Canada's First,Canada's Finest : I'll bet we all remember the CFCF Pulse News theme: Well if your not feeling old enough (you too Glen),.......then maybe this will help CFCF turns 50 years old.
The station that was home to many TV shows we all watched as kids or young(er) adults
MONTREAL - Don McGowan, his eyes twinkling behind the news desk, has a pressing broadcast announcement. “Welcome to Geezer Pulse,” he declares with a straight face. On one side of him is a no-nonsense Bill Haugland and on the other is a no-nonsense Dick Irvin.
They seem fully prepared to deliver the 6 p.m. news.
Whoa. Do the eyes deceive? Have we embarked on some time-travel? Are we experiencing some kind of acid-flashback or have we over-indulged on Absinthe?
Has there been an insurrection?
McGowan the weatherman/prankster, Haugland the steadfast news anchor and Irvin the trusty sportscaster have been reunited for a brief spell as the station that propelled them to fame – or is the other way around? – gets set to celebrate its 50th birthday on the Montreal airwaves.
The setting may have changed from Ogilvy Ave. in Park Ex to Papineau Ave. in the shadow of the Jacques Cartier Bridge. The broadcast studio may have made the leap from Stone Age to Space Age. But CTV Montreal – né CFCF-12 – remains as familiar and as comfy to Montrealers as that proverbial pair of old slippers. Which probably explains why the station has consistently left its competitors in the ratings dust since hitting the airwaves in 1961.
The station marks its 50 years with a bash and a televised homage to its past, CTV Montreal’s Anniversary Show, Thursday at 6 p.m. (The show will be re-broadcast Friday at noon.)
Since the beginning of this month, the station has been airing a series of one-minute vignettes highlighting its history and that of the city over the last 50 years and showcasing some of the personalities responsible for its ratings dominance.
Haugland, Irvin and McGowan had been there almost since the station started broadcasting and, frankly, look like they could go another few decades behind the news desk.
“Times have changed, but we really haven’t. We’re still boys at heart,” notes McGowan. “We lived to make each other laugh then and we still do when we get together now. I’d like to think that we’ve never grown up.”
The guys could certainly pass for many years younger than they are. McGowan is ever-nimble at 73, as is Irvin at 78. And Haugland at 68 could even be carded at some bars.
Irvin reminisces about the old days when he and his buddies would have to apply their own makeup – and not very well, at that.
“We used to look like pumpkins,” Haugland acknowledges. “But viewers probably attributed that to problems with their colour TV sets.”
On the other hand, viewers couldn’t pass off some incidents to colour-TV distortion. Like the time the TV lights fell off the rails on the ceiling and landed on the news desk.
“And a pile of rust landed on my head at the same time while I was doing the news,” Haugland recalls. “We used to do the news in an old storage room on Ogilvy Ave. There was never a dull moment.”
Like the time Irvin was doing a sportscast during the FLQ crisis in 1970.
“There was a report that there may have been something in our newsroom, and as I’m reading baseball scores, the police are wandering around the studio, oblivious to the fact we were on the air,” Irvin says. “So I kept reading the scores like nothing was happening, but it was unsettling.”
Also during the FLQ crisis, Haugland was doing the news when word came that the body of Pierre Laporte had been found.
“The reporter, in the studio, only had that bit of information – nothing else,” Haugland says. “But he had to stand in front of the camera for 15 minutes, repeating it, with nothing new to add. Then we thought we were getting an update when we saw one of the technicians on his stomach slide over to the reporter with a note. The reporter got really excited, until he read the note. It was from his wife, asking him to bring a loaf of bread home after work. After announcing that an update was imminent, he told the audience: ‘Never mind.’ ”
And then there are some tales the boys aren’t ready to share just yet – involving escapades at the Ruby Foos bar or at Expos ball games at Jarry Park between evening newscasts.
Though they are all out of the broadcast business now, they are not ready to be wheeled into retirement homes just yet.
McGowan moved to Brockville – “it’s the new Montreal West, packed with Montrealers” – and spends much of his time there helping to run that town’s performing arts centre. Haugland lives just over the border in Vermont and is set to release his second novel, The Bidding, in the spring. Irvin, in the West Island, is much consumed these days by his love for music – particularly the Big Band era – and movies.
As fate would have it, McGowan has had to contend with snowstorms every time he makes it back to Montreal. “I guess someone wants to make me feel right at home again,” he says.
“And Don didn’t predict any of those storms, either. Some things never change,” cracks Irvin, who presented a tribute to Glenn Gould at the performing arts centre in Brockville – thanks to his buddy McGowan.
“We spent $2.5 million to restore the arts centre,” says McGowan. “It dates back to 1858.”
“Or roughly around the time Don was born,” Irvin interjects.
“But I’ve totally given up on weather prognostication,” McGowan says.
“You couldn’t get it right for 38 years, so why start now?” Irvin deadpans.
Though it seems like just yesterday that this troika was delivering news, weather and sports, they’ve actually been gone for a while. Irvin left about 20 years ago, McGowan has been gone for 12 years, and Haugland gave up his anchor position four years ago.
While Haugland and Irvin started in 1961, just a few months after CFCF-12 came on air, McGowan arrived in 1962 from Cornwall.
“I had to take a pay cut, too – from $10,000-a-year to $7,500. But there were no regrets. We all clicked together.”
They all attribute continuity to the station’s success over 50 years.
“And that, ironically, was the biggest problem our competition had,” Haugland explains. “They figured they needed to change their formula for them to succeed. So they were always shuffling the faces and shifting the focus of their newscasts. What they didn’t seem to get is that it’s the familiarity of old friends behind the news desk that’s at the core of the success.”
“TV is an intimate monster,” McGowan adds. “Viewers don’t like change. We aged in front of our viewers, in their beds and living rooms – and that didn’t seem to upset them that much.”
McGowan, ever the ham, endeared himself to viewers with his antics, be it cracking up his cronies on the news desk or having a streaker wander through the set. The latter move cost him a two-week suspension, since management took a particularly dim view of someone flashing its TV audience on Good Friday.
The streaker was also a station employee and he, too, received a two-week suspension. “It worked out to an inch a week for the streaker,” McGowan muses.
Nor did it hurt that the station in those days – unlike these days – was producing a variety of local shows, in addition to the news, featuring this trio, among its other personalities. McGowan could be caught exploring the planet in Travel, Travel as well as closer to the home front in McGowan’s World or McGowan and Friends. Haugland hosted the current affairs show As It Is. And who can forget Irvin’s Bowlorama or Pinsetters?
Still, they empathize with those who have replaced them.
“The game has changed so much,” McGowan says. “There used to be just a few channels. Now there are 500 and the Internet. And there are so many more participants on the news today than there were in our day.”
“The technology today is on a whole other level,” Haugland points out. “When we started, we didn’t have teleprompters and we all had to write our own segments.”
But they didn’t panic. Irvin once rushed down to the set to do a sportscast, but in his haste, he had forgotten his notes – which were chock full of scores.
“He did the whole thing from memory and no one was the wiser,” Haugland marvels. “These days, there’s less room for spontaneity or error. The news shows are so tightly produced.
“It wasn’t like that in the old days. Anything could happen – like Don getting pelted with snowballs by the crew while he was doing the weather. And every now and again, we’d be asked to stretch a 30-second segment into five minutes. Sometimes it worked out. But I’ve got to say I had my work cut out for me improvising for five minutes about pigeon poop.”
Last words, as always, go to quipster McGowan: “Best thing of all is that we knew when to get out, when times were good.” Pause. “Unlike Lloyd Robertson, I didn’t want to hang around until I was 98.”
Then again, that might have made for some memorable TV.
The faces may have changed over the last 50 years, but the ratings have stayed remarkably consistent. Haugland, Irvin, McGowan et al enjoyed remarkable numbers in their days, as do Mutsumi Takahashi, Todd van der Heyden, Lori Graham et al today.
In fall 2010, BBM ratings indicate that 202,300 viewers took in CTV Montreal’s 6 to 7 p.m. weekday newscast, as opposed to 32,300 who caught the local CBC-TV package from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and 6,900 who tuned into Global here from 6 to 6:30 p.m.
Even the math-challenged can deduce that this is a rout.
Takahashi, who co-anchors the weekday noon and 6 p.m. newscasts with van der Heyden, bridges the former and current teams. She started out in 1985 with Haugland as her co-reader.
“At the end of the day, a TV station is just a building, but what makes it come alive are the people,” she says. “I’m very fortunate, because I’m one of the few people left in the newsroom who got the opportunity to learn from Bill, Don and Dick. These people are consummate TV pros, and such performers, too. They learned how to do TV before journalism schools and communications programs even existed.”
Van der Heyden, in turn, credits Takahashi for passing on the tools of the trade to him.
“To you from failing hands we pass the torch, be yours to hold up high,” responds a smiling Takahashi, reprising the famed quote that greets those who visit the Montreal Canadiens dressing room.
“It’s been a great ride for me, and to be able to do this in my hometown is awesome,” says Van der Heyden, a co-anchor for the last four years. “This station has such credibility with its viewers. It’s like you can walk into almost any room in the city, and you’re instantly part of the family.”
Takahashi likens the situation to that of the vintage sitcom Cheers: “It’s like going into a bar where everyone knows your name. And they really do.”
Van der Heyden cites the storytelling as well as the connection that a local newscast has with people. “Even 50 years from now, there will still be local newscasters telling the stories that are important to the people watching them. The first thing most do when they get up in the morning is to make sure they’re okay, that their neighbourhood is okay and that their city is okay. There may have been some alterations done to the packaging of this newscast over the years, but the focus has stayed pretty much the same, and will likely stay the same over the years.”
As van der Heyden points out, the anglo minority here tends to rally around its institutions. “They want to feel they still have a voice, and, like other media, we represent that voice.”
Yet while their predecessors didn’t have to concern themselves with competition from a 500-channel TV universe and the Internet, Takahashi, too, believes there will always be a need for local news.
“Those 500 other channels may provide all sorts of information and entertainment, but they won’t be telling you about that fire on St. Denis or that accident on the Décarie Circle. This is where we come in and make a contribution to people’s daily lives.”
And little matters more to Montrealers than the weather. Graham, who never entertained the possibility of becoming a weather prognosticator in her youth, takes the responsibility seriously. She knows all too well that viewers will call her on a forecast that didn’t live up to expectations – bad or good.
“You are CTV Montreal’s weather presenter 24/7 – no matter where you are,” Graham says. “Montrealers don’t take their weather lightly.”
More often than not, though, Graham is able to disarm viewers with a winning smile and much empathy. But even after 13 years on the job, she still has to pinch herself that she is part of the team. “I grew up watching this show. It was part of our dinner hour every night. In my wildest dreams, I had no idea I would ever end up here,” Graham says.
“Don was the ultimate professional on the air, but he was always having fun. That’s what people remember him most for – his winning personality. His are absolutely huge shoes to fill, because he was just so good at connecting with people – all people.”
That lesson has not gone unheeded by today’s crew.
“This station has a history of getting out into the community, of rolling up our sleeves and being part of the community,” Graham says. “That’s why people can identify with us.”
“We walk on the streets that we cover,” Takahashi says. “We’re up on the mountain picking up dog poop and we’re down on the slippery sidewalks trying to stay up – just like everyone else. If you’re on the street, you’re going to have a far better understanding of how Montrealers think and how they live.”
Bill Brownstein regularly comments on city life on CTV Montreal’s noon news show.