Columns

When Moses speaks, listen

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 5 2000
Columns

When Moses speaks, listen

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 5 2000

When Moses speaks, listen

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

A while ago, Moses Znaimer—multimedia visionary, CEO and executive producer of Citytv, Bravo!, MuchMusic, and a bunch of other TV outlets—was asked to speak to an international conference of media educators in Toronto. The audience, Moses knew, contained skeptics who either regard television as a necessary evil, or simply as evil, period. So Moses did what Moses does when confronted with critics: he put the wind up them. He taped his speech on video, ordering the cameraman to shoot close up “so my head will be about 30 freakin’ feet high” on a giant screen. Then, he sat amidst the crowd, and watched himself. In the ensuing question period, an indignant educator berated him for having the “rudeness” to deliver his speech via video, rather than in person. Moses, in his carefully modulated speaking manner, told the man that if he was a media educator at a media conference who couldn’t understand why someone would use the media as a tool to educate the audience, there was nothing more to say. Weeks later, Moses was still beaming. “Talking about TV is beside the point: you have to use it,” he says. “Especially when you’re talking to a serious arrière-garde group like that.”

Anyone who knows Moses even slightly knows he has almost breathtaking self-confidence. Smart people acknowledge he has a right to be so pleased with himself. Before the Prime Minister tapped Bob Rabinovitch as CBC president, insiders say Moses was approached, but said no: he makes too much money and has too much fun where he is. Moses will always be known for changing the look of TV by breaking down walls between performers and viewers. While travelling in Europe in the early ’70s, he observed, despairingly, that “television in Germany and Italy looked exactly alike.” His solution: eliminate traditional studios. Tune in to Much or City, and you see TV presented like real life, with all its delights, imperfections and spontaneity. Jiggling, hand-held cameras show technical crew shuffling around, spectators interacting with hosts, and hosts bearing an informal on-air mien not much different from their viewers. Long before employment-equity laws, Moses featured hosts from visible minorities without making a big noise of it: they mingled with everyone just the way kids do in real life.

The whole programming formula amounts to carefully organized chaos that makes viewers feel a part of things—although it isn’t always a success. If you watch the unintentionally goofy news on CKVR—a City sister station in white-bread Barrie, Ont.—you get the impression it’s produced by space aliens who stumbled into an earthling culture they can’t figure out—like a real-life Third Rock from the Sun. But overall, the free-form style is wildly successful. One mea-

sure is that Moses’ techniques have been ripped off by stations worldwide. As well, the ChumCity International division has licensed stations and taught techniques everywhere from Argentina to Finland. His Toronto-area CP24 news station has also shaken up its genre. The station’s multi-sectioned screen offers interviews and reports, the time, weather, market updates and summaries of breaking news. The format was designed to resemble a computer screen—and set up so people who have it on with the sound muted still find it useful.

Now in his late 50s or so, Moses (who doesn’t give his age and is only ever referred to by first name) is as revved up as ever—though one friend says he actually appears more “serene” than he once was. In early June, he plays co-host to the first Canadian version of TED, a high-end gathering of Big Thinkers who discuss virtually everything except that which they’re best known for. The title stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design: guests at American TEDs have included Bill Gates, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Jonas Salk—and Moses. A typical session might see a retired astronaut who is also an amateur photographer brandishing pictures taken in outer space, or a gazillionaire tech-head displaying his collection of Gutenberg Bibles. The idea, Moses says, is that the “casual and slightly oblique nature of material” encourages everyone to stretch themselves intellectually. The all-Canadian version he co-hosts in Toronto with Richard Saul Wurman, TED’s founder, will feature guests ranging from Frank Gehry to Atom Egoyan to John Turner.

Lately, Moses has been working on applications for new stations, including a bid for a City-style station in Vancouver. He’s also been thinking about Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. He has a better, cheaper idea: carve up hosting duties, so Toronto could serve, as he wrote the city’s Olympic committee, as “Base Site and Organizer of a Live, Switched Universal Television event shared with a handful of other cities worldwide.” Meanwhile, he’s really focused on the Web. While many TV people fear its allure, Moses insists “the future of the Web is TV: people will find the Net in the set.” He means that the technologies are growing so close they’ll eventually merge—and when they do, he’ll be ready. The www.Pulse24.com site is a near-mirror of the CP24 channel: surfers eventually will use various subsections of the screen as “buttons” that lead them to more live images and information on subjects worldwide. The technology doesn’t yet exist for all his plans, but when that day comes, Moses will be thinking about the day after that—and the Next Big Thing. There will be no winding down gently—Moses wants his tombstone someday to bear the phrase “Not Yet.” There’s always too much happening, and never quite enough time.