Broadcasting

Broadcasting

THE VOX OF THE POPULI IS STILLED AT LAST

MICHAEL ENRIGHT December 15 1975
Broadcasting

Broadcasting

THE VOX OF THE POPULI IS STILLED AT LAST

MICHAEL ENRIGHT December 15 1975

Broadcasting

THE VOX OF THE POPULI IS STILLED AT LAST

MICHAEL ENRIGHT

Like Percy Saltzman’s chalk, Juliette’s Mom and Tommy Hunter’s pockmarks, Viewpoint has been one of those CBC hallmarks that give the network continuity if not quality. For more than 18 years it has sat like an apostrophe to The National telling Canadians, in a folksy way, that for one thing they aren’t Americans. For example, it has Earl Cameron, once described by a on the side of a hill.” Canadians didn’t watch Viewpoint in droves, but it was somehow comforting to know it was there. All that changes in early January when Viewpoint—and Cameron—disappear from national television.

The man who pulled the plug is Knowlton Nash, director of information programming for English television. Nash’s argument is rooted in arithmetic. Viewpoint was costing stations 75% of their audiences for the local news shows which followed it at 11.30 p.m. Nash experimented with dropping the show in Winnipeg and Edmonton; in Edmonton only 3% of viewers noted that Viewpoint was gone. Its replacement will be a nightly five-minute “news analysis” from the CBC’S domestic and foreign correspondents. And Viewpoint will wind up in the archives.

In painfully typical CBC fashion, network officials could not merely excise Viewpoint. They had to wrench it bloodily from the schedule like an impacted tooth. A campaign to save “Canada’s newest endangered species” was begun by As It Happens, the CBC radio public affairs show. Mark Starowitz, the irreverent producer of As It Happens, declared, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that he had received 200 letters from outraged Canadians pleading for Viewpoint to be left as is. Television critics, who had given Viewpoint a wide berth in their columns, bemoaned the passing of an era. Several prominents such as John Diefenbaker and Joey Smallwood pushed for a reprieve for what Joey called “this escape hatch, this safety valve, this blowhole” for vox populi. One viewer from Sheet Harbor, Nova Scotia, wrote to Cameron: “At gunpoint I would see the endpoint of Screwpoint with Earl Cameron.” But Nash remained unmoved and the thread of protest wore itself out.

In fact, Viewpoint had become an embarrassment to Nash and the concept of professional television journalism. To be sure, it was hardly great TV. The legions of mouth breathers, stammerers and people with tangled accents—known universally as “writer-broadcasters”—prompted most viewers to flip over to a private station. One could absorb only so much vitriol on such subjects as Mother’s Day, breast-feeding, NATO, lesbianism, marijuana or capital punishment. There were some high comic points, such as the Edmonton hunter, speaking out against his critics, dressed in a complete forest outfit with shotgun which he insisted on firing at the end of his spiel. Or the writer-broadcaster from Pickering, Ontario, who discoursed calmly and lucidly on one of man’s great needs, toilets. Then there was the time when a Liberal candidate in the Ontario provincial election managed to insinuate himself onto the program without mentioning his politics, thereby offending against every equaltime rule in the book.

Part of the reason for Viewpoint's chronic mediocrity was lack of interest in the show by the current affairs department. It had almost no budget, save for a $75 fee for each writer-broadcaster. And in television, where facilities are everything, Viewpoint historically was starved of them. To get thefive-minute-50-second program taped, for instance, former producer Nicholas Steed was given only 15 minutes of studio time for two tapings. There was no time for rehearsal and no time to correct errors. There was no research staff and no support personnel given to the show. One year management forgot to allocate any facilities at all for Viewpoint. Until a few months ago, the office of the current producer, Ian Murray, was a jungle of heating pipes and air ducts in a far corner of the television building. But because Eugene Hallman, the man who invented the Viewpoint concept in the late Fifties, was head of the English network, the program was protected. When Hallman left his post in 1974 Viewpoint's destiny was sealed.

For all its faults, Viewpoint did offer a forum for what the CBC called “the free expression of opinion.” It was possible for someone to walk into the producer’s office and ask to have his say. Now the amateurs will be replaced by professional journalists with their analysis. Earl Cameron will return to his full duties as a radio announcer and the scores of writer-broadcasters will have to make do with occasional letters to the editor.

Comeback of the year

After three exhausting years hosting This Country In The Morning, one of the best radio programs CBC has ever produced, Peter Gzowski plunged into a yearlong funk. Although he assembled a best-selling book about the show (Peter Gzowski’s This Country In The Morning) and puttered around the CBC putting together a format for a late-night TV talk series, disentangling himself from This Country left him depressed and unsure of what to do next. Gzowski concedes he was having problems: “I was a little wingy,” he says.

As it turns out, all Gzowski really needed to get back on track was work, and now he’s got it. He’s behind the microphone where he belongs, hosting Gzowski On FM. a daily, 4-to-6 p.m. arts program that is the highlight of CBC’S fledgling, eight-station national FM network. Hastily conceived last spring by radio chief Peter Meggs (27-year-old producer Nancy Button barely had time to grab a budget, offices and a telephone before it went on the air November 3), the show fits Gzowski as comfortably as one of the rumpled, inkstained old shirts he slops around in.

Gzowski brings an open, generous Everyman’s view to the arts. The only expensive painting he owns is a William Kurelek he bought years ago for a few hundred dollars, his music collection runs to folk and the classics and he eagerly gobbles up each new John D. MacDonald mystery. “There is nothing in the arts I know a lot about,” he says, “except hockey.” Reflecting Gzowski’s eclectic tastes, the program has so far offered everything from a Mozart concerto to Roy Rogers singing The Gay Ranchero. Gzowski does a daily record review that is more an introduction to his enthusiasms (“I frankly just love Leon Redbone”) than a critical look at current music; he takes occasional dancing lessons from TV personality Agota Gabor which are more amusing (Gabor: “Now place your weight on your other foot.” Gzowski: “But what do I do with my legs?”) than they are instructive; and he does probing and sometimes prodding interviews with his guests that reflect a journalist’s well-developed curiosity. For example, he elicited an observation from John Hirsch that taking over the CBC drama department was “like landing on the tip of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.” And while it might have been easier for him to go along with feminist Susan Swan’s assertion that skater Barbara Ann Scott was a 1950s sex symbol, captivating audiences with her crotch, he gently, but stubbornly, insisted that for him Scott would always personify sexless perfection.

Although Gzowski’s performance is close to a tour de force, he is not always well served by his contributors. Their segments are often glib, superficial and smack of the snobbishness Gzowski resolutely avoids. The worst example of that is bestselling novelist Sylvia Fraser’s advice to listeners on the arts. Fraser is obviously much more concerned with staying aloof from the unwashed masses phoning in with questions than she is with being helpful. One young woman from Winnipeg asked her how to go about publishing a book she had written. In a bored, condescending tone, Fraser could only suggest that the caller pack up her typewriter and move to Toronto, where the publishers are.

While Gzowski is happy with the show he desperately wants to break into TV. In Halifax this February, he will try out as host of a late-night talk show that he’s hopeful will move into a national time slot next fall. However, the last time Gzowski hosted a TV talk show (five years ago) he bombed: the thought of his impending second attempt sends his nicotine-stained fingers burrowing nervously into one of the three packs of cigarettes he smokes every day. “We want to try to bring the spirit of This Country In The Morning to television,” he says. For the moment at any rate, that spirit is safely installed on FM radio. RON BASE