Playback’s 2017 Hall of Fame: Ann Medina

The broadcast journalist turned Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television chair worked to raise the profile of local TV.
Hilltop Overlooking Beirut

Ann Medina is the first female broadcast journalist in Canada to become an icon. For Canadians in the 1970s and ’80s, she was a unique presence, a woman possessed of a deep voice, silver bracelets and clear bespectacled eyes, who exuded a charisma of warmth and integrity.

In that period and earlier, the best broadcast anchors and journalists –Canada’s Knowlton Nash and Lloyd Robertson and in the U.S., the Walter Cronkites and Jim Lehrers – were more than conveyors of the nightly news. They offered reports on the day’s events that brought people together in a collective sharing of what was important – the news that mattered. Medina is one of those journalists, someone who made a visceral impact, helping turn Canadians’ attention towards the world stage.And as her career progressed, she turned her journalistic eye towards the Canadian film and television industry, working behind the scenes to elevate the conversation around not only Cancon, but also raising the profile of all women in the industry.

Medina is an American, but she has spent the past four decades contributing to the Canadian body politic. She set the tone for her career early when she turned down an opportunity to host a family sports segment in Cleveland. While the opportunity was a rare one (a female journalist covering male-dominated sports in the ’70s!), she viewed the position as a side door – one that could potentially limit her career. “I said, ‘That would be very interesting! And weren’t many of the players divorced? I wonder why. And didn’t a couple of them get charged with drug use? Also, fascinating,’” she recalls. “Needless to say, they didn’t think my news approach would work. Taking that side-door means losing respect as a journalist, so take your pick: Star or journalist.” (She later offered up similar advice to a number of young reporters whom she’d mentor throughout the years.)

Immigrating to Canada, (“for love,” as she always puts it), she joined the CBC as a reporter-producer for Newsmagazine, a weekly show which gathered together the best documentaries and reports from overseas. With the closing of Newsmagazine (which aired from 1952 to 1981), Medina became part of its successor, The Journal, as well as the nightly news broadcast The National. In 1983, she became the Beirut bureau chief at a time when the civil war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, was the flash point for the Middle East, much as Syria is now.

By the early 1990s, Medina left the CBC when her reputation was at a peak. An early board member of the Toronto Women in Film and Television association (now WIFT-T) and the International Women’s Forum (dedicated to advancing women’s careers across industries), she began to work as a board member for the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Medina became vice-chair of the Academy in 1990 when actor-director Al Waxman, who had become internationally famous for his role in the hit American TV series Cagney and Lacey, was its head.

Medina took over from Waxman in 1995, a post she would hold for three years. “When she became chair of the Academy, its [focus] suddenly became television,” says Maria Topalovich, former CEO of the ACCT. “Like Waxman, Medina was a celebrity. Many of her foreign news reports had been broadcast in the U.S. on the PBS news show The MacNeil-Lehrer Report. Journalists responded to her presence at international festivals and conferences as she promoted Canada – especially TV – to the world.”

As a flashpoint at one of her first speeches as chair during the Geminis, which was then broadcast nationally, she took the stage and said “Congratulations to Canada. You are now the number two exporter of televised content in the world.”

“And the place erupted!” Medina recalls. “It was true, but no one had talked about it. The numbers had been inching up. A lot of it was kid’s programming and a lot of it was news and documentary. Everybody thinks of TV drama but those figures weren’t as impressive. But we were the second largest content exporter in the world at that point.”

Media picked up on the story, Topalovich adds, saying few had connected the dots. The fact that Canada was the second most prolific distributor of television content swept the media narrative. Promotion and marketing became the centre of Topalovich and Medina’s work while heading the Academy, hitting up a number of festivals and shows internationally, including the U.K. BAFTA awards and the Emmys, talking up the fantastic nature of Canadian film and television. “Ann was an incredible ambassador,” says Topalovich.

In the mid ’90s, thanks to the efforts of Medina, Topalovich and their team at the Academy, both the Genie and Gemini Awards did well on CBC and latterly on CTV. In fact, Gemini broadcasts, originally thought of as the poor relative to the prestigious Genies, began to usurp audiences from the film show. “It was an exciting time as TV emerged and people recognized the stars – like Paul Gross – on [Canadian] shows,” says Medina.

Medina’s years as chair of the Academy represented a peak in terms of popular recognition for Canadian TV. Audience numbers for both the Genies and the Geminis began to decline due to the lack of support for English Canadian films, which despite their love on the festival circuit, struggled to find a successful distribution strategy.
Says Medina: “It was an uphill battle and ultimately some of the support started to fade as the whole landscape changed for television and film.” She points to the advent of the internet, which was beginning to explore streaming content, as the heart of the demise.

While the Academy explored ways of broadcasting the awards online, it proved unfeasible, and Medina proved prophetic. “I said, ‘Mark my words, when we can see everything on the internet, you can throw TV schedules out the window, because everybody is just going to pick out of the air what they want, when they want it.’”

That’s why we don’t see her hosting History on Film (1993 to 2013) or Fact and Film (2002 to 2011), movie shows on History TV anymore. When the execs at the station approached her about ending the show, Medina cut to the quick. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I get it. Who wants to watch a movie with fifteen minutes of ads when they can stream it?’”

But her story isn’t about the disruption caused by technology. Her work for the Academy brought an appreciative audience to Canada’s television industry, which continues to do well – given the changes in the market. While she’s less hopeful about the future of broadcasting (comparing traditional media to the extinct dodo bird), she says there is a demand for quality Cancon: The challenge will be how to pay for it. “I have no crystal ball, but I know one thing: The public wants good content.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Playback.