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Cathode Ray Mission: The Original Global Television Network (1974)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

Instead of covering a specific cult show, this edition of Cathode Ray Mission will look back at the messy birth of a big Canadian media player–the first┬áthree months of programming at the Global Television Network. Global, in 2012, is one of Canada’s four major over-the-air broadcasting entities, fighting against CTV, CBC and CityTV for ratings supremacy. But things weren’t always this way.

Global was formed by Al Bruner and Peter Hill’s Can-Plex Ltd., in 1970. Bruner, a former big band singer, remade his name as an advertising manager for Toronto’s CTV affiliate, CFTO. CHCH founder Ken Soble lured Bruner to Hamilton. Bruner built CHCH into a money machine, as the station made huge yearly profits.

Both Bruner and Soble dreamed of a creating third national Canadian network together, until Soble died in 1966. Bruner actually convinced the Canadian Radio-Television Commission to give Can-Plex Ltd. a licence for a regional televised program service. Global was envisioned as a national network, but settled for a studio in Don Mills, Ontario and six retransmitters.

On January 6, 1974, Global held a four-hour special to commemorate its launch. Less than three months later, Global almost died.

The Basic Formula

Global’s 1974 debut resulted in 25 original shows — at least, according to Jim Bawden of The Toronto Star. Foreign programming, and feature films from “all over the world,” made up the difference.

Here is part of Global’s initial 1974 slate. Some shows don’t have years attached to them; I couldn’t identify when those shows ended.

  • CAVEAT EMPTOR, a consumer affairs show
  • EVERYTHING GOES (1974), a talk show. Initially hosted by Norm Crosby, singer Catherine McKinnon became a co-host early in the run. Ken Finkleman, Dan Aykroyd and Martin Short were among its writers
  • FLICK FLACK WITH WILLIAM SHATNER, a film-related interview series
  • FOUR FOR ADVENTURE, a travelogue. Four Quebec filmmakers visited South America, talking to Canadians who worked in that continent. Also featured a recipe each episode
  • GLOBAL NEWS JOURNAL, a public-affairs documentary series
  • GLOBAL POST, a five-minute business update
  • MY COUNTRY, where Pierre Berton talked about…well, his country
  • SHHH! IT’S THE NEWS (1973?-74), a satirical news show produced by Don Harron. Harron, Catherine McKinnon, Patrician Anne McKinnon, Barbara Hamilton, Jack Duffy, Bill Luxton, Les Lye, Howard Jerome Gomberg, Geoff Scott, Barry MacLoughlin and Ken Shaw were the castmembers. Gordon Pinsent and Billy Van made guest appearances
  • SUNDAY NIGHT HOCKEY, which televised Toronto Toros WHA games. Peter Gzowski and Ken Dryden (yes, that Ken Dryden – Dryden sat out the 1973-74 NHL season) were involved with the initial broadcasts
  • THE BRADEN BEAT (1974), an “on your side” consumer affairs show hosted by Bernard Braden
  • THE CANADIANS, a Stanley Burke-hosted show about the lifestyles of famous Canadians
  • THE GREAT DEBATE (1974-?; 1983-84 on CHCH), where Pierre Berton and others debated controversial topics
  • THE WORLD OF WICKS, an interview show hosted by cartoonist Ben Wicks
  • THIS PROGRAM IS ABOUT SEX (1974), with Dr. Sol Gordon
  • WHAT’S HIS NAME?, a game show where Catherine McKinnon, Don Harron and Jack McClelland attempted to guess the identities of famous Canadians
  • WITNESS TO YESTERDAY (1974 on Global; 1974-75? on TVOntario; 1998 on History Television), where broadcaster Patrick Watson “interviewed” an actor playing a major historical figure

The Weird Bits

Global initially disdained local advertising, and allowed only eight minutes of commercial air time. The point of the program service was not to be local. Many of Global’s original shows were made by independent producers, in an effort to keep costs low. Global aired news updates between programs, which was a new concept at the time.

SHHH! IT’S THE NEWS had a distinct Ottawa flavour, which wasn’t suprising, given that it was the brainchild of Bushnell Communications executives Stu Griffiths and Roy Fabish. Bushnell Communications, at the time, owned CJOH. SHHH! IT’S THE NEWS was initially a CTV pilot; Global, desperate for content, bought the show’s rights.

There was a faint whiff of nepotism in SHHH! IT’S THE NEWS — Don Harron was married to Catherine McKinnon. Patrician Anne McKinnon, though an actress and singer in her own right, was Catherine McKinnon’s sister. In addition, Bill Luxton and Les Lye were well-known for WILLY & FLOYD (CJOH/syndicated, 1966-88). SHHH! IT’S THE NEWS was a CJOH show in drag.

Let’s Listen and Watch

From Retrontario’s SoundCloud account, here’s Tommy Ambrose’s “A Point of View,” taken from a record commemorating Global’s launch. Ambrose is well-known for “People City,” which topped and tailed Citytv’s 1970s and 1980s broadcast days. It’s strange how Ambrose features in the formative years of two longstanding Canadian television brands.

From Global Toronto’s January 6, 1999 broadcast, here’s a 25th-anniversary retrospective of the Global Television Network, narrated by former Global news and entertainment anchor Bob McAdorey. Clips from Global’s launch are featured, yet the initial Global era is glossed over. Global’s history as a whole is glossed over. Whaddaya want from an official retrospective?

As an aside, pay attention to that launch footage, with the orchestra accompaniment. That’s rather ornate, for the launch of a Canadian program service. McAdorey says “this is how Global entered the world,” which ignores Global’s soft launch in late 1973. It’s hardly a subtle debut, considering Global was a regional service until the late 1990s/2000s.

 

Global Goes Bust

The fact that Global formally debuted on January 6, 1974, long after most advertising dollars were locked in for the 1973-74 season, was not the reason it became insolvent. Global took out ads in The Montreal Gazette and The Financial Post in the summer and fall of 1973, drumming up financial support for the regional program service. People knew Global was coming as far back as 1972; Al Bruner was an incessant shill.

Bruner hoped Global’s “preview season,” as he called it, would attract viewers. Come fall 1974, Bruner expected Global to truly kick some ass.

In addition, Global soft-launched in December 1973, and only programmed at night. Daytime hours were initially filled by the Ontario Educational Communications Authority. The OECA began to call its program service TVOntario in 1974.

In reality, Global was the victim of bad luck. The United States adopted Eastern Daylight Time on January 6, 1974, in response to the Arab oil embargo triggered by U.S. support of the Yom Kippur War. The ensuing energy crisis ruined Global’s exploitation of CRTC’s simultaneous substitution policy, where the Canadian signal is broadcast over the American one.

Another problem was committing $8 million a year on Canadian content, which was a substantial amount in 1974. Global wasn’t exactly smart about what it spent on. Way too much of Global’s first-year budget was funneled into EVERYTHING GOES, which aired new episodes twice a week. EVERYTHING GOES ran a hundred episodes before Global cancelled it.

Billboards also touted Global’s lineup, which relied on a mix of American and British shows. Unfortunately, less than three weeks into Global’s official existence, UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (London Weekend Television/ITV, 1971-75) and DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE (London Weekend Television/ITV, 1969-70) were yanked from Global schedules. Turns out, Global didn’t pay the distributors of those programs. Thankfully, both shows returned to Global.

Cultural Legacy

In its initial form, Global pissed away $50,000 per day. The time of Global’s debut didn’t matter. Its business plan did. Global came into being with a fifty-percent primetime Canadian content commitment, yet its outsize ambitions crippled it. The program service was envisioned as a national network, for heaven’s sake. It didn’t even reach the whole of Ontario.

The whole point of Global’s existence was to earn ratings…which it didn’t, in its first three months. In Ottawa, Global earned a 6.5% share of the audience, which was as high as Global reached. It earned a pitiful 2.5% share in Toronto.

Initial major shareholders Maclean-Hunter Ltd. and Odeon Theatres Ltd. couldn’t give Global new funds, and the Toronto Dominion Bank stopped bankrolling it. Global soon looked for new ownership, which it found in Israel Asper and Paul Morton’s Global Ventures Holdings Ltd., Allan Slaight’s IWC Communications Inc., and Seymour Epstein. By 1989, Asper’s CanWest Communications Enterprises owned the program service completely.

Asper turned Global into what it is now, mainly a hub for American network programming. The British programs were eventually thrown out, and Global soon became known for not funding Canadian content. In fact, one show defined the program service in the late 1970s and 1980s – THE LOVE BOAT (ABC, 1977-86; 1985-86 as LOVE BOAT.) Hell, Global was derisively called “The LOVE BOAT Network.

Current Whereabouts

Al Bruner died in 1987. He was an active businessman up until his death, preaching the merits of local insertion — that is, pretending a regional/national broadcast has a local presence — to New York broadcasters.

The Final Cut

Global became insolvent in three months, mainly due to mismanagement. The Global debut wasn’t timed right, yet its major problems stemmed from a misreading of what attracted viewers, a lack of funds, and poor management. Global based its initial sales pitches on a muddy philosophy of “what’s good for the viewer, is good for the advertiser” — which referred to a vague guaranteed-viewership concept. Within a few years, Global became a traditional program service – twelve minutes of ad time, and completely at the mercy of the advertisers.

Ironically, Izzy Asper and his heirs tried to turn what evolved into Canwest Global Communications Corp. into a major multimedia enterprise, encompassing newspapers, Global, the Internet, and specialty cable channels. Canwest went deep into debt, and by 2009, it filed for creditor protection. In 2010, Canwest’s television operations came under control of Shaw Communications.

Global currently operates under the Shaw Media umbrella. Global has found recent domestic and international success with its own shows, including BOMB GIRLS (Global, 2012- ), COMBAT HOSPITAL (Global/ABC, 2011), and ROOKIE BLUE (Global/ABC, 2010- ). Global is now firmly established as Canada’s third major broadcast entity, but let’s face facts. Global’s not going to revert to its initial form any time soon.

(Additional material from The Toronto Star, The Windsor Star, The Ottawa Citizen, The Financial Post, and The Montreal Gazette‘s archives.)

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  1. George White says:

    Never knew Bernard Braden, one of those Canadians like Sydney Newman instrumental in shaping UK TV worked for Global. Sounds like a Canadian version of Braden’s Week/That’s Life.