Saturday, 15 September 2012

Peasant vision – part one, Channel 7

I'm not sure when I first heard the term "peasant vision" but I know I laughed out loud. There is no better way to describe it. The only thing close came from my buddy Dean describing his own childhood on a farm near Winfield, Alberta. He called it "The Rural Cable Network".

Back then we had three channels on our TV. As the 1980s opened, we still had to get up to physically turn the channel and adjust the volume. The sound wasn't as big a challenge as the reception. We had an antenna on our roof to receive the signal, but whenever it got windy – and in Southern Alberta that happens a lot – it would play havoc with our reception. One day, my Uncle who lived just up the road, got the idea of moving the antenna into the attic of his house and it worked. We never did follow suit though.

Broadcasting becomes narrowcasting
Television was much simpler back in the 1980s, although in some cases not necessarily better. With only three channels, the networks had to appeal to everyone, so there was a much greater variety of programs on, even with just three channels. Sports, news, music, comedy, movies, drama, variety shows, talk shows, they all were on the same channel. Now, in the million-channel universe, there is a specialty channel for every one of these interests. Broadcasting has become narrowcasting.

On with the show…

The dial had a lot of numbers even back then, but there were only three that mattered: 7, 10, and 13.

Channel 7
Seven was Lethbridge 2&7. It had a lot of different incarnations actually – CJOC-TV, and CFAC were the two I always remember. It was the local independent TV station with local news and lots of locally-produced shows. Usually they ran right after the late-night local news. I recall staying up late some nights doing homework, past the news, and seeing AgriVision, Commodity Futures Magazine, Sportsweek, and Mechanic At Large on in the background. (In this small world we live in, I have come to know Bob Bourke, the mechanic at large, and even worked with his wife.)

Star struck – Southern Alberta style
When I was little, I always found it strange, but really cool, to see people walking around Lethbridge that I'd watched on TV. The first time it ever happened, I wasn't even in school yet. Me and mom were on the bottom floor of Eaton's and I saw Bill Matheson walk by. He was the local weatherman who was well-known for covering his weather map with arrows, symbols, and drawings. He was much shorter than I pictured. He left soon after that for the greener pastures of Edmonton, but it wouldn't be the last I saw of him. When I arrived in Edmonton to go to university in the fall of 1987, there was Bill Matheson on ITV still littering his weather map.

Show time – a testing ground?
Channel 7 bought a good chunk of its programming from the big three US channels – ABC, NBC, CBS (FOX would not start until 1987). One thing I observed was that Channel 7 aired a lot of shows in their first year. If they became hits they would seem to migrate to Channel 13, and occasionally Channel 10. Cheers, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Miami Vice, Knot's Landing, Moonlighting, are shows that come to mind. I always suspected the CTV network could pay more than an independent station for TV shows. I always wondered if Channel 7 felt like a testing ground, like they found the hits and other networks profitted.

Channel 7 also programmed differently. They started their primetime shows at 6 p.m. after early news, and were done by 10 p.m., in time for the late news. Perhaps again, it was to carve out their own niche.

Global before it was Global
The other source of programming seemed to be loose affiliations with Global-TV stations. At the time, Global seemed from my perspective to be based out of Toronto. A lot of national news items aired by CFAC were from Global, by journalists such as Peter Kent (our current federal environment minister), John Burke, and others. Shows such as Ski West and Smith & Smith came from other stations. However, there was no actual third national network. Oddly, one of the first stories I ever covered in journalism school, and my first ever press conference, was the announcement of the purchase of Channel 2&7 Lethbridge by CanWest Global, which integrated the Lethbridge station into a true third national TV network.

Partners in crime-shows
Channel 7 did seem to be partnered with Channel 2&7 based out of Calgary, again illustrated by the content coming from that station. The best examples were Stampede Wrestling and Flames Hockey, both hosted by the legendary Ed Whalen. But they also shared news stories and other local programming like The Movie Show

Pays to be early
One of our annual rites of passage was Ag-Expo, this big winter fair at the Lethbridge Exhibition Pavilion. My uncle always went early, so early he could have helped the vendors set up. Well, CFAC-TV used to do this promotion where you could trade in your ball cap for one of theirs – black with a station logo on it. All you had to do was visit their booth at Ag-Expo and look for the big hat. It was big too. The biggest ball cap I have saw in my life, it was the roof for their whole booth. By the time we got there, the booth's wall was covered with hats and we discovered the catch – they only accepted one of each kind, and I already could see every hat I could think of stapled to the wall. I guess I was out of luck. Until the next time I saw my uncle – wearing a black CFAC-TV hat. It pays to be early – really early.

Community news
It was this sort of outreach into the community that made Channel 7 different. I still remember the personalities such as Wally Hild, Ken Moore, John Scott Black, Karen Hawryluk (who is with the CBC TV new network now), Franca Cattoni (who had been runner-up from Miss Lethbridge), Rick Bourgon, Dan Germain, Steve Falwell (the long-time radio voice of the Lethbridge Broncos and later Lethbridge Hurricanes), and Doug Fraser (who is now in public relations with the Calgary Stampede). That was the thing about having three channels you really got to know the local personalities.

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