs already established. 1 was surprised, therefore, when I learned recently that the public affairs department was undergoing w hat its member-producers variously described as “a change of life” or “another quiet revolution” or “a change of orientation” toward an approach that would inevitably be far more dangerous as well as far more ambitious. An

hour profile on Pablo Picasso, for instance, could, if done badly, fail tar more spectacularly than any single item within the magazine format ot Close-Up; and a revue show like Let's Face It, if the talent failed to materialize, contained the seeds of disaster: there is nothing unfunnier than bad satire.

And as it turns out there is a good deal of nervousness around the Toronto. Ottawa and Montreal public affairs offices these days. But the changes have been made, nevertheless, and I think they reflect a new confidence among the public affairs people as a group. This derives partly, perhaps, from the chance of government last spring (the I serais are thought to be more tolerant of the CBC than the Diefenbaker Conservatives were) but it has rather more to do with the increasing maturity and professionalism of the broadcasters themselves and with the CBC top executives’ frequent advice to the public affairs department to be strong, brave and confident.

Among the producers themselves there is a sense that the worst battles (over political interference, for instance) have been won, and that they stand now comparatively unfettered, and in effect challenged by their own freedom. The success of Daryl Duke's program, Quest (now moved to Tuesday at 10.30 p.m. EST) in vanquishing the forces of censorship last season was also a major factor. “We have all learned a great deal from Daryl,” a producer told me the other day. “He is the Ross McLean ot today.”

Erich Koch, who runs the television section of public affairs in Toronto, said recently that “We are less sure what our role is now.” I had asked him just exactly what was happening to his department. “We have endless discussion of this, nobody knows exactly what it is, but we know now that it is changing.”

For years the word “integrity" has hovered like a good fairy over the activities of the department. Echoing through parliamentary committees and thousands of newspaper editorials, that word came finally to cast a peculiar shadow over public affairs programs, in the form of a suspicion that in this field the CBC can give you integrity and not much else. The suspicion has never really been justified — CBC public affairs shows have often been brilliant — but it has never been entirely groundless, either. Over the years, many viewers must have come to regard shows like Explorations and Viewpoint as a kind ol secular equivalent to church-going — one would be better for the experience of seeing them, and if it happened that the sermon turned out to be interesting, that would be a bonus for the godly.

The public affairs TV producers have never lived happily with this image of themselves and their work, and in recent years they’ve grown steadily less pleased with it. One oi these producers is Pat Watson, who runs Inquiry in Ottawa. Watson is not exactly a typical public affairs producer; rather, he’s what the people who hire producers would like a typical public affairs producer to be. Unfortunately, his background pro-

vides no guidance for executives who would like to find out whether there are any more where he came from: like many TV people, he's heen a little bit of everything.

He wrote his MA thesis in English literature on the medievalism of Henry Adams, and began work at the University of Michigan on a PhD thesis about the application of descriptive linguistics to the teaching of written language to children. He was a child actor at fourteen, and occasionally thereafter, and he was a textbook editor in a publishing house in Toronto in 1955 when he took a part-time job as the host of Junior Magazine, a program of the CBC children’s department. From that he slid easily into TV production, where his first assignment was Mr. Fixit. In 1957 he joined Ross McLean as coproducer of Close-Up. and in 1960 he moved to Ottawa to start Inquiry, as part of the public affairs department's agonizingly slow program of spreading its national shows to various cities (Let's Face It. from Montreal, is the second step ).

Preaching to the converted

Watson is thirty-three years old. and in some ways he fits anybody's idea of a CBC producer. He's an intellectual. full of theories about the mass media, closely involved in the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the Toronto sage who has made a major reputation as an analyst of media forms. Watson says things like: “Television is not an analytical medium, it’s a synthetic medium — it gives you an organic moment.” But it is just these theories which make him most conscious of the need to reach as many people as possible on television — and, like a few other public affairs producers, he perhaps feels just a little guilty about not always having done so in the past.

"A lot of the people we're getting to are already thinking about the things we describe,” Watson says. "Sometimes we're preaching to the converted. I think we should -arouse interest rather than just feed interests that have already been aroused.”

It is Watson’s firm belief that nonfiction television is not an information medium in the ordinary sense— not like print, at any rate. What television at its best provides for the viewer (in an exceptionally good interview, say) is an impression of a person or an event. The viewer does not digest, compare and analyze the tacts which are mentioned in the interview; rather, he becomes involved with the person being interviewed. I he details of what is said are far less important than the impression conveyed.

When you watch an interview,” Watson says, "it is not to analyze what he says but to say — 'Who is this guy?' Afterwards, you can return, enormously enriched, to analytical information about the man.” It is this process of enrichment which the interviews on Inquiry — tor instance, with Douglas Harkness and Walter Gordon during their respective crises this year — attempt to provide.

Like most people who run television shows. Pat Watson has trouble finding writers and directors who can

do the work he needs. This year he solved at least one part of his staff problem, and possibly opened up a new source for CBC personnel, by turning Roy Fabish into a television producer. Fabish, who has been described by one Ottawa reporter as “the finest young mind in Ottawa,” was a special assistant to Alvin Hamilton when Hamilton was minister of northern affairs and later of agriculture. and some people credit Fabish with producing the best ideas of the Diefenbaker years. Last spring, just after the election, a magazine writer happened to ask Watson if he knew what Fabish was going to do now that the Tories were defeated. Watson didn't know, but it occurred to him that Fabish might be available. He took him to lunch, learned that Fahish was considering both a job teaching F'nglish and a position as a political organizer, and asked him to join the Inquiry unit. Fabish has been working for Watson since early in the summer, and I asked Watson w'hether having such a well-known Conservative around the office was a liability. "There’s been some hostility from the Liberals,” Watson said, “and a good deal of raising of eyebrows around the CBC.” But Watson didn’t seem worried at all. It seemed to me. as 1 talked to him, that this calm acceptance of a political difficulty was part of the new confidence of public affairs men.

Watson and others may feel, at times, that the CBC non-fiction producers are out of touch with their audiences, or rather with those people

who might be part of an audience if they could be reached. But on one point, apparently, the producers and the citizens of Canada are in complete accord: the CBC has not done all it should have done to help French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians understand each other. Frank Peers, former supervisor of public affairs, who is now director of information programming, told me: “We can’t say we’ve succeeded in establishing any dialogue between French and English. I really can’t explain why we haven’t done more.” No one can, but I’ve heard this opinion several times elsewhere in the CBC. And it turns out that the people of the country, or enough of them to matter, arc thinking the same thing.

A recent study, What the Canadian Public Thinks of the CBC, a balanced survey of 4,400 citizens, found that the people generally approve of the CBC and its goals and believe that in general these goals are being achieved. But, the study says: "The one aim of these six (encouraging talent, educating the public, etc.) which apparently it is felt the CBC fulfills least well is that of helping French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians to understand and learn about each other.” And, this feeling, the report goes on to say, is much stronger in English-speaking Canada than in French-speaking: forty-nine per cent of the English-speaking Canadians interviewed cited this as an important failure of the CBC.

No one knows exactly how this has happened: the language barrier

presents difficulties, of course, but not insurmountable ones, and certainly they are not so great as to justify the gulf which still exists between RadioCanada and the English - speaking CBC. Let's Face It, which will include French-Canadian performers like Guy Mauffette, Jacques Fauteux, and Pauline Julien, will be one part of the attempt to answer this criticism. But this occasion shouldn’t pass without a reference to the fact that the CBC English network has done some work of importance in this field. It was on a two-part Explorations series five years ago that I, for one, caught my first glimpse of what was happening in Quebec. René Lévesque was the host-narrator of that series, about social change in the province, and it was produced by Radio-Canada. Sadly, the experiment —having French Canadians interpret themselves to the rest of us—was rarely repeated.

AS WATSON SAYS, a TV public affairs show can’t really explain anything in depth; what it can do is show things — a riot, a scientific experiment, a coronation, a man’s eyes. Its messages carry a far greater emotional charge (and a correspondingly lower intellectual cargo) than those of, say. radio or print. This is why producers like Watson yearn for a larger audience for TV public affairs: they know they have something to say to the largest possible audience, and they believe they are finding out how to say it. But that same survey, What the Canadian Public Thinks of the CBC,

showed that the CBC still must go a long way to capture this audience. The statisticians, studying the results of the survey, made up a collective profile of those people who preferred CBC stations over others. They were just as you might expect: better educated than the others, more senior in their jobs, better off — and older. For a producer who dreams of reaching people who otherwise take no interest in public affairs, particularly young people, the figures are still far from encouraging.

But the record of the public affairs department itself, and its prospects, are encouraging. The first decade of TV public affairs has shown that non-fiction television increases the size of its audiences as the quality of its programs increases. It has also shown that public affairs television which is deeply affecting to the viewer falls into two categories: the lucky spot-news interviews, or Instant Shows which Inquiry and Newsmagazine sometimes offer: and the well-prepared and carefully paced (and expensive) specials, like those Douglas Leiterman has produced on Document about the southern Negroes or smoking-and-lung-cancer. In the first, the impact of the personal ity and the news event together make a deep and possibly lasting impression on the viewer. In the second, the producer - as - artist carefully selects and arranges his film so that its cumulative effect is, again, highly emotional. In both cases the viewer then returns to the news of the day refreshed and, with luck, enriched. ★