The BCTV Tribute that Wasn’t, by Harvey Oberfeld
by Harvey Oberfeld
November 23, 2020
I can’t let November come to an end without paying REAL tribute to my old alma mater, BCTV, which first went on the air as CHAN in November, 1960.
BCTV was so good, so important to BC and more than 650,000 viewers throughout the province for more than 50 years, from 1960 to 2001, when it became Global TV.
BCTV was a bold experiment: a previously unheard of and untried journalistic adventure, bringing viewers right INSIDE the newsroom; bringing reporters right INSIDE people’s living rooms: and bringing real stories from real people’s lives INSIDE real neighbourhoods and INSIDE real communities …. right onto TV screens across the province.
The News was no longer just press conferences, briefings, spokespeople, government-produced charts and messages delivered from politicians, companies, bureaucrats to the citizenry, without much in the way of any instant responses, tough questions, skepticism … and, dare I say, even humour! Putting pomposity in its place.
On BCTV, British Columbians didn’t just watch TV News … they took part in TV News: their issues, views, attitudes, and questions reflected, included and put forward … the voice of the people TO government and authorities, and not just the other way around.
And British Columbians LOVED it!
It’s hard to imagine, watching ANY of the local or national news shows now, that unless you watched the BCTV NEWSHOUR back then, you would be out of the loop the next day when discussions took place around water coolers, in lunch rooms, at coffee shops, offices, stores, shipyards or schools … anywhere around British Columbia!
How did that happen?
Frank Griffiths, who owned CKNW radio, had long dreamed of a major national network of television and radio stations reflecting and based in the West … not Eastern Canada.
In 1963, Griffiths bought the independent stations CHAN TV in Vancouver and CHEK TV in Victoria … eventually turning them into CTV network affiliates.
But CHAN would be different: under the direction of CEO Ray Peters and President Don Smith, with News Director Cameron Bell and Assignment Editor Keith Bradbury at the helm, the courageous little broadcast station set out on a journalistic adventure and voyage into uncharted waters.
With a crew that really set them apart: not the usual teeth-and-hair TV “types”, but real journalists … many of them hired away from newspapers, most without any experience reporting on TV: perhaps the homeliest looking correspondents on tv newscasts anywhere in North America, BUT highly knowledgeable reporters with proven investigative and story-telling abilities.
And with that little bit of cynicism real reporters should have.
The rest became history … the Newshour eventually outdrew its closest rival station by five to one! Making CHAN/BCTV’s owners and shareholders LOTS of money in the process.
So when Griffiths died in 1994, he left behind a well-established, highly successful network of radio and tv stations all across the country … still owned and based in Vancouver, fulfilling his dream.
Having been hired by BCTV in 1979, I recall a few years later buying company shares at $8 each and was delighted to see them keep rising at a decent pace… hitting $16, but that apparently was not good enough for Griffiths’ successors.
After he passed, there were a whole series of corporate machinations … including trimming of operations and job/staff cuts … improving the company’s bottom line and boosting share price (up to about $36 if I recall correctly).
Then BCTV was sold off … a number of times over the subsequent decades to several different suitors, large corporations … each of them, in my view, slashing/destroying BCTV’s News quality, management, reporting, story-telling, coverage, picture-based journalism and eventually even the creativity and visual appeal of the editing of what now goes to air.
Slowly but surely, over the years, BCTV became more and more a Global TV station … in every sense…. and less what I would describe as BCTV.
And what better example of that, from my perspective, than the recent Global month-long “tribute” to CHAN’s 60th anniversary.
As a history of BC over the past 60 years, I quite enjoyed it!
Nice to look back, to remember, too see so many of the events BC has witnessed/experienced, and which I was privileged to cover in my years at The Vancouver Sun and then BCTV.
But if it was supposed to be a history or tribute to 60 years of CHAN/BCTV, it was a dismal failure!
It was instead a perfect metaphor for what BCTV has become since its various selloffs/takeovers began. There were interviews with managers, executives and anchors, but very few with those on the front lines who REALLY made BCTV into the force that it became.
It was like watching 30 days of “stories” commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Second World War, featuring interviews with Generals, Officers and their Adjutants, but hearing almost nothing from the soldiers in the trenches, the sailors at sea, the airmen who flew the missions, the home guard, the medics and nurses or the merchant marine.
How ironic! A tribute to BCTV that, in my opinion failed almost every basic rule that made BCTV such a success. That says a lot.
So I owe it to the REAL BCTV to set some of that right.
Let’s remember/pay tribute to some of the real pioneers/contributors to the success of BCTV: Dale Hicks; John Gibbs; Clem Chapple; Gizelle Portenier; Jim Hart, Alyn Edwards; Mike McCardle; Andy Stephen; Neil Adams; Margo Harper, Tara Nelson, George Orr, Norm Grohmann.
And kudos to those BCTV alumni who went on to achieve great success in national and international broadcasting: Arden Ostrander (ABC/NBC); Keith Morrison (NBC); Russ Froese (CBC The Journal); Kimberly Halkett (Al Jazeera White House correspondent).
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to hear from some of them, recalling experiences/clips from their time at BCTV, talking about the behind-the-scenes challenges/accomplishments/fun they had as part of such a ground-breaking historical era in television news journalism … right here in BC!
All of them, of course, owed much of their success to BCTV’s camera personnel, the film (I still remember the old Kodak 7240!) and video editors, graphics artists, production experts … many of them with truly exceptional talent.
One of the first lessons I learned, in transitioning from newspapers to BCTV, was that PICTURES were paramount. Pictures told the story, not long-winded newspaper-style scripts covered over with “wallpaper” video.
I was amazed at how powerfully that worked! Viewers SAW the news, not just heard about it from some talking head, telling them what had happened. They WERE there!
I got it! And learned a whole new … and better way … of informing people what was going on. And I never forgot that to the day I walked away/retired in 2006.
In fact, it was the diminution of the use of fresh pictures, under “new” owners/managers, that first signaled to me that the decline of BCTV had begun.
They started re-using old footage so often, instead of getting fresh video, management ordered us to stop identifying/super-imposing the words “File Footage” or “Archives” or “Library Footage” over old video … something the REAL BCTV had disclosed, being transparent and truthful … always … with its family of viewers. Not any more.
Another victim of the decline: one of BCTV’s best accomplishments: it’s own Ottawa Parliament Hill Bureau for almost 15 years, staffed by Christine Hearn, yours truly, Mark Schneider and Mark Miller, with superb photo journalist Paul Nolan and editors Mary Brunet, Bill Luxton and Gavin Conway.
What a GREAT presence BC had in the nation’s capital under BCTV … until its successors killed it.
What a pathetic presence BC and coverage of specific BC issues viewers now get from Global’s “national” bureau in Ottawa. Not to mention, but let’s, some of the best away-from-the-Hill stories, features, series from throughout Ontario and Quebec that other CTV stations used to grab onto from BCTV and broadcast to their own viewers.
Now gone: another victim of the mindset running Global from corporate headquarters in Toronto. Frank Griffiths must be spinning in his grave!
I recently asked someone highly experienced in the news business why wouldn’t a month-long supposed tribute to CHAN/BCTV’s 60 years highlight the station’s accomplishments … instead of mostly the history of BC ?
The reply: Because if they did that, today’s viewers would wonder/ask Why don’t they still do that, report that way, deliver a quality newscast now???
Yet, from my personal point of view, their worst omission? No BCTV over-the-decades commemorative tribute should EVER be done without remembering Geoff Fisher, the microwave truck operator killed on the job for BCTV on Feb. 13, 1999. I have written about him twice on here: http://harveyoberfeld.ca/blog/geoff-fischer-bctv-i-never-forget/.
In an entire month looking back at the history of CHAN/BCTV/Global … not a mention of Geoff!!!
Actually, little mention at all of what CHAN/BCTV stood for, what it accomplished and what it meant to British Columbians … every night.
Maybe that’s why Global BC’s Newshour viewing audience is now regularly only around 350,000 or less … DOWN a couple of hundred thousand from BCTV at its prime!
Even though BC’s population has grown from 4.04 million in 2000 to 5.15 million in 2020.
Perhaps fitting then that their “tribute” wasn’t much of a tribute at all … and fell short of how the REAL BCTV would have done it.
While shares of the current owners: Corus Entertainment closed Friday … at only $4.14.