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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 three 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.

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Cathode Ray Mission: YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION (1979)

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.

For this column, we’ve decided to do something a little different and look at a Canadian TV show that  straddles the line between “cult” and “mainstream hit.” Mainstream hits are obviously not Canuxploitation, and YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION (CJOH, 1979; CJOH/CTV/Nickelodeon, 1981-87, 1989-90) was a mainstream cable hit in its day. The show is most fondly remembered in its half-hour format on Nickelodeon. It was literally the primordial slime from which Nickelodeon was born.

What some YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION fans don’t remember is the show’s formative years, as an hour-long Saturday morning variety hour. Early YTV viewers might be familiar with WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON (CTV, 1979), YCDTOTV‘s half-hour primetime variant.

The Basic Formula

YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION takes its cues from ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (NBC, 1968-73) — short sketches, catchphrases, recurring characters, and heavy repetition. What sets YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION apart from LAUGH-IN is its casual contempt for authority, and its insistence that child amateurs perform the comedy. Les Lye, the sole adult male castmember, appears in all incarnations of YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION/WHATEVER TURNS YOU ON.

Viewers who watched Nickelodeon and/or CTV in the 1980s likely know what the show’s sketches are like. Nickelodeon’s signature slime comes from YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION. If I type the words “Barth’s Burgers,” readers of a certain age will likely wonder what Barth puts in them.

A Dixieland jazz arrangement of “The William Tell Overture” identifies YCDTOTV, the way “The Liberty Bell” identifies MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS (BBC1, 1969-73; BBC2, 1974 as MONTY PYTHON). Other elements ganked from MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS include the Terry Gilliam-esque opening credits, a public-domain theme song, and that casual contempt for authority.

The Weird Bits

The 1979 and early 1981 versions of YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION barely resemble the Nickelodeon version. CJOH originally formatted the show as a variety hour — sketches, disco dances, call-in contests, live transitions, and “music videos” of various origins. Video game competitions took the place of the disco dances, in 1981.

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Cathode Ray Mission: THE VACANT LOT (1993-94)

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.

Debutting in 1993 and lasting a full six episodes, CBC’s sketch comedy showcase THE VACANT LOT (CBC, 1993-94; Comedy Central, 1994) was one of a handful of attempts by the natinoal network to exploit the success of their flagship show, THE KIDS IN THE HALL (CBC, 1988-94; CBS/HBO, 1988-95). THE VACANT LOT featured Mark McKinney’s brother, Nick McKinney and it was executive produced by Jim Biederman, who  fulfilled the same role for THE KIDS IN THE HALL.

THE VACANT LOT‘s most appealing feature was the full support of Lorne Michaels’ production company, Broadway Video. Michaels needs no introduction — SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (NBC, 1975- ) and THE KIDS IN THE HALL are his two most enduring cultural signposts. THE VACANT LOT was in a unique position to become the next big Canadian comedy export. Unfortunately, that never happened.

The Basic Formula

The show basically cribs THE KIDS IN THE HALL‘s formula. It’s a Broadway Video show, so it’s slick, looks good, and is America-ready. Troupe members Vito Viscomi, Rob Gfroerer, Nick McKinney and Paul Greenberg are set to be household names, on par with Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCulloch.

The Weird Bits

THE KIDS IN THE HALL starts with Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s “Having an Average Weekend,” and scnes of  the Kids having fun. It doesn’t let viewers in on the show’s potentially offensive material right away. By comparison, The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” serves as THE VACANT LOT‘s theme song. An allusion to the Maxell “Blown Away Guy” commercial lets the audience know what The Vacant Lot are about, from the off.

THE VACANT LOT is less straightforward, and more absurd, than THE KIDS IN THE HALL. But THE VACANT LOT also looks unfinished and spotty, as the castmembers feel the television medium out. Broadway Video’s series often look like that by design, but THE VACANT LOT is messy even by BV standards.

Let’s Watch

The first part of episode 5 (or episode 1, in the Comedy Central run.)

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