THE SHOW THAT SURVIVES BY SUCCESS ALONE . . .
But to the CBC brass it's a pain in the network
pain in the network BY ALAN EDMONDS
YOU’VE JUST FINISHED watching Pa being noble again and Hoss, in that awful Jack-and-the-beanstalk hat, proving that good guys do finish first, and you made it to the bathroom in time to miss the whiter-than-thou soap ads and the-loved-one pet-food plugs, when . . . ALAKAZAM! . . . Step Right Up, Folks, step right up . . . see Maurice Sauvé get a roasting about his election in lles-de-la-Madeleine and Norman DePoe get his comeuppance from Harold Wilson; see a go-go girl bare her chemically enhanced bust and two real-life Ku Klux Klansmen being baited — by a Negro; find out whether Laurier LaPierre can remember his own name and see Dinah Christie, Queen of the Talking Dolls, sing another saucy song; see Larry Zolf, that one-man sidewalk inquisition, waylay the innocent and prod them into being hilarious. . . . Step Right Up, Folks: Before your very eyes, it’s Seven Days time again.
When Bonanza ends each Sunday, more than two million Canadians watch This Hour Has Seven Days, a CBC public-affairs program like no other in North American television history. Any other CBC public-affairs show is rated a whopping success if its audience goes much over a million. Even the costly documentary specials mounted by U. S. networks are usually near the bottom of the onehundred-program Nielsen ratings. But This Hour Has Seven Days is up there with the Beverly Hillbillies and Don Messer and the spy operas in the CBC’s top twenty, and still its audience is growing.
And yet Seven Days is in danger. It may be axed as, about now, the CBC plans its program lineup for the 1966-67 season. The methods Seven Days has used to attract its mass audience have left The Corporation (which is what its employees call the CBC) in the position of genteel, bourgeois parents who produced a rambunctious, intellectual vulgarian — and are ashamed of the fact.
Seven Days is part showbiz, part crusader, part ombudsman, part freak show, part through-the-keyhole titillation, part documentary. It’s not so much a weekly television program as a weekly happening. It doesn’t tell stories; it tries either to show them happening or to make them happen and show the result. Despite its fat catalogue of faults and mistakes, it sets out to communicate with people on their terms, which is a change from most CBC publicaftairs shows. It doesn’t pontificate; it agitates and irritates. It is impossible to simply watch it; you become involved in it, and even when it’s lousy (and it can be as bad as it can be magnificent) it remains, for millions who would otherwise switch channels at the start of a public-affairs show, something to talk about come Monday. You watch it to see what it will come up with next — just to see whether there’s another Pope sketch (Seven Days got into trouble with Catholics and The Corporation for a sketch showing the Pope being asked to referee a baseball game during his New York visit last year), or to see whether Laurier LaPierre will lose his temper (as he did once when interviewing opposing groups of Frenchand English-Canadian students), or Pat Watson his unflappable urbanity.
And yet The Corporation is more frightened than proud of Seven Days’ success. It has traditionally taken the attitude that there are things — Pope jokes or birth-control pills, or the seamier side of Canadian politics and go-go girls with chemically padded breasts — that are beneath the notice of a crown corporation. Seven Days, in one of its few articulated articles of faith, believes (but doesn t always live up to) the principle that there are no unmentionable subjects, no precious sacred cows. / continued overleaf
continued / The Corporation also believes its employees should be loyal, and Seven Days’ staff of forty-four (it includes producers, reporters called story editors, researchers and a chorus of extremely pretty Girl Fridays who are efficient as well) exists as a sort of turbulent enclave within The Corporation’s Toronto headquarters. Among the rank and file there’s the sort of esprit found among beleaguered crusaders, and mingled awe and contempt for the common enemy. The Corporation. They are led by Douglas Leiterman and Patrick Watson, co-founders of the show, though this year Leiterman has emerged as the panjandrum executive producer while Watson, still as influential, is the host and producer of the Document series which fills in for Seven Days itself each four weeks or so.
Publicly, Leiterman exudes confidence in Seven Days’ future: “We're settling in for the long haul now,” he told a recent staff meeting. Reeves Haggan, a cherubic ex-lawyer who is director of public-affairs programming for the CBC network, hedges when asked whether Seven Days is really fighting for its life. “My answer,” he says, “must be that Seven Days will last just as long as it does its job well and responsibly. And since the CBC is Canada’s only medium of national mass communication, we must regard it as our job to stimulate national discussion. But public-affairs shows arc always changing to meet changing needs.” Meanwhile, the unit lives uneasily with the question: will the show be axed?
Right now, Seven Days seems to meet viewers’ needs. Critics often condemn the program, yet the public keeps looking, and while it’s aimed at some featureless “average” man, CBC audience surveys prove that, with the exception of Saturday-night hockey, it attracts more university-educated viewers than any other show.
In English Canada a fashionable pose among fringe intellectuals is to condemn its admitted sensationalism, yet in French Canada it is lauded as an avant-garde art form. And it has acquired an international reputation unmatched by any television program since Britain's iconoclastic That Was The Week I hat Was: West Germany s state-run TV network recently sent a crew to Canada to film a documentary — on the making of This Hour Has Seven Days.
Dinah Christie, hitherto a little-known Toronto revue singer,
Laurier LaPierre, a New Wave Quebec intellectual, and Patrick Watson, academic-turned-TV-producer-turned-program-host, have joined the thin ranks of genuine Canadian Personalities just by sitting up there on the Cyclops Eye in the living room and teasing us with a formula at least partly based on six points outlined by Leiterman at a staff meeting last fall. The ideal Seven Days, he said, would be anti-establishment; titillating; reflect the human condition; serve as an ombudsman; contain a totally unexpected item; and carry at least one news item — something about an event of the week. At its best, this formula amuses and excites and outrages and offends and
What frightens the CBC is that
provokes and actually stimulates us Canadians. And it's because that’s something Auntie CBC isn’t really sure it ought to be doing, that Seven Days’ future is uncertain.
There are powerful men in the CBC management who shudder pretty well every time Seven Days happens. President Alphonse Ouimet is said to enjoy the show. But his close advisers are uncomfortably aware that next morning people — sometimes lots of people, like Roman Catholics or Protestants or Hungarian Canadians, and sometimes just one influential someone, like a cabinet minister or a judge — will be on their doorstep ready to raise the roof.
So many shows spawn at least one minor crisis that after one that didn’t — this winter’s painfully bland New Year's show — a powerful CBC official phoned to congratulate the producers: He couldn’t, he said happily, see anything that would upset anyone in Ottawa. Sadly, however, as many rows have been sparked by lapses of taste as by unwelcome investigations of social and political ills, and that’s left the show a legitimate target for the sort of criticism Toronto Star columnist Ron Haggart leveled when, after an interview with U.S. Nazi leader Lincoln Rockwell had produced violent protests from Canadian Jewish and Hungarian leaders, he condemned Seven Days for creating “meaningless sensation.” (However, while Nazis are old-hat to Haggart, they’re probably new and exciting to a large slice of Seven Days’ mass audience.)
The Corporation has, in fact, banned only three items from Seven Days. One was about Quebec separatists’ comments on the Queen’s Canadian visit (it was judged “unpatriotic”). Another included a segment of the film Mr. Pearson which The Corporation had earlier banned in its entirety. The third ban, of a film story on the Miss Canada pageant last fall, demonstrates how the Seven Days unit consider themselves at odds with, rather than part of, The Corporation: Television rights to the pageant had been bought by CTV, but a Seven Days crew photographed rehearsals — including one rehearsal at the studios of Toronto’s commercial CFTO station. When CFTO issued an injunction against the use of film shot by Seven Days on its premises (they claimed the CBC had trespassed), The Corporation lawyer banned the use of all the pirated pageant film footage, much of which was not subject to the injunction. Leiterman consulted his own lawyers, and they disagreed with the CBC legal adviser. The “debate,” as Leiterman calls it, was brief, and the ban stayed.
It was not an exceptional incident. Every week there is what Leiterman calls a “constant dialogue” with management about what should and should not be shown on the program. With diplomacy characteristic of the man if not his program, Leiterman says The
Seven Days doesn't seem to know a sacred cow when it sees one
Corporation is encouragingly tolerant. Supervising producer Hugh Gauntlett, management’s rather nervous watchdog of the show, is blunter: “The problems Seven Days raises in conflict with management are hair-raising,” he says.
If all this weren't bad enough, Seven Days is also a turbulent influence within The Corporation itself: the celebrated feud with the CBC National News Department, for example. In 1964 News Department officials claimed that a Seven Days reporter forced open a drawer in their offices and walked off with a news film. (That incident prompted a group of Seven Days staff to make a five-minute film called Marauders In The Night, which shows their reporter skulking around corners in the CBC offices.) Relations between CBC News and Seven Days took another turn for the worse just before Christmas, when News refused to let Seven Days use a video tape made when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Qttawa press conference was broadcast live that Sunday afternoon. In what appears to be an act of flagrant defiance, Seven Days obtained pressconference footage from Qttawa’s commercial CJQH station, and used a segment that showed CBC newsman / continued on page 25
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SEVEN DAYS continued from page 11
To one critic it’s “a
sort of intellectual
Norman DePoe being given a verbal drubbing by Wilson.
Other producers are jealous of Seven Days’ reportedly massive budget. but that, at least, is a myth: Each Seven Days (excluding Document shows) costs around thirty-five thousand dollars, including salaries and the cost of technical facilities charged against the program. Most CBC sixtyminute documentaries cost more. (In the U. S. NBC spends about seventyfive thousand dollars a night on its quarter-hour Huntley-Brinkley report.)
Because it's something of a genuine Canadian phenomenon, critics, sociologists and the intelligentsia have spilled thousands of words trying to define Seven Days. Dennis Braithwaite, the Toronto G lohe and Mail s TV columnist, spoke for one intluential group of critics when he concluded that Seven Days is "not really a public-affairs program at all, but an entertainment show ... a sort ot intellectual Beverly Hillbillies. Maclean's television writer. Peter Czowski. panned the show scathingly in its lirst season, but last November changed his "ground rules” of criticism and concluded it was good television.
The noisiest critic-analysts of Seven Days are a group of Toronto-oriented journalists and writers, a loose-knit but mutually admiring coterie that thinks of itself as a new English-Canadian intellectual elite. Their main complaint boils down to the fact that the most exciting happening on the CBC is designed for the masses, not for them.
Leiterman recently answered criticisms of the show’s rarely elfective political satires by saying. “We’ve built a show a lot of people think of as entertainment. It's those people we're after. They're the people who'vc never heard of The Sixties (program) and arc so involved in the problems of living they don’t read much more than the sports pages and the comics. They have a right to public-affairs programming, too.” Privately, he added, “Last October we did an item on the escalation of war, and that night a lot of people learned an elementary lesson about nuclear strategy. And they got that from a show that had an item about fertility pills and that satire on the Pope’s visit.”
But Seven Days can only be fairly examined within the changing social and moral climate in which it flourishes. It is as brash and as curious and as shrill and prurient and fallible and hungry for excitement (and sometimes as badly organized) as human beings themselves. But imagine the fuss if. just three years ago, San Francisco go-go girl Carol Doda’s bust had been shown bare on television, as it was on Seven Days last December without public comment. (The Corporation management was outraged, but Leiterman claims the item “says something about our society.”)
The show generates enthusiasm among intellectuals partly because it appears to confirm Marshal McLuhan's "global village” theory, which says we all enjoy a sort of supertogetherness because our means of communication have become oral and visual, and therefore communal.
Seven Days, it's true, has a talent for involving its audience. The British Broadcasting Corporation’s That Was The Week That Was is often said to be the inspiration for Seven Days, but TW3 was written and performed. Seven Days, using hand-held equipment and the closer - than - close - up techniques, looks (and sometimes
peeps) at things as they are happening.
Even in the studio, producers try to create a happening. When two Ku Klux Klansmen were interviewed a Negro was unexpectedly brought on camera, too. and the Klansmen, having just said they were not racially prejudiced, refused to shake his hand. (One of the best-known happenings.
however, was unintended: at the start of one show last fall Laurier LaPierre forgot his own name. "1 couldn’t see the TelePrompTer, and that made me falter,” he explained later.) The old Seven Days’ Hot Scat formula was designed to create an incident. It didn't always work, but at its best the Hot Seat made news, as it did when Justice Minister Cardin admitted that a Vancouver postal worker had been suspended for suspected espionage even though there was insufficient
SEVEN DAYS continued
You can’t ask first:
you do it
evidence to present to a court. The Hot Seat proved too hot for many politicians (Lester Pearson is said to have refused to be interviewed by LaPierre), and that may explain the newer format: a round-table discussion which is kinder to the interviewee.
It is this quality of happening that prompted Montreal’s Cinémathèque Canadienne to stage a Hommage à Seven Days just before Christmas. The Cinémathèque (an art - film cinemacum-film-museum) showed items from Seven Days itself and several Document programs. French film critic André Martin concluded: “Our civilization returns to words and pictures.
It needs new Homers, new Socrates. Given several years, This Hour Has Seven Days will probably usher in this era of audio-visual bards.”
Doug Leiterman and Pat Watson don't take themselves quite so seriously. They are, however, stumped when asked, as they often are, to define what they are doing, or trying to do. A McGill University anthropology professor asked Leiterman that question recently, and he replied. “We are not crusaders, editorialists, persuaders. We are, hopefully, good reporters.”
Seven Days' beginnings can he most clearly traced back to Close-Up, the first really successful “magazine” show, which was exciting television back in the late fifties and early sixties. Ross McLean, the CBC’s original bright young man in Public Affairs, produced it and Watson and Leiterman worked for him. It was then, says Watson, that they “developed an empathy about what tele-
vision should be doing,” and Seven Days grew out of that. McLean, often consulted by his former assistants, says Seven Days “often disappoints me and sometimes offends me. but it’s symbolically precious to Canadian television because it’s the last CBC rampart of daring and originality and individualism.”
Though it's hard to demonstrate, Seven Days seems to be less daring this year than last. Producers, made forcibly aware of management’s sensitivity to the outrageous, have apparently grown more cautious, and, anyway, management supervision of the show is tighter than in the first season. (It would probably be tighter still but for the fact the program is constructed at the last minute.)
Even so, Seven Days still regularly offends someone in The Corporation. Given people like Watson and Leiterman to run it. and the desire to attract a mass audience, this conflict is unavoidable. As Robert Fowler, the man whose report on broadcasting attacked CBC bureaucracy and timidity, said recently, “Broadcasting should respond to people's needs, wants and aspirations. You can't go out and ask them. ‘Do you want such-and-such?’, because they can't know what they want until they try a few things. And somebody has to try those things out.” Because it is run by the CBC (no commercial network would have started the program in the first place), This Hour Has Seven Days is doing just that: trying things out. And in the process it seems to be providing what the people want. ★