A light-hearted look at the fast-talking people and gamey gimmicks that appear on and behind Canada’s hundreds of hours of junk TV
SHIRLEY MAIR,PETER GZOWSKIFebruary231963
The carnies on the picture tube
A light-hearted look at the fast-talking people and gamey gimmicks that appear on and behind Canada’s hundreds of hours of junk TV
CONTRARY TO WHAT some casual viewers may believe, television is not all junk. Much of it is just gruel, which people of normally developed tastes and interests can take or leave alone. But some of it is junk, all right. We have just spent some time digging into this part, and we know.
Our own definition of junk television is the quiz and give-away shows. You may have another definition. This means you have probably not seen the quiz and giveaway show's.
Take Domino, a game that housewives play in the morning in Toronto, Ottawa and London, Ont. In Halifax and in Montreal Domino claims eighty percent of the audience for its afternoon hour of 1:30-
2:30 and ratings are nearly as remarkable in other cities.
What attracts these viewers, one may safely assume, is simply the lure of money. Domino is a sort of bingo game. (Its executive producer, Doug Jones, who is the son of a retired United Church minister, calls it the “biggest bingo game in the world,” and adds that his father doesn't yet know he runs it.) People who want to play the game pick up cards at their local Dominion supermarket, a different card every week.
On the air, a machine that works by forced-air pops numbered pingpong balls into the hand of the host, or croupier. The host reads out the number — “under the D, five” — and that number lights up
on a master board. If a player at home gets a full card, he — or she — calls the studio, and the first such player wins a hundred dollars. Players with full cards who are slow dialing their phones win five dollars each, and there is a weekly, thousand-dollar jackpot which we won't go into here.
This sounds pretty simple, but it is a characteristic of all junk television that the game and its operation must be complicated. For one thing, running a game like Domino, where a hundred thousand people may be playing, is not like running a friendly bingo at the local Elks. At Domino's head office in the Toronto suburb of Rexdale there is an IBM computer which follows all Domino games by teletype. When the croupier-host has drawn enough ping-pong balls to make a possible winner, the IBM flashes the word and the croupier-host, who may be hundreds of miles away, slows down. All he has to do, after all, is draw one number too many, and someone will have to give away goodness knows how many extra five-dollar bills to people with full cards. Further, when Domino first started, its operators discovered that cagey housewives with nearly full cards were dialing the first six numbers of the studio number, and tying up hundreds of circuits until their cards were completed. Now, Domino uses a whole bank of phones, and every five minutes or so a new number for winners to call is flashed on the screen.
Even with all this going on, Domino, which has a number of “participating” sponsors instead of just one who picks up the whole tab, can cram five commercials into every fifteen minutes, so long as they don't take more than four minutes altogether.
And that is what is taking up an hour of morning time in five large Canadian cities.
How does this sort of junk television get on the air? The answer lies mostly, cf course, in TV’s voracious appetite for material. If a station were broadcasting say, tw'o hours a day, and could earn enough money in that time to stay in business, we might very well expect those two hours to be excellent. (Having described most television as gruel and some as junk, we hasten to add that some is pure gold
— for every Domino there is an
Inquiry.) But television stations are not on the air only two hours a day, and the amount of time they have to fill means that some of it is going to be filled carelessly, with junk. In Canada, there is an added factor: the Board of Broadcast
Governors’ insistence on “Canadian-’ programs. Quiz shows and give-aways are perhaps the easiest, cheapest and most time-consuming Canadian programs that can be produced. Domino, for instance, can be put on the air for as little as. ten thousand dollars a week in some cities, which is a far cry from the expense involved in a variety program. This factor has naturally played a larger part in the new commercial stations’ programming than in the CBC’s, and it is interesting to note that Toronto's CFTO
— to use our biggest commercial station as an example — picks up most of its Canadian content during the daytime. Of roughly a hundred hours of broadcasting a week on CFTO, perhaps two dozen are taken up by such prime-time shows as Network, To Tell the Truth, The Pierre Berton Hour, Telepoll, NHL hockey and the news. The remaining evening time goes mostly to U. S. shows, and fifty-five percent
Canadian content is fleshed out by daytime broadcasts.
As one result, nearly every local station in Canada has at least one program of its own, with a name like Bazaar (Kitchener), Treasure Trackdown (Ottawa), or Banko (Sherbrooke). As another, quiz and game shows of more ambitious dimensions have come on — and, because ideas are perishable in junk TV, gone off — the commercial network. Network viewers have already seen the rise and fall of such programs as Showdown (October 1961 to August 1962), A Kin to Win (January to June 1962) and Try for Ten (January to June 1962). An explanation of the games played on all these programs would take more space (and boggle more minds) than The Complete Hoyle. You can get a general 'dea by looking at the drawing of Trash-O-Rama on the next pages. Trash-0-Rama is our own game, made up more or less of the common components of a number of Canadian shows.
The current reigning champion of network junk is a show called
Line ’Em Up, which is produced in Toronto by Screen Gems for the CTV network, and is broadcast by every CTV station, thanks (if thanks are in order) to videotape, every weekday afternoon. To know Line ’Em Up is to know junk TV.
The machine on Line ’Em Up — every junk program must have its machine — is a giant version of the type of slot-machine called a one-armed bandit. It has three tumblers. On each tumbler is printed a scries of pictures. To simplify a bit: two contestants take turns trying to line up a set of three that match. The first one who succeeds gets to choose a prize. If he picks a valuable one — say an electric appliance — he gets only one point. If he takes a small one, he gets as many as five points. The first contestant to collect eleven points gets to keep the prizes he has chosen; the loser is eliminated.
In spite of all this, it is possible to understand this show if you watch it on the air. Where it gets really complicated is behind the scenes.
A central figure in the production
of Line ’Em Up is Dan Enright of New York. Enright’s name has come up in television before, in a context that is a great deal more distasteful than junk programs on Canadian TV. He was, of course, one of the key figures in the U. S. quiz scandals of 1959. He had been, as he told the congressional subcommittee that investigated those scandals, the supervisor-producer of the program Twenty-one “from its inception until its demise,” and he made no bones before that subcommittee of the fact that he had been in on the rigging of the show' — he gave many of the contestants their questions and answers in advance. Yet whatever one may think of Enright’s business ethics, the picture that emerges from his testimony to the subcommittee is that of a meticulously thorough and capable showmian. One witness, a former Twenty-one contestant, explained what Enright had done for him in addition to giving him answers in advance. He had advised him on everything from the way to cut his hair to the
way to bite his lip when he was pretending to grope for an answer.
It is this ability as a showman that has put Enright’s stamp so strongly on Line 'Em Up. If our raising his past record has cast any doubts about the question of honesty in Canada’s junk TV. let us quickly add that we believe the quiz and give-away shows on television here to be without exception honest and aboveboard — if for no other reason, because the prizes at stake would not be worth the risk a contestant would take by collaborating in a fix.
Enright's abilities, if not the morals he exhibited in the U. S., are evident in many ways on Line 'Em Up. It is, in fact, his program. He invented it and sold the idea to Screen Gems. He looked after the hiring of both the producer and the emcee. Rick Campbell. He coached everybody on the staff in the performance of their jobs. Announcer Ted Curl says: “He briefed Rick so well about so many contingencies that I don’t doubt he told him what CONTINUED OVERLEAF
For Maelean's ana all-junh TV show, see the next paffes
to do it someone drops dead on the air." Enright has guided the show's staff in the choosing of contestants — a sitting process that goes on each week in Toronto; the show is taped here on Saturdays anil Sundays and various clubs and organizations are asked to join the audience; from them and from people who just drop in, contestants are chosen.
The prizes that contestants can take home from junk programs are often quite substantial. Two university students won more than two thousand dollars worth each on Line ’Em Up last fall. But prizes cost the producers nothing. Most shows use a specialist called a prize-broker to rustle up their loot for them. A prize-broker's job is to talk manufacturers into donating products in return for the publicity. At press time, the man doing this for Line ’Em Up, the program's "merchandising director," was Ross Bagwell, also from New York. In its first two and a half months on the air. Line 'Em Up offered more than nine hundred prizes. This total included a lot of tea bags and other five - point awards, but it also included a few hundred prizes that Bagwell had obtained. In the U. S., Bagwell’s trade is plied more easily than in Canada; he told us American manufacturers will wait for three months to get a product on a show. Here, Bagwell has often had to settle for. say, an electric toothbrush when he really wanted a hi-fi set.
Not all of Canada's junk TV. however, is the product of sharp Americans. One man who has done well out of Candían quiz and giveaway shows is a fifty-vear-old British-born Torontonian named Roy Ward Dickson, w'ho boasted in a press release last fall that he had just won $4,700 at the gaming tables of Las Vegas. Dickson likes to call himself Canada's King of
Quizz; he has been in the Canadian radio and television quiz business for more than twenty-five years, but still spells "quizz” like an Englishman. He has given away countless thousands of dollars over countless hundreds of quiz-show tables. Many of his shows have had French-Canadian and British versions. Currently his best moneymaker is Take a Chance, of which he is master of ceremonies. Take a Chance is simple as junk TV goes; it has a sort of carny w'heel; the contestant spins it and where it stops determines how many questions he will have to answer.
Take a Chance appears on commercial French-language television in Quebec, under the name Tentez. Votre Chance, but it falls far short of matching French Canada’s own junk television. In Quebec, in fact, junk TV even pervades the CBC. Radio-Canada carries a weekly TV show' called La Poule Aux Oeufs D'Or (the hen with the golden eggs). The rules of La Poule involve contestants answering simple questions; the first person to get two right picks an envelope containing a card with a certain amount of cash — say ninety dollars. Then he picks a "golden egg,’’ and has to choose between the merchandise it contains — which may be worth anything from five cents to five thousand dollars — or the ninety dollars he knows he has. More than twelve hundred people every week try to get on this show. But even it is out-distanced by a program called Télé-Poker, which gave away more than forty thousand dollars worth of prizes in its first seven months on Montreal’s commercial French station last year. Télé-Poker is . . . well, let’s say rebut de la télévision. Loosely translated, that means junk TV — and that, in turn, means it is complicated, successful and pretty awful. ★
Trash-O-Rama doesn't exist — yet, anyway; we are open to offers. It has most of the components of classic junk TV. Take 1 (the numbers run roughly left to right, top to bottom): He is the engineer who runs the Giant Trash-O-Rama Machine, a clever man as you can see. 2 is our genial host, croupier and, as we call him, Chief Trashman. He was chosen for his dazzling smile. 3 is the band — an expense not all junk TV goes
t-Êtama. a junk-T Y show to end them all
for. 4 is a girl who picks postcards from a revolving drum so that each contestant will have a home partner. 5 is the man who hustles our prizes. 6 is just a quiet man from the advertising agency. 7 is our American Quiz Expert. He hasn't had much work in the U. S. since the scandals of 1959, but Canada offers him plenty. 8 is a studio contestant. She is selecting a question from the Golden Trashcan. If she answers
it, she will try to get the dials on the Giant Machine to form her telephone number. If they do, she will win a prize, 9. 10 is a man we hired to keep the studio audience on its toes. 11 is a girl who looks after the future contestants, 12. 13 is a group of Trash-O-Ramettes; they don't do much, but they decorate the show and we like them. 14 is the man who rings the gong when a contestant's time is up. Take it away, camera ttvo.
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