CFTO’s 40th anniversary

It would have been easier to sprint through molasses. Rush hour one evening last December and Toronto was trapped under a blanket of heavy, wet snow. the highways were clogged for miles. CFTO senior cameraman Tom Rupple had reason to worry....

It would have been easier to sprint through molasses. Rush hour one evening last December and Toronto was trapped under a blanket of heavy, wet snow. the highways were clogged for miles. CFTO senior cameraman Tom Rupple had reason to worry. he had important news videotape for the 6pm newscast but was locked in traffic

Several kilometres from the live microwave truck at pearson international airport. With deadline approaching, Rupple made a decision; he parked the news van and jogged 2 km through 20 cm of snow to reach the feed point.

In truth, it was just another day for CFTO, but it illustrated perfectly just how far the news team will go to get the story right and to get it first. Indeed, CFTO’s hundreds of thousands of viewers have come to expect the best from the dedicated and driven folks who deliver Ontario’s finest newscast every day.

As any newshound will tell you, CFTO News has been breaking stories and leading the pack since the ’60s, when viewers from Kitchener to Gravenhurst to Kingston turned their eyes to it looking for the fastest, in-depth coverage of the days events. It remains that way even today. CFTO News at 6pm and 11:30pm are the most-watched local newscasts in the country.

‘CFTO News has been the cornerstone of CFTO-TV since the 1960s, when viewers from all over Ontario embraced it, recognizing its strength as a news provider,’ says Trina McQueen, president and COO of CTV Inc. ‘Today that relationship is just as strong.’

‘CFTO’s newcasts at 6pm and 11:30 pm are connected to the community. Viewers can count on them to pinpoint the pivotal stories of the day and the coverage is always the most comprehensive compared to the other local newscasts,’ said Kirk LaPointe, senior vice president of CTV News.

CFTO News has consistently maintained its status as the most-watched local newscast in the country. The proof is in the numbers. According to Nielsen Media Research, the 6pm newscast delivers an average minute audience of 331,000 viewers (6-7pm, 2+) while Global, its nearest competitor, draws just 188,000 viewers (5:30-6:30pm, 2+).

CFTO News at 6pm also draws more than 3 times as many viewers in the Toronto/Hamilton market than the CBC’s Canada Now (CBC: 93,000 viewers, 2+) and CityPulse (CityTV: 97,000, 2+).* In addition, CFTO’s total station audience is 403,000

(6-7pm).**

*Source: Nielsen, Toronto-Hamilton DMA (Sept. 18/00 – Jan. 28/01)

**Source: Nielsen, Full coverage (Sept. 18/00 – Jan. 28/01)

This is the story of a tiny station that fostered the largest private broadcaster in the country. This is the story of people with determination; all newsmakers in their own right.

In the beginning

When CFTO-TV, Ontario’s first private English-language television station, first took to the airwaves on December 31st, 1960, its founding quartet of now-legendary Canadian media titans – Toronto Telegram publisher John Bassett, 26 year old law student Ted Rogers, and broadcasters Joel Aldred and Foster Hewitt – saw a dream dramatically come alive.

But, 40 years later, even the most visionary among them could not have forseen how a non-descript, one-storey building perched in the outback of a Toronto suburb would consistently dominate local news viewership ratings like no other broadcasting centre in North America, and spawn the creation and evolution of the vast CTV network and its seven specialty channels.

As legends go"

The winning of the original bid for the CFTO broadcast license is now the stuff of legend. On St Patrick’s Day, 1960, a power failure ironically plunged the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG, which was the predecessor to the CRTC) hearing room at Toronto’s Union Station into darkness for five minutes. But ‘Big John’ Bassett boldly prevailed, filling the void with his exuberant vision of the station, vowing to ‘forcefully strengthen the character of Canadian television and turn more and more people away from their present habit of viewing American programming from Buffalo.’

Within minutes, the Baton Aldred Rogers Broadcasting team succeeded in dazzling the BBG with a dynamic, closed-circuit

television presentation of news, entertainment and sports programs. A week later, the BBG recommended that they be granted the Toronto license.

The CFTO-TV television complex was built at Channel Nine Court, a 20-acre parcel of land in the wilds of Agincourt that had been purchased for a little more than $132,000. The first broadcast, an 18-hour charity telethon for The Ontario Association for Retarded Children, kicked off at 9:45pm on New Year’s Eve, 1960, and continued well into the next day, raising $210,000.

Ted Rogers was a young law student of 26 when CFTO-TV began broadcasting its trademark phrase, ‘Television as it ought to be.’ Rogers remembers the excitement and exhaustion of the first night: ‘After the telethon ended, we all went to Joel’s [Aldred] office to drink champagne. And that’s when the mistakes began, when the wrong commercial or the wrong program went on-air for a bit,’ he laughs. ‘I guess in some way we thought, ‘Oh, when the telethon is over, it’s over.’ Of course it was just the beginning.’

Formation of the CTV Network

On October 1, 1961, CFTO actively participated in the launch of the CTV Television Network that linked eight of the country’s newest private stations coast to coast. The early years were turbulent, as CFTO fought for financial stability, but it remains an era of firsts. In 1967, just in time for the national centennial celebrations, CFTO became the first station in Canada to break the black-and-white barrier, beaming vivid colour images across Ontario, and even to Buffalo.

‘In those days, swashbucklers and entrepreneurs dominated the scene,’ notes Trina McQueen, who worked a stint as a reporter at CFTO in 1967, then left for the CBC, eventually rejoining the CTV network in 1999 as executive vice-president and is now president. ‘Bassett, Rogers and Aldred were the first group of Canadians who recognized that Canadian television could be important as a business. That dedication to Canadian television as it existed in their minds continues to be part of my tradition – it’s the connecting thread.’

News now

While original CFTO entertainment productions were popular with viewers, it was the channel’s local newscast that was from the beginning – and remains today – the defining reason Ontario-based viewers tune into CFTO. So why has the station been

so dominant for so long?

‘At the core, we have a strong, dedicated team of journalists and technicians who are out in the community every day digging for information and delivering stories that matter,’ says CFTO news director Derwyn Smith, who started at the station as a reporter

in 1974.

‘This tradition of excellence and commitment began 40 years ago but the resolve to be the best at what we do is renewed in every newscast every day,’ says Smith. ‘Our technology has evolved from rotary telephones and typewriters to plasma screens, satellite technology, live trucks and helicopters. The best, and only way, to shoot the Pierre Trudeau funeral train, for example, was by helicopter – but our people getting the video first and the story right is our past, present and future.’

Adds former Baton Broadcasting president, Doug Bassett: ‘CFTO’s strength has always been in its local news and public affairs. It has a very close relationship to the community – from supporting everything from charities to firefighters – with the result that viewers are comfortable and, ultimately, trust the people who work so hard for them.’

Smith says the station’s strength derives from its mix of on-air personalities, breadth of coverage, story choices, and top-notch production values. That, in turn, starts to build viewers’ trust and credibility in the station as a reliable source of news.

‘It all starts at the top,’ he says. ‘Our executive leadership today traces their roots back to the newsroom and their commitment to excellence goes right back to John Bassett. They have an affection, respect and understanding of the news that keeps us number one. And the competition also drives us – in a city of four daily papers, three handouts, two news and talk shows, and four local news channels, you’ve got to maintain that sense of vigour and enthusiasm.’

Setting precedents

Trina McQueen was the first female reporter hired at CFTO in 1967, a time when journalism was an exclusive old boys network. McQueen, who worked both for CFTO News and W-FIVE, was not a welcome addition.

‘I had no problem with the news director or any of my colleagues, but my boss wasn’t happy having me on staff,’ she reflects. ‘He believed that women did not have enough authority to deliver the news. Today, I can’t imagine the audacity, but I went straight down to John Bassett’s office at the Toronto Telegram and cried the blues. He said, ‘Don’t you worry!’ He made a phone call but I was smart enough to realize that you don’t go over peoples’ heads to the boss. The writing was on the wall.’ She left for the CBC a few months later and another eight years would pass before another woman was hired at CFTO.

Those rough patches aside, McQueen says that from the beginning, the station was immersed in the life of the city: ‘There was a sense that we understand Toronto, we live here, we’re on Toronto’s side. I had come from Ottawa, but I quickly became a Torontonian. The station played to both sides of the city, the traditional WASPs as well as the vibrancy of the new communities emerging in the 1960s.

‘There have been huge changes over the years,’ she adds, ‘but the founding spirit hasn’t changed. Viewers have a sense of ownership of CFTO. It started off as a populist station and it still is. What began as a start-up Toronto station is now the nucleus of the greatest private broadcasting organization in the country.’

Production

perfectionists

In the 1970s the station would go on to deliver viewers provocative and sassy programming unlike anything seen before, from capturing the rights to air CFL games in the ’60s to producing in-house programs that were sold to other Canadian outlets, including: Live It Up, Stars On Ice, Definition, Bizarre, and The Littlest Hobo.

Indeed in the 1970s, CFTO’s production studios were a hotbed of activity, drawing business from the U.S., welcoming directors who shot shows like Hallmark Hall of Fame specials and the original Sonny and Cher Show. Strolling through the CFTO corridors in those days, you’d more than likely run into the likes of Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Dyke, Perry Como, Mama Cass, and Jason Robards.

Patrick Whitley, now president of Dufferin Gate and Temple Street Productions, cut his teeth in production as a unit manager at CFTO from 1970-1977. ‘The studio, the crews, and the leading-edge technology made it the hottest facility in the country,’ he remembers. ‘It was a fantastic training ground for learning all aspects of production as we made all kinds of prestigious Canadian and American shows. Over the decades, with the transition from video to film and now to digital video, the people of my generation now come full circle.’

The acclaimed 1976 Oscar-winning film, Network, starring Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch, was filmed partly at CFTO’s mammoth Studio 6. Tom Gibney, who today anchors the CFTO News, appeared in the film as the warm-up announcer for Peter Finch, whose crazed character would scream the famous and oft-repeated line: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it

anymore!’

Ones to watch

CFTO News has a powerhouse of talent that reflects its evolution. Among those familiar faces are weather expert Dave Devall, anchors Christine Bentley, Tom Gibney, Ken Shaw and Andria Case. Reporters include: Lance Brown

(sports director); Pauline Chan (reporter/ anchor); Pat Foran (consumer reports); Janice Golding (general assignment); Tom Hayes (weekend anchor); Bill Hutchison (late-night anchor); Jim Junkin (police coverage); Alicia Kay (City Hall); Leon Korbee (Queen’s Park); Joe Tilley (late-night sports); Tim Weber (noon anchor); and Karlene Nation (general assignment).

Ken Shaw first joined CFTO in 1972 as a technical trainee pulling camera cables for $104 a week. After stints at some CTV affiliates, he returned to CFTO as a reporter in 1978, rising to news anchor in 1980. Now he is primetime anchor at Newsnet, CTV’s 24-hour news service.

‘CFTO was very much a training ground and apprenticeship for many of us in those days,’ he remembers. ‘It was a chance to get the stars out of your eyes and learn that this is a business.’

Shaw ascribes CFTO News’ consistent number one rating to a single word: hunger.

‘Whether you’re flipping burgers or running a news station, it all comes down to a hunger to beat the competition,’ he says. ‘We take nothing for granted. We do post-mortems on every show and always look for ways to be better. And that spirit all starts at the top.’

Shaw recalls a weekend in 1978 when a technical foul-up occurred on-air. The phone rang in the newsroom and reporter Jim Junkin answered. ‘This is John Bassett! Who’s in charge?’ Junkin would later ask, ‘Why does he call the newsroom when there’s a foul-up?’ The answer came back from a colleague: ‘Because we’re number one.’

That story has since passed into myth. ‘I just can’t imagine the president of the CBC making a similar call,’ says Shaw. ‘That attitude set the tone that has lasted for years. We strive to do the best we can on every single show, slug it out, stay aware of the competition and not let them get up for air.’

With more than 130 annual personal appearances at charitable and other events, Shaw and many of his colleagues also personally embody a long-standing tradition of public service that began with the station’s inaugural 1960 telethon for handicapped kids. And the sheer longevity of so many of the staff speaks to an unusual dedication and loyalty hard to maintain in the rapid-turnover world of journalism.

CFTO weatherman Dave Devall, who joined the station as an announcer shortly after its launch in early 1961, has since achieved the status of TV icon. His signature, ambidextrous doodlings on a translucent weather map have made him a highly watchable, personable presence for more than four decades.

Devall credits the longevity and familiarity of the CFTO on-air personalities as the key to the station’s sustained success. ‘We seem to be able to come right out of the TV set and get into peoples’ living rooms,’ he says. ‘People talk to me on the street as if I’m a member of their family. They’ve built up a relationship with us over a long time and identify with us as everyman.’

Devall recalls co-hosting a 1960s show, Family Finder that typifies the continuing legacy of CFTO’s ‘family feeling’ and community involvement. The show profiled more than 100 orphaned kids each year and more than 90% were adopted. ‘Years after the show stopped, I met a chef in a downtown restaurant who had been adopted on our show,’ he says. ‘He just wanted to say thanks.’

And 40 years on, millions more CFTO watchers would like to say thanks, too.