My television channels just got all screwed up. I couldn't find CTV Newsnet for weeks. My cable provider had decided, with the inscrutable wisdom of the Party's Central Planning Committee, to banish it to the Siberia of channel 62, a snowy region where I rarely travel. It had been demoted to make way for a new local station, a channel supposedly devoted to local news and issues, called Toronto 1. Curious about what could be so important as to dislodge such an established news source, I watched Toronto 1 for a few days, for as long as I could stomach in a stretch.
Now before I lick my chops, tuck my napkin into my collar and plunge into the admittedly delicious task of destroying this abject, wretched excuse for a television station, know that there is a point to my viciousness here. I am not being mean for the sake of being mean. I know that the existence of Toronto 1 -- a station of light banter and American talk shows, rather like an AM radio station in San Diego but without the resources -- doesn't mean much to people in other parts of the country. We all have our bullshit local stations, with their traffic reports and their sports updates. Who cares?
My point is that Toronto 1 is representative of something. It is a sadly typical example of a media product that claims to be local and, in fact, erases the local in favour of the monolithic. But before the philosophizing, let us dig into the main course.
This channel consists largely of American talk shows. The daytime is devoted to celebrity gossip programs, with or without a celebrity host. There is Sharon Osbourne sharing beauty tips; there are two southern Californians you've never heard of interviewing a soap-opera star. There are some shiny young people from MTV Canada interviewing more silly people and giggling a lot. Every evening, Toronto 1 shows an American movie. On Monday nights, it will show the NFL game, which would be a great idea if we didn't all already get it on a U.S. station. All of these shows originate elsewhere. There is one locally made sitcom, the torturously unfunny Lord, Have Mercy, which is a well-intentioned attempt at multicultural humour, set in a storefront church in Toronto. I won't be too hard on it, because it is actually local, and it may amuse a few nine-year-olds.
Then there is all the "local" programming that Toronto 1 has obviously sunk at least a few hundred dollars into. There is a daily morning talk show, hosted by three bubbly, almost-intelligent people, people who can talk at least like promising undergraduates (in psych or soc), who like to make flirtatious jokes about each other's underwear (zany, madcap fun!) and, of course, debate what they think of various U.S. celebrity marriages.
There's no other local coverage, except for a gripping TVOntario-style interview with a doctor, called Health Matters, at noon, until 7 o'clock in the evening, when an almost identical non-news show called Toronto Tonight brings two bubbly and chatty hosts into the same brightly lit studio to banter in their madcap way about the weather and Shania Twain and those same celebrity marriages.
After that, it's Kevin Costner or Demi Moore until 11, when, Tuesday through Saturday, the really deep idiocy begins, with a show called Last Call. This consists of five attractive young people drinking and giggling in a bar. These are not people who have read a book from beginning to end in the past year, or perhaps ever. They are cool people, who hang around a cool bar. And we get to watch them drink and flirt and talk about celebrity marriages, while the camera weaves around them like a wasp.
It is possible that this show is an advanced form of conceptual art, like Andy Warhol's deliberately numbing eight-hour films of people sleeping. But I suspect that it is really an attempt to create a new form of talk show, a form we might call Reality Chat, whose advantage over the other 20 hours of light-talk programming is that its participants actually have nothing to say about anything, and don't attempt to pretend otherwise.
The restaurant whence this show is broadcast is called YYZ -- and the Z in the name is, of course, pronounced, by everyone on this station, as "zee." I know, it is curmudgeonly to allow oneself to be upset over this inevitable change in Canadian pronunciation; eventually, all American forms of spelling and pronunciation will dominate all the idiosyncratic local ones the world over and it doesn't really matter. But this channel's eager embrace of this change does seem to be symbolic of its general desire to accelerate this process.
Their swoony crush on MTV could also be seen during their opening-night gala party, which was televised to launch the channel. There were several local bands who all want to be hip-hop stars and speak as if they were from the suburbs of Detroit or L.A. I guess that's no different from my adolescent desire to be a punk rocker from the east end of London, but that was generally called pretentious. No one calls slavish imitation of American models embarrassing and unimaginative; it's just good business sense.
Toronto is a city with two mammoth universities, all the major publishing houses, all the major media, an opera, a symphony, more fashion designers, chefs and nightclubs than any other place in the country. It is bristling with intellectuals and artists and commentators who all have interesting things to do and say and show. But getting them to do so might involve bumping up against topics other than celebrity marriages and dating, so I suspect you won't see many of them on Toronto 1. And this is the saddest thing about this supposedly "local" station, and so many like it: It's not local at all; it's about the great glamour of southern California and New York, which we can only drool over from afar. And it's another example of how the more entertainment choices there seem to be, the more everything seems the same.