Monday, December 14, 2015
Is This The End For Hamilton's CHCH-TV?
I was that scared kid --the day before I'd said farewell to my friends in the M&D department at The Globe And Mail where I'd toiled for several summers as a utility critic taking all the assignments nobody else wanted.
Just days before I'd taken tea with the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who autographed a copy of his memoirs for me --I have it right here.
Another day I got to interview the new, unknown star of the blazing Canadian film hit Goin' Down The Road and every time I've seen Jayne Eastwood since she still shouts "We're still here!"
But at summer's end I had no permanent job just a vague promise from the editor Donn Downey he'd be using me as much as he could, budget permitting.
And then I got as telephone call from Paul Warnick, feisty ME of the Hamilton Spectator who had just lost TV critic Jack Miller to The Toronto Star.
He'd been reading my stuff, asked me if I liked TV and over drinks at the Toronto Press Club offered me a great future.
I took it and boy was I lucky.
A few months later The Telegram collapsed and one day in the Spec newsroom over 40 Tely types lined up to get jobs --I think two reporters were finally hired.
And, of course, as the newly installed TV critic of The Spec I had to cover TV in my own backyard.
That meant CHCH-TV, Hamilton's sole TV station.
In those days it was a cocky independent servicing a huge swathe of southern Ontario.
In 1971 southern Ontario viewers had their choices of a CBC station in Toronto (CBLT), a CTV affiliate (CFTO), and CHCH and that was about it.
TVOntario was just about ready to start.
If you had a powerful enough antenna you could also reach CBC's Barrie affiliate CKVR and CTV's Kitchener affiliate CKCO-TV.
And then there were the Buffalo stations: CBS's WBEN-TV, Channel 4, NBC's WGR-TV, Channel 2, and ABC's WKBW-TV, Channel 7 plus a wobbly PBS affiliate, Channel 17.
That was it.
There were no cable specialty channels, no DVD, a few people had VHS but the cost of buying a movie was about $29.95.
I guess I'm the only TV critic around who can boast about actually going on the set of such CHCH classics as Party Game, Ein Prosit, Junior Hockey, The Palace , and, of course, Tiny Talent Time.
CHCH didn't have much money but it took its Canadian content requirements very seriously indeed
The thing is in the Seventies Hamilton was booming.
There was Stelco, Dofasco, Westinghouse, General Electric.
Hamilton factories were operating at peak capacity and the city even had an energetic downtown with five huge movie palaces: Capitol, Palace, Hyland, Century, Tivoli plus twinned theaters at Jackson Square.
The Spec at over 140,000 was booming, too, it asked more for a full page ad than did the mighty Toronto Star.
I remember interviewing Bill Shatner on the set of Party Game. Captain Kirk reduced to doing Party Game?
"I need money for alimony," he said.
CHCH also bankrolled Pierre Berton's nightly half hour interview --Berton was so adept he'd do up to eight half hour interviews in one taping session.
And then I met the man responsible for all of CHCH's success.
His name was Sam Hebscher and he bought the movies that ensured the station's ratings domination for decades.
He'd started out running movie theaters in Ottawa, switched to Hamilton where he ran both the Palace and Capital theaters.
Hebscher remembered one matinee in 1942 when the Palace was running Mrs. Miniver.
"I had to stop a couple in the back row who were petting heavily and getting quite frisky. It was Evelyn Dick and her latest boy friend."
Originally Hebscher bought hundreds of old Warners titles and stored the cans of films in the Barton Street ice arena which he also ran.
When newer releases became available he made sure CHCH got them first.
"What I did," he told me" was to read the movie ads every day in the Toronto papers. When a movie hit the drive-ins I knew it was time to pounce."
Thus CHCH had the world premieres of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Gone with The Wind, every blockbuster one could name.
I remember telling Sam that at an NBC press conference in Burbank I was attended the president announced the world premiere on TV of Gone with The Wind and I had to tell him CHCH had run it the week before.
So with such a ratings domination why did CHCH sink like a stone?
I think in the late Seventies it was a decision to move away from movies --CHCH bought the entire new series of Lorimar Productions (outside of Dallas which CBC owned up here). True, there were some block busters like Knots Landing but also many stinkers.
The station lost ratings points quickly and never recovered. Competition from new cable networks really hurt. Hebscher retired and soon there was nothing left but stuff nobody else wanted to buy.
And now it could be game over for CHCH which made many promises asout promoting local news.
Now many of the newscasters have been dismissed and we could be watching a first: a local TV station folding.
I was in on the glory days but I'm not liking what I'm seeing--the slow, inevitable disintegration of an important part of Hamilton's cultural heritage.