We live in the age of television proliferation. Gone are the comfortable days of the Big Three. Today whole new networks are coming to life, taking advantage of converging technologies, orbiting satellites and pizza-sized discs, the exploding Web and improving cable. New brands are struggling to be born from the marriages of new media. And the stakes are growing as long-term corporate futures are wagered on short-term business model bets.
But is more better? It's hard to escape the feeling that, instead of having 57 channels and nothing on, today it's 500 channels ... and still nothing on. You can change the channel. But can you change television?
In Toronto, televisionary Moses Znaimer, co-founder, president, and executive producer of Citytv, has seen the problem and has the answer. "The problem is not too much television," says Znaimer, 55, a Zen-like figure in a black suit with a white shirt, hair slicked back in a small ponytail. "It's too much of the same television." Twenty-four years ago, Znaimer and a partner started Citytv with $1.5 million, 80 employees, and a distinct vision of how to make TV with a difference — TV that was local and interactive, real-time with real people, optimistic and realistic, constantly reinvented and grounded in a consistent set of values. Today Citytv has grown to more than 600 employees, revenues of more than $200 million, and ratings that consistently give it a large % of the Toronto market.
Now Znaimer is out to spread his vision: he recently launched MuchaMusica, a Spanish language pop music venture in Argentina, privatized Alberta, Canada's public access television service, took over creative supervision of CKVR Barrie, a 40-year old Canadian Broadcasting Corporation affiliate, and bid for a license to open a Citytv-like station in Vancouver, Canada — perhaps the first step in a strategy to create mini-citytv's across North America.
What amazes Znaimer, even after 24 years of pioneering creativity, is how little creativity the rest of the television industry seems capable of. "How is it possible," he asks, "that French TV is like German TV which shares a lot of similarities with English TV? The answer is the similar way in which TV is made. There are arguably 1,000 TV stations in the world, and they're all virtually identical in the way programs are created in offices and executed in artificial places called studios."
Znaimer's creation: a studio-less television studio, program-less television programming, a boundary-less television experience that embraces reality, rather than make-believe, as the essence of the medium. Starting in September 1972, when Citytv first took to the airwaves, it was clear that this was television with a difference: low-powered, low-cost, and local television delivered with high-energy, high-style, and high-tech. Over the past 24 years, Znaimer's principles have remained consistent — so much so that the principles are the programs and the programs are always on. Here are the listings behind Citytv's TV revolution.
Program One: How you do TV is the TV you do.
"The first task," says Znaimer, "is to escape the studio." If Marshall McLuhan's dictum was, the medium is the message, Moses Znaimer's corollary is, the process is the product.
To make it happen, Citytv moved into a classic five story, 160,000 square foot building on the busiest block of Queen Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto between a stretch of sidewalk cafes and ethnic restaurants. Then Znaimer rebuilt into a studio-less television studio, with no phony sets or fake scenery. Instead, the building is equipped with 35 "hydrants," outlets that connect audio, video, sync, intercom, and lights with 160 miles of cable. Any corner of the building can be on-air within minutes. Anything can happen, anywhere, anytime, and find itself part of the broadcast.
"What we do, every one of us, constitutes the performance," explains Znaimer. "You don't have to choreograph it, because it's constantly there. Except in television, you never see it. You only see the static, artificial final product." Citytv's first principle: television is flow, not show.
Program Two: Where you do TV is how you do TV.
"If you want to start a new TV operation in Poland," says Znaimer, "the usual impulse is to go to the people who're making TV in Poland. It's in a compound 15 miles out of town. There's more than just one guard, and it's a state secret."
It's not all that different from TV stations in North America — most of which are located in anonymous suburban office buildings or behind guarded fences.
Citytv is local TV. As such, it's part of the city's life, not something separate from it. The downtown location is a programming decision, as is the internal layout of the building, which is organized around a motif of "streets," intentionally blurring the distinction between the outside and inside worlds.
MuchMusic — where performers such as Hootie and the Blowfish got their first big break — erases the boundary even more. Its ground-floor, full-scale windows open up like a store front, inviting the street culture in and transforming televised musical performances into free sidewalk concerts for the community. It's part of the way the building works to support the kind of TV Znaimer wants to do: the building shoots itself.
Program Three: The real world is TV — and TV is the real world.
"Conventional TV turns its back on reality and focuses on one person — the talent in the studio — with the hope that one person can then lift everything up and connect with the viewer at home," says Znaimer.
At Citytv, TV is real: the news isn't created for television; television merely observes it as it happens. The station uses 25 CityPulse news cruisers and 2 LiveEye microwave transmitting trucks — emblazoned with the mottoes, "The city is our news room," and "Everywhere!" to roam the streets of Toronto and video the news as it happens. Another 100 permanently fixed remote control cameras, dubbed "the Eyes of Toronto" and 5 low-band network remote camera terminals simply watch and record.
"Our goal is to find the drama in real life," asserts John Gunn, creative director of Citytv's Bravo!, which has another 3 news cruisers of its own. "It's all about being inclusive. Rather than packaging it, we want viewers to hear the noise, see the confusion, and sense the conflict."
Program Four: The medium is conversation and the message is optimism.
"Pessimism is a constant market share," says Znaimer. "You're never going to go broke feeding the fear of calamity. I decided long ago that optimism is a market segment." To put optimism on the air, Citytv takes seriously the responsibility of engaging the people of Toronto in an ongoing conversation with themselves about themselves. The station doesn't just have viewers- it has participants, citizens who are actively debating causes, expressing preferences, and voting on issues.
QuickTally, a computer polling system which can handle 20,000 calls per hour, tabulates daily viewer votes on everything from their favorite videos on MuchMusic to their opinion of national defense policy on the morning news. CityOnline, a 30-minute daily news show specifically designed to create on-air debates invites viewers to email questions and opinions for real-time interaction.
At the level of the street corner soap box, Citytv has pioneered the Speaker's Corner, an outdoor electronic booth that represents the ultimate in accessibility. Each week 1,000 participants pay one dollar for two minutes of video time — with all proceeds going to Citytv's favorite charity. If a video clip happens to touch on a local issue under discussion, it can instantly find its way into a newscast; on weekends, Citytv runs the collected clips in a structured show.
Program Five: TV either stands for something, or means nothing.
"The history of mainstream television is that it stands for nothing," says Znaimer. "This organization and this station stand for something."
That's why every show on the air has a mission statement and every mission statement is reviewed and revised as the show changes. "We're very disciplined about taking a good hard look at how every show evolves," says VP of Production Marcia Martin. "And some necessarily evolve more than others. When we write a mission statement for a show, there's real attention to detail. We believe in what we're doing."
"The atmosphere here is personal, creative, and attitudinal," says Newsroom Director Stephen Hurlburt. "Part of that is because we reinvent ourselves a lot. Every few weeks we get together and review the shows as a way to keep our energy up, to avoid being repetitive, and to keep the discussion alive. There's a constant conversation about why we're doing what we're doing."
Program Six: Flexibility spawns creativity.
There are no walls or barriers within the building; there is very little in the way of a set working schedule for anyone. Nor is there a set resume that gets you a job at Citytv: Newsroom Director Stephen Hurlbut, for example, started out as a cameraman; one star reporter was a maitre d' who talked Znaimer into a job when he walked into his restaurant. At Citytv, new ideas and fresh insights can come in any place, from anyone, and at any time — especially with the hours Znaimer keeps: he sleeps only three hours a night, often in the loft in his office.
"When you're working late, it's not unusual to feel a tap on your shoulder in the middle of the night, and see him by your side," says Sarah Crawford, MuchMusic's Director of Communications.
"Everybody works on flextime," says Znaimer. "There are more people in here after two in the morning than at ten in the morning."
Christina Novicki (email@example.com) is a member of the Fast Company editorial team. Citytv can be located on the Web at (http://www.citytv.com).
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.