On the television screen, a patient at a Hamilton, Ont., psychiatric hospital is about to receive electroshock therapy. Terrified, she struggles against the calm-voiced hospital personnel and shrieks, “Don’t take my heart out!” Same time, same channel, but on a different Wednesday night: Canadian citizens Israel and Frania Rubinek, Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust, return to Poland for the first time in more than 40 years. There, they have an emotional reunion with the farm family that sheltered them for 28 months in a cellar, and they recall how they survived the war through what Frania describes as “so many miracles.”
Both stories are recent episodes from the CBC’s eclectic, nondenominational religious affairs program, Man Alive.
Now in its 20th season, the show that wrestles with the angels of contemporary ethics has won more than 50 international awards. Its audience of one million viewers per week ranges from letter-writing zealots who are frequently outraged by the program’s open-mindedness, to a Langley, B.C., minister who has distributed “Watch Man Alive” bumper stickers to his flock.
Yet in contrast to those religious programs that cajole millions of dollars annually from their followers, Man Alive squeaks by on $15,000 per half-hour episode.
The show takes its name and broad mandate from a quotation by a second-century French saint, Irenaeus, who observed that “the glory of God is in man fully alive.” In the course of two decades, the show’s producers have profiled such important figures as Mother Teresa and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, then bishop of Johannesburg. In a candid 1985 profile, Tutu described how his boyhood heroes, baseball player Jackie Robinson and singer Lena Horne, showed him that blacks could achieve greatness.
Man Alive has addressed issues ranging from the nuclear threat to the Vatican bank scandal of 1982—a program that prompted testy letters from such prominent Catholics as Toronto’s Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter. The show has scored several journalistic triumphs, including an audience with
the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and an exclusive interview with Susan Nelles, the nurse who was charged with—and then exonerated from—having murdered four babies at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in 1981. But its biggest coup to date was the episode that opened its 1986-1987 season on Oct. 8: an interview with the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Moslems.
The Aga Khan had already declined
to appear on the CBS network’s current affairs show 60 Minutes. Instead, after a year of correspondence with Man Alive’s producers, the articulate, softspoken billionaire gave his first formal television interview for a North American audience to the low-budget Canadian program. Although producer Katherine Smalley’s exhaustive preliminary research on the Ismailis did much to persuade the Aga Khan to appear on Man Alive, the religious leader admitted that he was also impressed by the interviewing style of Roy Bonisteel, who has hosted the show since its inception.
With his resplendent white hair and earnest gaze, Bonisteel is often mistaken for a minister. He is in fact a journalist who once described religion as “a fascinating beat.” He got his start in religious broadcasting at a St. Catharines, Ont., radio station in 1953 and
produced syndicated radio shows for the United Church of Canada in the mid-1960s. In 1967 CBC executive producer Leo Rampen and the network’s religious adviser, Rev. Brian Freeland, asked him to host a proposed new television show to be called Man Alive. Now, after more than 30 years of interviewing religious leaders from a multitude of faiths, Bonisteel concedes, “If someone said to me today, ‘Go out and join a church,’ I wouldn’t know
which one to choose.”
Providing programming that has meaning for people of all faiths—and even for agnostics and atheists—is the secret of Man Alive’s longevity. During the show’s first season Toronto critic Nathan Cohen praised it as “an attempt to make religion an issue of vital concern rather than a matter of formal, official dogma.” But organized worship is only one aspect of humanity explored on Man Alive. Some of the show’s best-received episodes have focused on how handicapped individuals meet the challenges of daily life. The profile David, which aired seven years ago, chronicled the achievements of a mentally handicapped youth who had starred in a CBC television drama special, One of Our Own. Produced by Tom Kelly, the profile captured David McFarlane’s inspiring determination and
sense of humor as he struggled to memorize his lines. It won several international awards, including first prize in the special education category at the 1980 American Film Festival in New York.
The show’s award-winning episodes have been sold to 24 countries around the world, including Sweden, Israel and Thailand. Meanwhile, its producers are smarting under the most recent round of CBC budget cuts. Said Louise Lore, Man Alive’s executive producer since 1980: “We’re probably on the bottom of the pile for CBC current affairs programming. We were on a minimal budget before the cuts.” The staff economizes any way it can. Unable to afford hotel accommodation during the filming of the Rubineks’ recent trip to Poland, producer Smalley and her crew joined an East German soccer team and billeted at a youth hostel. David Cherniack, one of the show’s six producers, noted that Man Alive can only afford to shoot 10 minutes of film for every one minute to be aired. He added, “Other CBC documentaries such as The Nature of Things can have a ratio as high as 80 or 100 to one.”
Despite its increasingly stringent budget, Man Alive must maintain high ratings. Broadcast Wednesday nights at 9:30, the show has had to shift its focus to keep a 15-per-cent share of the viewing audience. Said Lore: “We’re doing more controversial material than ever, but we’re doing fewer shows on strictly theological issues. We came on the air in the wake of all the excitement and idealism of Vatican II—a time of incredible ferment and clergy activism. But the environment has changed. We can’t get the ratings we need to survive in prime time with a show on [dissenting Swiss Catholic theologian] Hans Kiing.”
Upcoming shows in the 1986-1987 season reflect Man Alive’s aggressively varied programming. They range from a documentary on Canada’s decision to resume sending aid shipments to El Salvador to a fresh look at unidentified flying objects. The Jan. 14 episode, Penetang—By Reason of Insanity, examines life inside a maximum security psychiatric hospital. Although Man Alive has broadened its scope, its producers argue that it is as much a spiritual odyssey as a current affairs program. Said Lore: “I think of it as a religious program for a post-Christian age, and that’s not the same thing as secular age. People may not go to church as often as they once did. But they still seek faith.”
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