Everything's coming up Moses
How to succeed in the television business with Moses Znaimer really trying
You probably thought television had licked Moses Znaimer — if you’ve thought about him at all in the past five years. It hasn’t, though; it has merely devoured him, which in the corporate sense of the television industry isn’t the same thing at all. He is even now struggling deep within the bowels of the one-eyed monster and it remains to be seen whether he will ultimately be digested and discarded, or whether he will emerge, insouciance intact, as the man who whipped the giant networks in their own backyard.
Moses Znaimer, for three meteoric years back in the late Sixties the almost impertinently youthful boy wonder/bête noire of the CBC, is today the boss of Toronto’s CITY-TV, the channel that brings blue movies to that city’s Friday night insomniacs; the channel that everyone is rooting for and almost no one watches.
Toronto viewers, beset by a welter of Canadian and American channels, are known as a tough television audience. But the impudence of “Sexy TV” and “Homemade TV” — both pre-inaugural advertising slogans used in CITY promotions — can be the stuff of success . . . can’t it?
Well perhaps not just yet. The March survey by A. C. Nielsen quoted in the Globe and Mail showed CITY’s Metro audience down from 3% to 2% of those tuned in (CITY claims that it remained at 3% in March) and in the prime time hours — 8 to 10 p.m. — there weren’t enough viewers to get a rating. And yet with production facilities and budget resources that are hopelessly minimal by normal standards, the station produces with incredible ingenuity 41 Vi hours of original programs a week.
At the centre of CITY’s quiet desperation, Moses sits, as alertly elegant as ever, perhaps a little more quietly philosophical. He still performs, as when he told a businessmen’s luncheon about six months after the station opened. “We have three production techniques. We have poverty. We have inexperience. And we have fear.” But in his office he speaks with a mixture of humility and bravado.
“I’m guided by two things,” he told me one day. “One is a saying from a book of Judaic wisdom called The Sayings Of The Fathers. It goes, roughly, ‘There are two actions of merit — the starting of something and the finishing of something. Of the two, the finishing is the greater.’ And I’m also very conscious of the history of revolutions, so I’m determined not to see either this station or myself become what is often happily and emotionally accepted as noble failure. And I’m going to do my damnedest to survive the transition period that distinguishes Che Guevara from Fidel Castro, from the type of person who starts things and the radically different type who keeps them going. I’m going to try to be both kinds of person.
I’ve never done this astrology stuff, but somebody cast my horoscope the other day and suggested I am a kind of Leo-Virgo combination. Leos, as I understand it, are leadership-oriented, flashy, dynamic people. Virgos are hard-working, systematic, one might even say dull. Until this job is finished I’m going to try to play on the Virgo in me.”
No one could doubt his capacity for hard work, but a dull Moses Znaimer? It seems unlikely.
The building at 99 Queen Street East in downtown Toronto, close to army surplus shops, pawnshops and just a few blocks south of the tenderloin, was long ago a candy factory and more recently a local replica of New York’s Electric Circus. Its taped acid rock and oscillating strobe lights failed to electrify the city’s young set and were switched off. Now the building, its obdurate brick facade coated in sexy black paint, has become the home of Canada’s first commercial station to use the vacant UHF wavebands for local programming in a bid for local advertising. It has been adopted already as a prototype for UHF stations in half a dozen cities and some of these may well succeed. But none will have been launched with the same flair, the same engaging impudence as CITYTV. Because they will not have been launched by Moses Znaimer, the man you may have forgotten.
When he caught the attention of CBC viewers back in the Sixties, he became, in his own words, “a sort of cerebral matinee idol,” but few will remember the cool wit he added to the elegance of Adrienne Clarkson, or the wry niceness of Paul Soles on the daytime Take 30 program, or the incisiveness he injected into the Sunday night inconsequence of The Way It Is. Even fewer will recall just why he left the CBC in 1969, or what has happened to him since. He wasn’t fired, you know, he resigned; the CBC rarely fires anybody. And he made little fuss when he went . . .
Those who are aware of the succession of remarkable changes that have punctuated a life only three decades long, and a career spanning less than one of them, can almost take seriously Znaimer’s standing joke that he, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, has a portrait of himself secreted in his attic that truly reflects the physical effects of such intensity. But it’s difficult to see any change in his appearance. The hair is still dark and curly, though now it must be combed forward to deny a receding hairline. Eyes still direct and quick under quizzical eyebrows. Jaw as lean a wedge as ever, below the high cheekbones. Head no less erect and cocky above a trim figure.
In most people great physical self-assurance turns out to be a shield for some inner security. In Moses it seems to be the barely adequate embodiment of an even greater assurance within. As his former television colleague, Patrick Watson, puts it: “One of the fascinating things about Moses is the way he coolly picks up and manipulates the pieces of his life. He has a marvelously clear-eyed picture of himself, accompanied by great confidence — not the compulsive confidence of a Sammy Glick, but a tranquil, deep-seated confidence.”
The only thing harder to survive than failure is success. In the course of his many successes — so many so gracefully engineered in so short a time — there have always been a few friends on the sidelines, and many enemies, watching for the inevitable pratfall. He has never obliged, even managing to transcend his one major setback, his rupture with the CBC, and transform it into a further, stylish and profitable advance.
But now, having taken on in CITY-TV what is certainly the narrowest and most complex gamble of his career, he has the concerned and the envious watching again. And for the first time he admits to wondering a little himself how he’ll make out.
The visible crux of this latest stage in his career happened on September 28 last year in Toronto, the day that CITY-TV went on the air. It happened in his second-floor office, a small office by normal executive standards, but sited to provide an overview of the main studio floor / continued on page 44
ZNAIMER from page 26 on the one hand and direct access to the busy central office area on the other. The moment was 11.10 p.m. It had been a long day, stretching sleeplessly back for him and for most of his staff over more than 48 hours, the longest day in a long year of long days during which he had managed, personally and continuously, the aching process of shaping a diversity of skills and personalities and technologies into a working television station.
It was done now. The fourth hour of the station’s shaky inaugural programming was flickering across a monitor screen on his office wall. The first much-needed commercials (greeted by Moses and his colleagues with cries of “The money! The money!”) had already been transmitted. The debris of a brief exhausted celebration littered the deserted office area. And it was at this moment that Moses Znaimer, whose normal poise tends to exclude hints of ordinary frailty, allowed his weariness to show. Laying his head on the lap of his close and longtime friend, the actress Marilyn Lightstone, he let her massage the tension from his shoulders.
There was an almost theatrical wholeness to the tableau. To one side in the office, were seated Moses’ mother, younger sister and brother, who had come from Montreal for the Great Oc-
casion. There were bouquets from wellwishers, wilting a little now, and among them a large basket of blooms sent by his parents. It could well have been the final scene in a play. By Clifford Odets? Arthur Miller perhaps? Even by Budd Schulberg, who created the Sammy Glick of What Makes Sammy Run? And in synopsis, though not in essence, Moses’ life follows the classic ghetto-tofame theme to the point of cliché.
He was born toward the end of World War II at Tajikstan in the USSR. His father, a Latvian Jew from Riga, and his mother, a Polish Jew, had fled there ahead of the advancing Germans, the only members of their respective bourgeois families to escape the holocaust. In the chaos that followed the war they managed to filter westward through the DP camps and eventually to escape with their only son to a new life in Montreal.
It was not a bright new world in Montreal. His father had to struggle to survive in the notoriously competitive garment industry. His mother, in the resourceful Jewish family tradition, worked as a waitress and. without the need, still does so.
“I can’t recall my childhood very well. I can only recall a dawn of consciousness, which is somewhere around the age of 11 or 12. The important things
in my life were that we didn’t have much money, always had the sense that I was as bright as all the kids I went to school with, the fact that I’m Jewish. Very critical, that — probably the most important thing of all.”
With both parents at work, Moses had to be able to fend for himself at home as well as on the street. And not only to fend for himself there but for his Canadian-born kid sister and brother, too. Yet he managed to maintain his lead at the Talmud Torah school and eventually made it into McGill University.
He claims he supplemented the family income while he was in high school by playing pool (under Fat Maurice at the Laurier Pool Hall), and by working nights at the now defunct Chez Paris nightclub (an experience that confirmed an early distaste for liquor that persists). At McGill he sold lecture notes to more affluent students. But well before that time he had come to even more important conclusions:
“In my early teens, about the time I traded in the pool cue for the books, I met Irving Layton and started reading. I made a whole lot of very fundamental decisions about living that wouldn’t hit most people until they were well into college, about life, love, position, power, wealth, these kinds of things. And they held for me so well that I didn’t have to go through that whole period of angst and pimply facedness and conflict with parents and absurd love affairs that erode a person’s confidence.”
The self-confidence paid off. From McGill, where he earned an almost effortless BA in political science and philosophy (and where he also became a close friend of Marilyn Lightstone), he went on to Harvard to pick up an MA in Soviet studies. With these credentials and fluency in four languages, he had to decide how he would earn a living.
Although he calls himself a “quick superficial person, more decisive than profound,” and although his fluency of speech and action seem to confirm that, he does find time to think out his courses of action: “I’ve always tried to get into a position where doing what I want is not a choice, it’s inevitable. Power represents the ability to do what you want with a modicum of integrity, to influence your environment. Power usually has political rather than artistic connotations, but in our society you can do more to change the course of things through communications, such as television, than through political position.”
The place for him, he decided, was in television. He applied for a job with CBC Public Affairs. He was accepted readily enough, but with no experience he could be taken on only as a probationary radio producer. Still, even that suited his purposes: “My political studies had taught me that it’s a lot easier to continued on page 46
ZNAIMER continued move horizontally between two structures than vertically upward within a single structure. I didn’t want to fool anyone, so before I began I told them blatantly that I meant to become a TV producer.”
As a self-declared bird-of-passage, Moses made little effort to excel as a radio producer. He was diligent and competent, but about the only stir he caused was trying to coach some of the more venerable, stodgy commentators into a more effective style of performance. Otherwise he bided his time. “I believe in vacuums,” he says, “and I move in wherever a vacuum exists.”
Scarcely six months after he joined CBC, a vacuum occurred, a vacancy for a radio producer in the Public Affairs unit in Ottawa (always, because of its volatile political demands, a showcase for up-and-coming CBC producers). Four months later, another fortuitous vacancy occurred in Ottawa, this time for a TV producer. Moses was there to step into the breach, and within a few months he had shown he was better than many of his seniors. He initiated, researched, wrote and produced an impeccable 13-part series on the history of the Russian Revolution. Because of its scheduling at the desert hour of 12.30-1 p.m. on a Sunday, the series drew little critical or popular attention, and the praise it did receive was directed not at its creator but at its front man and narrator, the popular Patrick Watson. The next move, Moses resolved, would take care of that.
In the summer of 1967, Glen Sarty, executive producer of the daytime talk show Take 30, offered him a job as producer, with the option of performing before the cameras as co-host, too. He took the job. But by now he had developed the almost obsessive correctness of dress, the fluency of speech, the grace of movement that were the keystones of his overall panache; his performance on TV was from the outset as masterly as his lifestyle. Take 30 became for its limited but substantial audience more penetrating, wider ranging and, both literally and metaphorically, sexier. Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles, long-established as co-hosts, found they had to work harder.
Toward the end of that year, the CBC’s presidency was an acute embarrassment for the declining Pearson government. The incumbent, Alphonse Ouimet, whose departure (after a politic interval) had been made inevitable by his mishandling of the Seven Days crisis, was sick of his ambiguous position and wanted out. Judy LaMarsh, Secretary of State and herself a loose-talking pain to the cabinet, could not induce anyone of respected status or capability to take on the corporation’s hot seat. Morale, particularly amongst the program staff,
never robust, was fast ebbing away.
It didn’t help morale, certainly not amongst the jostling crown princes of CBC upper management, when on December 9, 1967, an article appeared in the Star Weekly magazine headed: “Ladies And Gentlemen, Meet The Next President Of The CBC.”
The candidate, of course, was Moses Znaimer. The writer of the article, Margaret Daly, managed to catch every ounce of his chutzpah, his zappy talk, his immodest if accurate estimate of his own capability, his unconcealed pride in his achievements so far, and his daunting appraisal of what he might do next: “President of the CBC?” he was quoted as saying. “Under certain circumstances, if certain things about the job were changed, sure, I’d want it.” Because CBC is a crown corporation it rarely takes such dangerously decisive action as to fire anybody, and partic-
ularly not for sins of omission or for chronic ineffectuality. The result is a bureaucratic structure that can best be defined as a mediocracy, with a mediocre paunch of middle management bulked out heavily by former programmers whose creative spark has been snuffed out by earlier mediocracies and who have been kicked upstairs to make room for succeeding waves of hopefuls. What Moses should have realized was that his effrontery was a direct threat to every mediocrat’s belief that merely hanging in there and not rocking the boat might eventually pay off with the highest office of the corporation. And while corporate mills may grind slowly, they invariably do grind. It was nearly two years later, toward the end of 1969, before Moses had to face reckoning for his error. In the meantime, he had advanced himself somewhat as a personality by appearing in the prestigious if lacklustre second season of The Way It Is in prime time on Sunday nights. When a program was being sought to replace The Way It Is, Moses proposed to the CBC brass an elaborate experimental program format he had been developing, which could have brought promotion to executive producer, but his superiors procrastinated, and eventually shot him down. He resigned.
Meanwhile, Moses had met, through mutual friends, a tycoon named Ben Webster who headed T’ang Management Ltd. and Helix Investments Ltd., companies operating in the fast lane of corporate investment and development — venture capitalism. Growth potential is the lodestone of venture capitalists, who seek out technological, industrial or scientific projects in their early stages of development, invest not only capital but managerial and technical expertise, develop them to the point where they become attractive to bigger and more conservative investors, and then sell out and redeploy the capital (and profit) elsewhere.
Obviously impressed by Moses’ drive and his stylish ability to grasp and utilize ideas, Ben Webster, after 20 minutes conversation at lunch, astounded Moses by inviting him to join T’ang on a sixmonth trial basis. (Ben Webster tells it differently. He was astounded, he says, when after 20 minutes, Moses asked him for the job.)
“I came in with massive misgivings. I mean I was enticed, y’know. But like Moses! — on Bay Street? I mean, c’m’on, all those things you’ve heard, y’know . . . But at the time the character of the guy was such, he’s such a charismatic guy, and I knew he wouldn’t be in something that was a drag. So I accepted. The deal was that if at the end of the trial sequence, we liked each other, I wouldn’t come on like an employee, I’d come in as a partner. That really floored me.”
Moses did become a partner. There was an essential compatibility between his personal style and that of the aloof suite of Helix/T’ang, 24 floors up from the intersection of Bay and Queen Streets in the Simpson Tower, with an overweening view of the new City Hall and its spacious square and beyond it the rising expanse of Toronto’s midtown and inner suburbs. He learned a lot.
The kinds of project into which Helix/T’ang has put capital and expertise are nothing if not diverse — cosmetics, films, electronics, blueprint reproduction, an engine-wear monitoring system, a search in the Amazon jungle for a contraceptive herb, even (although the partners wince at the recollection) a hunt for buried treasure on an island off Nova Scotia. The entrepreneurial style of the enterprise, with its striking implications of daring, of creativity, of mobility, of power and of wealth, appealed powerfully to Moses; it was a modem equivalent of the merchant venturer, the freebooter. He tells of an occasion early in his career with Helix when he was on a trip to New York. He had had the job of winding up an unsuccessful project, a cosmetic company, t nd needed a lift. He spotted a black leatuerjacket in a store window (black has always been an ingredient of the Znaimer style) and
bought it for himself. Back in Toronto, he had a Helix decal designed incorporating a skull-and-crossbones motif and had it embossed on the back of the jacket. For a while thereafter he amazed, amused (and probably appalled) his partners by wearing it at dinner parties and fashionable first nights.
Although he has instinctive good taste and an infallible sense of what fashionable trends in dress are for him, and when to adopt or abandon them, he leaves the impression of obsession. His hair, for instance, is styled carefully and frequently at a salon called Hairloom. He has said that all he requires of a city is a barber who can cut his hair properly and a mechanic who understands how to look after his cars (his taste runs to late vintage British sports models).
He was involved in a number of Helix enterprises, but eventually he found a venture that involved him more deeply and more personally. It was called Thunder Sound, one of a number of sound recording studios that mushroomed in Toronto to profit from the CRTC edict that radio stations must play a high percentage of Canadian music. Part of the developmental deal was the appointment of Moses as president of the company, necessitating that he spend part of every week working at the studios.
His personal style was rapidly imposed on the establishment. Receptionists and secretaries were all pretty, bright and, of course, efficient. A sauna was installed in the basement. Directional signs in a modish typeface included one to just MOSES. His office was scattered with the symbols and components of his lifestyle — grainy prints of a biker and of a cop by his squad car; various pictures and models of light aircraft like the one he now co-owned and flew; a mini-TV swung out on a spring-loaded arm over a 1930-ish rolltop desk; a Dictaphone, a tape deck and a stereo; chairs upholstered in black leather. It all signified a delighted return to communications — to show business.
To watch him exchange badinage with such promoters as Bernie Finkelstein (who manages Murray McLauchlan) and Burnie Fiedler (owner of the Riverboat club) was to watch a man back in his element. Using the Helix formula, which was so successful in other business developments, he enticed to Thunder Sound a cadre of the best technical and managerial talent in the recording industry and, despite a crucial scarcity at the time of genuinely talented performers, it paid off. He had learned, from his own frustrating encounters with CBC brass, exactly where the action was: “The irony is that creative people often complain about the inability of management to understand them. And yet precisely the kind of guy
who might become a good manager doesn’t want the job. He doesn’t want to give up the luxury of bitching. I’ve always thought that wrong. If you don’t want to manage, you’re dooming yourself to life as a kind of victim, because the guy who manages is the guy who controls.”
As though on some fateful cue, the opportunity to test fully his newfound skill as manager, to challenge on their own terms the media bosses who once rejected him, appeared in 1970 in the person of Phyllis Switzer. An ex-journalist from Alberta, who had for a time
handled public relations for the burgeoning Canadian Cable Television Association, it was she who originated the idea of a UHF station exclusively directed at the rich advertising market of Toronto. She had already picked up some support and backing when a former CBC colleague of Moses suggested that he might be interested in handling the program side. He jumped at the opportunity.
Support snowballed. Ben Webster, Moses’ chief at Helix, agreed to invest in the project and to become its president, continued on page 48
ZNAIMER continued so Moses was able to assume his new role without initially severing his ties with Bay Street. By the spring of 1972 the offices of Thunder Sound (which by good fortune was then weathering a lull in the recording business) were virtually taken over by the new venture. With the granting of a license to broadcast by CRTC, the newborn Channel 79 (as CITY-TV was then called) demanded more and more of Moses’ attention.
Although raising capital for the station wasn’t easy, assembling a nucleus of top-rank managerial, technical and production personnel from the shallow pool of available talent was far more crucial and more difficult. Moses’ contacts in the media were useful, of course, but in hiring the people who would work closest with him he had to find not just the best people but the best people impelled by the same drives as himself. He was remarkably successful: “While you can see incredible disparities amongst us all in educational level, in linguistic style and origin and ethnicity and religion, the one thing you notice when you look at us is that every one of us walks fast. As a group of people, we’re probably all swifter than we are deep, more decisive than we are right, but all dedicated to the idea that it is better to be decisive than always right. Because wallowing amongst the facts almost always ends up wrong, whereas the other way you at least get a crack at whatever the problem is, you know you’ll come up on the odds.”
The group was kept small during the early stages of development, consisting only of such key personnel as Jim West, formerly top sales executive with CFTO-TV; Ron Haggart, one of Toronto’s most forceful newspaper columnists; Bob Cezar, a temperamental young genius in electronic engineering; Ron Meraska, a topflight producer from CBC; and Phyllis Switzer. Planning sessions, held initially at Thunder Sound, were later transferred to the only habitable portion of the newly leased Electric Circus on Queen Street, the basement. There, in a low circular room papered with blueprints and floor plans and flow charts, discussions usually ran from early in the evening until early in the morning.
Although younger than almost all his associates, Moses at once established himself as the prime mover, the man to whom every one referred about every aspect of the construction, the staffing, the financing and the administration of the project. He continually astounded with his insouciant capacity to assess and deal with an incessant and complex succession of problems with no obvious appearance of weariness or haste no matter what the hour of day or night.
The spring and summer were long and fevered with problems and solu-
tions, decisions and compromises, plans and counterplans, hopes and disappointments and delays and discussions and negotiations and face outs. Moses and his colleagues were besieged by hopeful hordes of the young nomads who circulate through the lower creative echelons of the media. They were subjected to a campaign of subtle obstruction when the local stations of the big networks began to realize that the upstart station might eat into their shares of the advertising market. There were problems in siting the antenna, in winning a standard dial number from the cable operators. There were endless setbacks (and several technical breakthroughs) in equipping the station on a budget that most television people would regard as peanuts.
As the September opening date approached, all of Moses’ departmental chiefs were appreciably thinner and ob-
viously weary. Moses himself, always lean, somehow retained his youthful zip. Even when a cartilage operation on his knee hospitalized him for a week, he maintained his pace, boasting that he would keep a date to play squash with a colleague in three weeks time (he didn’t). He had time at least to reflect on the pace of his life:
“The thing about full pitches is that there is always something left over. That’s the extraordinary thing about being human I think, that you’re inevitably shocking yourself with your own capacity. That holds true for us here at CITY-TV. We’re running some of our people right down to the bone. We’re all of us just at the point of numbness, because we’ve been at this for most of a year, 16 hours a day — and you’ve seen the days we work. And yet having said all this, I know there is something left over, because I know in the next two weeks before the station opens we’ll do even more. The best thing of all is that when the place is fat, happy and rich three years from now, with double the staff, the few of us who started it will be looking back at these last few months with tremendous nostalgia. That’ll be the period in our lives and the life of the station when we were all incredibly dedicated to the whole thing.”
But the “whole thing” of which Moses spoke with such fluent intensity, and toward which he and his team were striving with such singleminded dedication, was, even in the context of Toronto, a rather small thing. For all its initial “firsts” as a TV station, for all the offbeat ingenuity of its program schedule, and for all its uniqueness and being revolutionary as an exercise in entrepreneurial daring, there was still the possibility that it might not last out the three hard years that even its backers admitted it would take to turn a profit.
Although he was never so unguarded as to admit that possibility openly, Moses must have thought about it and about its personal consequences. And if it did succeed, would he (as some more cynical Znaimer-watchers implied) merely use it as a boost back into majorleague television? And besides, was he really the man to doggedly and patiently (and invisibly) nurse and coax a smalltime business into stability? And would he even be given the chance to? He admitted to contemplating such questions.
“Y’know, it haunts me now and then that, out of all the CBC, not one of the guys who started up the operation is still in charge.”
Bloody-mindedness, some luck, the impetus of the pioneer spirit — these combined did get CITY-TV going. But it was only through the brilliant instinctive manipulation of these forces, and of almost everyone who could be exploited toward the end of putting the station on the air, that they were so combined. It was yet another virtuoso performance by Moses Znaimer, but, unlike his similar performances in the past, this one went virtually unnoticed by the public.
And so at 11.10 p.m. on September 28 last year, with his station on the air, Moses Znaimer laid his head on the lap of Marilyn Lightstone, and waited.
People (and particularly people who have brushed against him in the television world) tend to compare him with the Sammy Glick of Budd Schulberg’s best-selling novel What Makes Sammy Run? But the comparison is superficial. Like Sammy Glick, Moses Znaimer has risen from the ghetto to front-office success. But unlike Sammy Glick, who schemed and cheated and shafted his way to the top (and paid for it in the end), Moses has always succeeded merely by running faster than anyone else.
If the clean-up men, the counterrevolutionaries, ever do have to move in on CITY-TV, they will not find in Moses a leader corrupted by absolute power, but a man who has run too fast and too far for ordinary men to keep up with. And if they replace him he will probably emerge somewhere else — in television or not. And once again, he will probably outstrip the field. ■