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Moses Znaimer

TV guru revolutionized small screen

The renegade broadcaster is recognized for his role in creating groundbreaking TV models, such as Citytv and MuchMusic.

This article was originally published in 2007

This one will go down as one of Canadian broadcasting’s great ironies – that Moses Znaimer, a man who long fashioned himself a rebel breaking with “old fart television” – has been inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Longtime colleague Paul Gratton, VP entertainment specialty channels for CHUM Television, insists Znaimer’s creative juices never race as quickly as when he’s battling entrenched power.

‘I still think the notion of fighting against the system was a key motivating force at the root of his drive,’ Gratton says. ‘[Znaimer] never believed for a second that the Citytv way of doing things, despite being proven successful, had become part of the mainstream.’

How do you explain the mind of a man who did little to hide his disdain for complacent, flabby broadcasters, and yet railed against television’s naysayers most bravely in the series TVTV: The Television Revolution?

How do you explain a man who seems more at home in Holt Renfrew than Hollywood, maintains a quiet, imperious aura, speaks only in practiced sound bites, and yet achieves constant entertainment-page notoriety as a seducer and showman?

Jay Switzer, president of CHUM Television, argues Znaimer has that rare combination among Canadian broadcasters: creative brilliance and business acumen. ‘He wrote the book 20 years ago. Now the world has caught up,’ Switzer says of his longtime collaborator.

Znaimer’s TV career coincided with the assault of television on once-dominant print media, and upon conventional television by niche specialty channels. And his reign came well before the arrival of Internet news and blogs and 24-hour television news channels.

But before laying out the ‘ZnaimerVision’ in detail, it is worth noting that today this mercurial entrepreneur is the chairman of Cannasat Therapeutics, a publicly traded company pioneering a new class of drugs from marijuana. In March, the company announced a venture to develop ‘cannabinoid-based products’ for the treatment of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Ultimately, Znaimer is as much a product of Canadian television as the tumultuous circumstances of his childhood. Born in Kulab, Tajikistan in 1942, his family found refuge from the Nazis during World War II in Shanghai, before landing in Montreal as DPs (displaced persons) in 1948.

He may have gone to posh McGill and Harvard for his university degrees, (earning a BA in philosophy and politics and an MA in government). And his international renown as an industry ‘guru’ and ‘visionary’ must mean his early ideas about TV are accepted and emulated today. But Znaimer cut his teeth in broadcasting by producing, directing and presenting at the CBC between 1965 and 1969, at a time when the public broadcaster was setting the terms for Canadian broadcasting.

Znaimer became very popular as the CBC Radio host of Cross Country Checkup as well as cohost of CBC Television’s Take Thirty, with Adrienne Clarkson. But when he was denied the opportunity to pursue his creative vision at the CBC, he quickly jumped to the private sector to help launch Toronto’s first UHF broadcasting licence – with Citytv as Channel 79 – in 1972. He made an early splash by stripping soft-porn, or Baby Blue movies, late night. But it was not so much racy films that shocked staid Toronto as how City produced and packaged itself to eventually seal Znaimer’s reputation as a trailblazer.

Znaimer opted for studio-less broadcasting for news, escaping the constraints of heavy machinery and lights, chairs and desks, and static background images. He sent young reporters into Toronto neighborhoods that rival newscasts never reached, armed them with expensive cameras and no scripts, and called them ‘videographers.’ Never mind that the videographers came back mostly with crime reports. ‘ZnaimerVision’ – as videography has been dubbed – has achieved widespread recognition for transforming the economics and esthetics of television news gathering in Canada, and arguably influencing news styles around the globe. Znaimer saw television through a different portal.

‘It’s my view the battle for hearts and minds will be won by those who recognize that television is not a problem to be managed, but an instrument to be played,’ he once famously said.

Znaimer also came up with innovative ideas and gave them slick names. He put the videographer in a Nissan Pathfinder and called it a Camera Cruiser. He put a street-level camera in a phone booth and called that Speakers Corner, so TV viewers could offer viewpoints and feedback for broadcast.

By 1981, Toronto-based media conglomerate CHUM Limited purchased City, and Znaimer became VP of CHUM and executive producer for all of City’s programming. By 1984, Znaimer’s and John Martin’s vision of a 24-hour music video station was realized with the creation of MuchMusic. But it wasn’t just about power and control. What he did was sexy.

Moses hired hard bodies as veejays to introduce music videos on MuchMusic, and charged them with engaging and capturing the loyalty of young Canadians. Much like City, MuchMusic emphasized the liveliness and spontaneity of television, relying largely on hand-held cameras and impromptu shots of VJs taken just about anywhere in the CHUMCity offices. Changing a studio’s ‘backstage’ into its foreground became one of his trademarks.

Swank and high-style – to match his own personal style – became the calling card for the string of TV channels that Znaimer went on to launch while creating the CHUM empire.

MusiquePlus, a joint venture based in Montreal and catering to the French-speaking audiences of Canada, was launched in 1986. In 1987, CHUMCity purchased a former publishing building on trendy Queen Street West in downtown Toronto and renovated it into the CHUMCity Building, a landmark media center that Znaimer reportedly likes to call the ‘temple of television.’

Throughout the 1990s, Znaimer presided over a considerable expansion of the CHUMCity television empire. Bravo! was launched as a new-style arts channel in 1995, and Space: The Imagination Station in 1997. He continued his original vision for television with the launch of North America’s first 24-hour local news station, CablePulse24, in 1998. Further cable channels included Canadian Learning Television, Star!, Drive-In Classics, FashionTelevisionChannel, BookTelevision, CourtTV Canada, SexTV: The Channel, MuchLOUD and MuchVibe. Znaimer also oversaw the launch of Citytv Vancouver.

Znaimer resigned from his managerial role at City and CHUM Ltd. in April 2003, but stayed on in certain production roles. His legacy may well be in the vast number of TV stations worldwide that bought into the City concept, from Scandinavia to South America.

At press time, the face of the empire was changing as CTVglobemedia’s plan to take over CHUM Ltd. was unfolding, with the CRTC ordering that its five City stations be spun off to a separate buyer as a condition of the sale. Rogers Media quickly stepped up to the plate and announced a deal to purchase the stations, pending CRTC approval.

The competition for the CHUM stations just adds to the legacy of its visionary.

Of course, Znaimer has his share of critics. Most often, they accuse City and MuchMusic and other CHUM stations of being superficial and ephemeral, of prizing style over substance. But Znaimer the prophet would have you believe otherwise – that his brand of television originating from that ‘temple of television’ was more innovative, timeless, subversive and engaging than anything else on the dial.

And he argued as much with cold and isolated truths about television, as if being mathematical. Example: ‘The true nature of television is flow, not show; process, not conclusion.’

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