In 1972 Moses Znaimer co-founded Toronto’s Citytv with a vision of local, interactive, optimistic, and realistic programming. Soon after, his station began to boast studio-less television studios and program-less television programming. And just as quickly, Znaimer’s concept became a hit — a really big hit.
Eventually purchased by one of Canada’s foremost broadcasting companies, Chum Limited, Citytv dispersed its philosophies and recipe for success to more stations in Canada and abroad including new specialty stations like MuchMusic, Bravo!, Space, and MuchMusic Argentina.
Since Fast Company last talked with Znaimer in late 1996, Citytv has rocketed to the moon. In the past two-and-a-half years, it’s added more Canadian stations, bought and revamped several old-style network affiliates, and further expanded internationally. Stations sporting Citytv’s look and feel have launched across the globe; and Citytv programs are selling around the world, even in Poland and Japan. In light of these accomplishments, Fast Company caught up with Znaimer – now president and executive producer of Citytv, MuchMusic, MuchMoreMusic, Bravo!, Space, CablePulse24, MusiquePlus, and MusiMax — to learn about the challenges of fast growth, the rewards of persistence, and the forecasts for Citytv’s future.
What’s new at Citytv? What specific recent accomplishments are you most proud of?
We launched Canada’s first regional all-news channel, CablePulse24, in the fall of1998. There are national and international all-news channels, but CP-24 is a greater Toronto, 24-hour news channel on basic cable. Its screen has two strong picture portals and is graphically rich, providing a tremendous amount of information at a glance. It’s become instantly popular and we’re very proud of it.
MuchMoreMusic [an adult contemporary music channel] launched in the fall of 1998 and MusiMax [a French-speaking version] launched one year earlier. But while we’re adding stations we’re also running our existing ones and doing all kinds of things on a programming level. We’ve been producing a series of lifestyle reality shows for a long time, and they perform remarkably against very powerful competition. These programs represent niches and we try to grow these shows into channels. “Fashion Television” is probably our most famous show, and it’s distributed around the world.
In addition to “Fashion Television,” we have “Movie Television,” “Media Television,” and “Music Television.” These magazine shows give a solid chunk of modern, smart, urban information in all of these vital fields. And over the years, we’ve added to that collection and have started a thing called “Star TV” [launched fall 1998], which is about celebrities. We’ve started a program called “Sex TV,” [launched fall 1998] which is about the world’s most pervasive subject and is very clever, a market-intelligent, quirky, smart, hugely successful show. And we’ve started what is probably the world’s first, regularly scheduled gay-lesbian program on mainstream television: “The Q-Files.” This is just to show that while we’ve been focusing on launching channels, there is also the regular business of all the channels we already have.
I also look after the creative end of a group of stations called “The New Net.” These are five regional, old-line network affiliates in Southern Ontario that we’ve converted into a system of independent stations. The New Net stations are interesting because they’re a cross between Citytv and a classic 1950-style, old-line network affiliate in a relatively small town.
And what about Citytv’s global growth?
We launched the first Citytv outside of Canada — Citytv Bogota — in March 1999, under license of our partners, El Champo Newspaper Group. They are outstanding people. And what a remarkable story — just eight months from our first meeting to “air.” Under license we helped them build that station. We designed it, worked with their staff, are continuing to work with their staff. If you found yourself in Bogota, and had some familiarity with Citytv in Toronto, you would see a remarkable resemblance.
Most of our partners are after a unique identity, but they also want to create a machine that reflects the life of a city on TV, and is economically sound. In most parts of the world, the only way to deal with TV is on a national level, and local television is a bold, new concept. El Champo, who are newspaper publishing and print people, went looking for a model and found ours.
Usually our international partners are financial partners, or partners with a different experience in television, cable or satellite. It’s not that easy to cobble together a good-looking brand on television. Anybody can toss shows on a transmitter, but it takes some time to create an identity and give it some meaning, and to then apply it in different circumstance with some assurance that it’s going to come out right. So that’s one name of our game — we’re not only running the channels we own outright but we’re also licensing our know-how.
Why has Citytv’s global influence grown so much in the past two and a half years?
A force of good ideas. We’re not growing that much by force of capital, which is the more conventional and reliable route. I think we have an idea whose time has finally come.
The focus is now shifting to regional and local expression. The world, of course, is globalized, but we also need something else. And it’s not that easy to do, and do it well so that you can actually compete with the titanic national and international networks. We’ve got a brand that people recognize. And we have an operating system that’s very novel and works without studios. It yields a dramatically different kind of television that has caught people’s eye and at a very economical price. We’ve also demonstrated that we can show others how to use it. We run quite a ‘school’ now in Toronto for all our licensees because our operating practices are quite different. Some people look at our practices and think, “I can do that.” But so far not many have. And quite a few have lost a lot of money trying to copy it. But I think that more and more people have figured out that it’s smarter to get it from us because we’ll help assure that it’s done right. And so far so good. These stations have taken on their local character, since that’s what they’re designed to do, and they have been flourishing.
When City TV was created in 1972, it focused on local, interactive, real and optimistic programming. Have these visions remained even though Citytv’s influence has gone global?
Yes. Precisely because the world is becoming more global you have a perceived need for regional expression. It’s a global world — and then you still have to eat dinner tonight. And that’s the apparent trick. I think you can make a global business out of the science of local television reflection.
Do you think Citytv and programming like it will expand further in the U.S.?
There’s nothing immediately in the offing. There are people who are kind of trying out some stuff that sounds hauntingly similar, but it’s not us. We are in the U.S. with MuchMusic USA, and I’m hoping that it will continue to flourish. It’s been making some remarkable gains in a very tight environment but it needs to break out.
What does the future hold for Citytv?
On September 10 we’re launching an entertainment information channel — Star TV. And on October 4 we’re launching Canadian Learning Television, Canada’s first serious adult education channel where people can really take courses and get college credits and diplomas.
We are also looking at the Vancouver market for another Citytv – it would be the second Citytv in Canada. There’s only one right now in Toronto
We’re also in some very advanced talks with one of the major cable entities in Europe and, if it goes, there will be quite a few Citytv’s appearing in Europe mighty soon.
Where do you see television, as a whole, heading in the future?
We’re obviously headed into a world with lots of channels. Some would say that we’re already there. Once upon a time the real big question was, “Who gets to speak?” We are rapidly approaching a time where the answer is much more diverse — more people are speaking and more people will continue to speak. And the promise of the Internet is that everybody can speak. So my hunch is that the next big questions will be, “Who is listening?” and “How do you focus attention?” The art and science of focusing attention is the key to the future.
Previously featured in issue 6, page 87