How very typical of the Canadian TV racket: Announce on Thursday morning that a TV show, which has lasted for more than four decades, will disappear forever on Friday morning.
Less than 24 hours' notice. The blink of an eye. But that's how Bell Media's CTV network announced that the last Canada AM would air on Friday. Not classy. It's a ruthless racket. The announcement brought an outpouring on social media and most common words used on Twitter and Facebook were "sad" and "shocking."
If you want to get sentimental about the cozy, sometimes dozy and always cuddly Canada AM team and the show itself, go ahead. CTV sure isn't indulging in being mawkish or allowing much nostalgia. The press release was blunt. "As the television landscape continues to evolve, so too must our programming. We look forward to building upon the success of Canada AM as we move forward," said Randy Lennox, one of those Canadian TV execs with an extremely long job title: "President, Entertainment Production and Broadcasting, Bell Media."
Oh, and the press release did disclose, cryptically, that CTV will announce a new program for the 6-9 a.m. weekday timeslot next week. It's not clear when that new program will actually arrive. In the meantime, CTV News Channel's programming will be simulcast in the Canada AM slot on the main network. That's also typical of Canadian TV – slot material from one channel into another. Saves effort and saves money.
It has often been easy to mock Canada AM. The format hardly changed. Everything was supercozy. Some banter, a short news summary, some recipes, maybe a movie review or a book author on tour. Segments lasted five or 10 minutes. Everybody speaking calmly and a fireplace in the background to make you feel cozy. CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes used to tease it relentlessly. It had Finnigan O'Toole (Gavin Crawford) and Lisa Thomas (Cathy Jones) talking utter nonsense and being ostentatiously air-headed on morning TV. They were sending up Seamus O'Regan and Beverly Thomson on Canada AM. And the mockery was dead-on.
But the coziness of Canada AM was the right style and method for the show. Many people are vulnerable in the mornings and they connect to morning TV that is soothing and familiar. Canada AM was like a hug from a family member.
That's how most morning TV works. In the U.S. market there is cutthroat competition between the main network morning programs. The trade magazine Variety has called the battle between the two biggest, NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America, "TV's fiercest duel." It's fierce because the shows are extremely lucrative and act as platforms to promote a network's entire schedule.
The hosts of the main U.S. morning shows are icons – Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos on GMA and Matt Lauer and Al Roker on Today. Both shows are intricately conceived, with enormous care taken over the mixture of news, entertainment, sports, cooking demonstrations and recipes. Chemistry between the on-air staff is vital. Relentless research tells the networks about how viewers perceive the warmth between the anchors. Thus it seems more than odd that CTV would simply toss out a long-standing morning show.
As big as the morning shows are in the U.S. market, hardly anybody watches them in Canada. Viewers want local news, weather, sports and traffic reports. They don't get it on the U.S. shows. For that, people turn to Canada AM or even more local Breakfast Television programs.
And it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of Canada AM. If there is a star system in Canadian TV, it is rooted in news and, over the decades, Canada AM made stars of Wally Macht, Sandie Rinaldo, Tom Clark, Terrilyn Joe, Dan Matheson, Thalia Assuras, Rod Black, Lisa LaFlamme and others. Seamus O'Regan went on to become a member of Parliament and Pamela Wallin went on to a diplomatic post, then the Senate and another kind of infamy. Current hosts Beverly Thomson and Marci Ien (who will both apparently remain with CTV in some capacity) and the recently retired Jeff Hutcheson are nationally known and beloved figures.
Where CTV goes from here is unknown. But, if recent local trends in morning TV are any indication, the direction is toward perky and loud. Most of the Breakfast Television shows on the CITY channels are nothing more than those hysterically perky morning radio shows put on TV. They are vastly different from the smooth amiableness, with occasional dollops of the serious, on Canada AM.
Me, I'm in a unique position in the matter of Canada AM. I worked briefly on the show in the late 1980s, when I was a freelancer. For a few weeks I filled in for somebody on leave. I never actually saw the studio, which was then, and remains, at CTV's HQ in the distant Toronto suburb of Agincourt. Norm Perry and Linda MacLennan were the co-anchors. In a downtown office, the work consisted of researching stories for the next morning, and briefing the hosts.
The producers were serious people. One of my colleagues for that brief time was the now distinguished author Zsuzsi Gartner. The emphasis was on making national news stories and lifestyle stories pithy, accurate and, while acknowledging that Canada AM viewers had little time and patience, to make the material serious, not fluffy.
Later I appeared as a guest on Canada AM multiple times. As an author and soccer expert, mainly. The early wake-up call and long ride to Agincourt was worth it. Canada AM sold books and had an impact. It had gotten fluffier since the 1980s but was never meaningless. I mourn its end, as should everyone who cares about Canadian TV.