Marshall McLuhan, Moses Znaimer & Canadian TV in the 1970s & ’80s

29Mar16

The public has yet to see TV as TV. Broadcasters have no awareness of its potential. The movie people are just beginning to get a grasp on film. - Marshall McLuhan

The above was quoted in “Marshall McLuhan, Author, Dies; Declared ‘Medium Is the Message'” by Alden Whitman, The New York Times, January 1, 1981

In an article titled “Canadian TV is a place of squalor and neglect”, Toronto Globe & Mail TV critic John Doyle laments the current sad state of Canadian television thus:-

“I’m surprised it took him [CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais] so long to recognize that Canadian TV execs are extremely rich and don’t care much about fulfilling their mandated obligations to the Canadian culture. It’s a lucrative racket. If we see television as a landscape filled with a variety of buildings and edifices, then Canadian commercial TV execs are slum landlords, getting rich by bilking pitiful tenants. What they own and manage, in terms of Canadian content, is a place of squalor and neglect. A slum”.http://goo.gl/h2LY6G )

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The situation was not always that bad and a recent Toronto Star article by Ed Conroy recalls “six great examples of trail-blazing Toronto TV shows which augured the internet age,” that “not only foretold much of what would come to pass, but also trained us how to best prepare for this new media revolution”. They were:  Media Circus, TVOntario (which hosted intellectuals such as McLuhan and Northrop Frye); Free For All, Citytv (co-founded by Moses Znaimer, who was its CEO); Bits & Bytes, TVOntarioSpeaker’s Corner, Citytv (a Moses Znaimer innovation); Prisoners of Gravity, TVOntariostreetNOISE, YTV (see https://goo.gl/mDs48C )

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As the examples just listed suggest, Moses Znaimer was responsible for more than a little of the creative Canadian TV of the 1970s and ’80s and he was very much influenced and inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s commentaries on TV, which though not uncritical of the medium, nevertheless took it seriously as a medium worth studying and writing about, as comments like these suggest:-

  • “The TV camera has no shutter. It does not deal with aspects or facets of objects in high resolution. It is a means of direct pick-up by the electrical groping over surfaces”. – Arts in society,Volume 3, 1964, p. 242
  • “The inner trip is not the sole prerogative of the LSD traveler; it’s the universal experience of TV watchers”. – Playboy interview, 1969
  • “The discarnate TV user lives in a world between fantasy and dream, and is in a typically hypnotic state, which is the ultimate form and level of participation”. – “A Last Look at the Tube.” New York Magazine, 17 March 1978, p. 45-48
  • “TV is not good at covering single events. It needs a ritual, a rhythm, and a pattern…[TV] tends to foster patterns rather than events”. – The Education of Mike McManus, TVOntario, December 28 1977
  • “The mosaic form of the TV image demands participation and involvement in depth, of the whole being, as does the sense of touch”. (p. 334, Understanding Media, 1964)

Far from becoming an obsolesced medium like radio, TV has evolved and still holds enormous influence, its reach having been extended by the Internet and streaming technologies. Some of McLuhan’s probes about TV are still useful.

Moses Znaimer as Television Innovator 

 ZLC 2013 Moses Moses Znaimer

There is no question that Moses Znaimer has been an innovative TV producer, entrepreneur and executive, though not much on the creative side as a TV actor, presenter or director, as this short, but incomplete bio, which does not cover his post-CITY career with Zoomer Media, tells us:

After graduation [McGill and Harvard] he accepted a job at the CBC, directing, producing, and hosting several shows from 1965 to 1969. Znaimer quit the CBC in 1969, and launched into private broadcasting. At that time all the VHF licenses in Toronto had been taken, so he founded the city’s first UHF channel, CITY, Channel 79 (later 57), in 1972. The unique programming of CITY has been Znaimer’s primary contribution to the world of broadcasting, and its influence has now been felt worldwide.

The success of CITY prompted Toronto media conglomerate CHUM to purchase the station in 1981. With a much larger budget, Znaimer went on to found several other television stations starting with MuchMusic in 1984, Canada’s first 24-hour music station. The idea was copied with a French-language station, MusiquePlus, based in Montréal, in 1986. Since the 1980s Znaimer has been instrumental in shaping the face of Canadian television, launching or helping to direct well over two dozen television stations in Canada and many other parts of the world. His unique style of broadcasting, the “Participatory, Interactive, Storefront, Studioless, Television Operating System”, sets all CHUM-CITY stations apart from more traditional media sources. It has always been Znaimer’s goal to create television that reflects those who watch it, and every station goes to great lengths to be able to include as many of the different cultural, ethnic, and diverse programs and personalities found in Toronto and all over Canada as possible. (Source: http://goo.gl/QjvSm1 )

There is also no question that he was influenced by Marshall McLuhan, as he has told the world many times. Where Znaimer has run into controversy and criticism is in his theorizing about TV in general, and especially with his comparisons of TV with print in his 3-hour epic manifesto “TVTV: The Television Revolution” (1995), which has been contested and mostly dismissed. This was a 3-part televised series by ChumCity Production in association with the CBC televised on CBC 1995. In it Znaimer summarized his theories of TV production thus:

  1. TV is the triumph of the image over the printed word.
  2. The true nature of television is flow, not show; process, not conclusion.
  3. As global television expands, the demand for local programming increases.
  4. The best TV tells me what happened to me, today.
  5. TV is as much about the people bringing you the story as the story itself.
  6. In the past, TV’s chief operating skill was political. In the future, it will have to be mastery of the craft itself.
  7. Print created illiteracy. TV is democratic. Everybody gets it.
  8. TV creates immediate consensus, subject to immediate change.
  9. There never was a mass audience, except by compulsion.
  10. Television is not a problem to be managed, but an instrument to be played. (Source: http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/znaimer.htm )

Marshall Soules on his media-studies.ca site discusses Znaimer’s ideas about TV and provides links to some of the criticisms of TVTV: The Television Revolution here: http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/znaimer.htm .

The following 3.5-minute video provides an overview of TVTV: The Television Revolution”, which was broadcast on CBC TV on Sunday, April 9, 1995. Interestingly, the opening sequence of the program imitates Kubrick’s Dawn of Man opening to his great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but instead of discovering a mysterious black obelisk, the humanoid apes of the sequence discover an old-fashioned tube TV set from which the image and voice of Moses Znaimer soon emanates.

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2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan, Moses Znaimer & Canadian TV in the 1970s & ’80s”

  1. Thanks to Alex to providing a link to my webpage on Moses Znaimer. This short article was originally written in the late-90s for a course I was teaching called Canadian Media Theorists. Znaimer remains a significant theorist in my view and his ideas can stimulate interesting discussion.

    There are some dead links in the article – my apologies. I’ve decided to leave these misleading links as they are, still useful as a reference and still available somewhere to the diligent media ecologist.

    • Marshall, it’s good to hear from you. I do want to talk to you about republishing some of your pieces on the McLuhan Galaxy blog when you are down here.

      I became interested in Moses Znaimer through my good friend, the late Liss Jeffrey. See https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/remembering-liss-jeffrey-1951-2008-mcluhan-scholar-educator-media-practitioner-activist/ OR use this short URL: https://goo.gl/pYOIgK . Liss had worked as a producer for Moses at CITY and brought him to U of T to speak at a number of events, where I was happy to hear and meet him. Yes, he was an original and, though his comments are not much favoured by book people, a tribe I belong to, though that doesn’t make me want to diss other mediums. Moses is still worth considering in relation to the TV medium. There are enough people around who want to demonize TV, so it’s refreshing to hear from a TV enthusiast. I think the long form 10 to 15 part TV series that have come along since HBO and other specialty channels are a new TV medium that retrieves the serial novels of Dickens day. Some of them are wonderful and that’s what Judy and I mostly watch now, since we subscribed to Netflix. I am a fan of good TV.

      I know what you mean about broken links. I created a blogroll of several hundred links that relate to McLuhan on my Media Ecology blog. Now of course there are many broken links among them. And I don’t have the time and patience to go fixing them. I just hope that people who look at my blog realize that if there was a link there that is now broken, the item is still there, just with a different link. So, it’s really easy to retrieve the item with some judicious googling. Thanks for your comment……Alex


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