Lonely prophet: Lobbying for dignified dying the Moses Znaimer way
He has built empires and reshaped the media landscape. But as he battles long-time associates and faces uncomfortable truths, Moses Znaimer is seeking new purpose in what might be his most important mission yet: advocating for our right to die with dignity. Simon Houpt reports
Photography by Jamie Campbell for The Globe and Mail
The odds of making a living in television have never been good, and if you've been reading the papers lately, you know they're getting worse. But young people are naturally hopeful creatures, and so, on a rainy afternoon earlier this spring, about 100 students at the Lakeshore campus of Toronto's Humber College crowded into a ground-floor classroom to seek advice from a man their dean introduced as "a living legend in the world of media and creativity and business."
If Moses Znaimer was all that, he was also becoming my own personal white whale. I had been pursuing him for more than a month, after he had been implicated in a nasty split with Susan Eng, an executive of the seniors advocacy group CARP, of which he is president. Even as Ms. Eng had grabbed headlines by telling reporters she had been fired for refusing to do his bidding on the hot-button issue of medically assisted dying, Mr. Znaimer had remained quiet.
Diffidence does not become him. For almost a decade now, he has been one of the country's most visible proponents of what he calls "a new vision of aging," tub-thumping at every turn to inspire a society-wide reappraisal of post-retirement life. But in recent years Mr. Znaimer has also been using the suite of seniors-oriented media outlets he oversees as the CEO and majority shareholder of ZoomerMedia Ltd. – radio stations, Zoomer magazine, and a handful of TV channels including the flagship VisionTV – to goad the federal government into dropping its restrictions against assisted dying. With new legislation now before Parliament, a victory lap would seem in order; and yet the flap with Ms. Eng had marred the moment, highlighting what some associates say is Mr. Znaimer's tendency to let his robust ego cloud his management decisions.
After a month of discussions with his head of communications had not borne fruit, she suggested I show up at Humber and maybe snap off a few questions during the meet-and-greet.
The lights dimmed and a video began to play on a large screen. The scene was 1950s Montreal, as a fresh-faced Anglo family took delivery of their first TV and settled in to watch an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Suddenly, the screen exploded into a jazzy, hyperactive montage of TV's black-and-white days: Lassie, Lucille Ball, and The Lone Ranger; Elvis, the Beatles, and Hockey Night in Canada; Pierre Trudeau scolding a reporter about "bleeding hearts." Every few seconds, a quick clip of a boy's watchful eyes, illuminated by the phosphorescent glow of a cathode-ray tube.
Then there was Mr. Znaimer, circa 1995, standing on a downtown sidewalk before an array of nine television sets, the city thrumming around him: "That kid, of course, was me," he declaimed in his trademark stop-start rabbinical rhythm. "I had bought my family's first set with my bar mitzvah money, and while I didn't then realize I was of the very first all-television generation, I sensed somehow that having visual entertainment, perpetually on tap and conveniently delivered to my house – to my bedroom – was a revolution."
To my left, a student looked down at his lap, thumb hovering over an iPhone which displayed the first page of Google hits for "Moses Znaimer."
The sizzle reel rolled on, quick-cutting through a selection of Mr. Znaimer's career highlights: CBC wunderkind, co-founder of Toronto's street-smart CITY-TV, originator of MuchMusic, Bravo!, Space, and more than a dozen other specialty channels. Off in the shadows of the classroom, Mr. Znaimer smiled enigmatically, flanked by four employees.
About 15 minutes into the video, Frank Sinatra began to croon "The best is yet to come." Covers of Zoomer magazine spun in and out, its glam editor, Suzanne Boyd, explaining in a CBC News item that "Moses has coined the most amazing word. People want to call themselves Zoomers … he's just caught a moment." Then, a more-recent vintage Mr. Znaimer, this time standing in a brick-and-beam studio with a baby grand piano behind him. "The world is run by 50-to-80-year-olds," he declared to camera, with a chuckle. "The 20-year-olds, they're in the basement. They don't have a pot to pee in."
The 20-year-olds at Humber began to shift in their seats.
Mr. Znaimer was once a godfather of Canadian youth culture, the cool bachelor who let the neighbourhood kids muck around in his rec room, but he hasn't spent much time with them lately. In 2007, four years after he was deposed from the top job at CITY-TV and its stable of purebred TV channels, he founded ZoomerMedia. The next year, in a canny move, he took control of CARP and sought a type of fission: CARP would get guaranteed access to Zoomer's multiple media platforms, augmenting its political and marketing clout; the group's agenda, meanwhile, would energize Zoomer's outlets, helping them stand out in a crowded media universe by giving them a social mission.
"I think having a cause is an enormous help in creating focus," Mr. Znaimer told me some time later. "The linkage between the advocacy and the media – that's one of my real contributions, this model, to see it working."
His first cause was rebranding CARP itself, banishing the words that had underpinned the acronym – Canadian Association of Retired Persons – because he cannot condone even the notion of retirement. "The best way to keep going is to keep going," he likes to say.
But where CARP had once limited its advocacy to mundane issues such as pension reform and taxes, it began throwing its weight behind such envelope-pushing causes as the liberalization of marijuana laws and physician-assisted suicide. Under Mr. Znaimer's direction, VisionTV aired panel discussions and commissioned documentaries about death by choice; Wanda Morris, the CEO of the advocacy group Dying with Dignity Canada, of which Mr. Znaimer is a patron, appeared at his TED-like ideaCity conference in 2012; Mr. Znaimer penned columns in Zoomer magazine voicing his support for a person's right to choose their own death; Zoomer's radio broadcasts frequently covered the issue.
The shift has sometimes been messy. Ms. Eng, a respected lobbyist, says Mr. Znaimer fired her because he objected to her insistence that the organization adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying. (A statement posted to the CARP website disputes Ms. Eng's account, and demurs on the reasons for her dismissal. "It is our policy not to comment any further on employment matters such as these.") The day after Ms. Eng's departure, Mr. Znaimer replaced her with Wanda Morris.
Ms. Eng told me recently that she intends to sue Zoomer: "I am pursuing my legal rights, and I will be alleging wrongful dismissal." The four employees who handled advocacy for CARP have followed her out the door, but Mr. Znaimer is unperturbed. "They were the wrong employees in the wrong place. They resigned."
Ms. Eng's contentious firing is not the only sign of strain at the company. In recent years, old friends and colleagues have grown tired of Mr. Znaimer's behaviour, and have abandoned him. Zoomer is being sued by a number of ex-employees, and has been in the courts defending itself against former business partners. This spring the company sold off its crown jewel, the 2.6-acre property in Liberty Village known as the ZoomerPlex which houses its operations, in a bow to financial pressures. "My balance sheet sucked so badly," Mr. Znaimer told me flatly.
ZoomerMedia, which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange, is worth a fraction of its former value. And as the Canadian television industry enters what is being called the Great Unbundling – a period of expected upheaval, as TV carriers begin allowing consumers to pick-and-pay for exactly which channels they want, and no more – independent outlets such as Zoomer's VisionTV, known for its daytime religious programming and prime-time British fare, look especially vulnerable.
Still, young people are not the only hopeful creatures, and at Humber, Mr. Znaimer projected an air of self-satisfaction. He dismissed social media as a "fad," said Facebook and Twitter have the evanescent nature of a hot nightclub living on borrowed time, insisted that advertisers are returning to conventional TV, and chuckled at "proponents of the 'Television is Dead' mythology," who venerate YouTube.
Mr. Znaimer name-checked the founders of Vice Media, Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi, whose youth-oriented online company recently launched a raucous TV channel. Creators "are using YouTube as a stepping stone, it's not the end destination," declared Mr. Znaimer. "What they want is a TV show. Vice – probably the most successful of alternative disruptors – well, what is their biggest boast? That they finally got their hands on a TV channel!"
He paused, then seemed to relish his next thought. "This may be a bit provocative for Shane. I know those guys, a little bit, I invited them to speak at ideaCity many years ago. Very clever, those guys." Mr. Znaimer looked to the back of the room, where two video cameras tracked the proceedings – one belonging to Humber students, the other to a Zoomer videographer – and made as if he was personally addressing Smith. "I did say a few years ago, Shane, 'Any sissy can make a program. Real men and women make channels.' And you're about to discover the difference."
The crowd yelped like boxing fans tasting blood. Mr. Znaimer's smile grew wide. A few seats away from me, a student emitted a low whistle. "Ooh, yeah. Shots fired!" he said.
'Oh, we had such fun!'
After the talk, a handful of students lined up to snag some face time with the legend. Mr. Znaimer wore a pink cashmere V-neck sweater atop a white dress shirt buttoned up to the neck, and a leather jacket emblazoned with a small logo on the chest commemorating CITY-TV's 25th anniversary, which was in 1997. I approached to make my pitch for a sit-down, explaining that I was interested in exploring how he had gone from being a patron of youth culture to one of Canada's most ardent advocates for choice in life's infirm final chapter. His video presentation had boasted that, long before YouTube and other social media, he had been an early proponent of user-generated content with the CITY-TV show Speakers' Corner. I told him I wanted to discuss his thinking about the state of media.
He was heading off in a couple of days to the ZoomerShow lifestyle expo in Vancouver, where consumers would browse among dozens of merchants hawking seniors-oriented products and services, and take in tribute bands playing covers of ABBA, Chicago, Anne Murray, and Roy Orbison. He said he'd be pleased to speak with me on his return, and that I should arrange an interview for the end of the day so there would be fewer interruptions. Some weeks later – after more back-and-forth, and one last-minute cancellation – I arrived at the ZoomerPlex, a collection of one-storey offices in the west end of Toronto, hard up against a Public Storage outpost.
Mr. Znaimer's vision for the Plex was that it would be a hub of creative activity: the site of classical concerts airing on Zoomer's radio stations and tapings of VisionTV's current-affairs chat show, The Zoomer, just like the production bacchanal of CITY-TV's renovated gothic HQ on Queen Street West, where newscasts went to air from street-level studios cheek-by-jowl with MuchMusic's live shows and broadcasts. (Former employees note other similarities: CITY-TV's tag line boasted "News-Movies-Music," while Vision has "News-Movies-Music-Faith.")
On this day, things were quiet at the Plex. In the lobby of CFMZ-FM, a Bach sonata played at low volume on a small radio perched atop the desk of an absent receptionist.
Mr. Znaimer was running late, so I was ushered into the sunlit office of his two assistants, where a couple of other Zoomer employees waited to snag some time with the boss. Gail Goldman, who has served as his executive assistant on and off since the early 1970s, talked fondly of CITY-TV's early days. "Oh, we had such fun!" she exclaimed. Oversized images of Mr. Znaimer peered down from the walls. A bookshelf to my left held a jar of jelly candies from Bulk Barn and copies of The Zoomer Philosophy, a bound collection of Mr. Znaimer's magazine essays outlining his vision of modern aging. There was a mock recruitment poster for something called the Zoomer Inclusive Party, with Mr. Znaimer as a latter-day Uncle Sam. "Uncle Moses Wants You" it said. "Sooner Or Later You're a Zoomer Too!"
After 45 minutes or so, Mr. Znaimer emerged from his office. "Did you give Simon a jelly to soften him up?" he asked Ms. Goldman. He pointed at a photo frame behind me, which held a pair of sepia-toned stills from the 1984 drug caper Misdeal (a.k.a. Best Revenge), back in the day when he was a fairly regular B-movie bit player. "I played Mr. Big, and that's John Heard. He comes at me with a gun." He plucked a copy of The Zoomer Philosophy from the shelf, flipped through it, then read the title of Chapter 7 aloud. "Live Well, Do Good, Die Broke," he chuckled. "Conrad [Black, the former newspaperman and a Zoomer host] took exception to that. He just, philosophically, took exception to dying broke."
Mr. Znaimer put down the book, turned on his heel, and walked back into his office. His communications person signalled for me to follow.
From Tajikistan to TV maven
For a man who believes he is ill-treated by the print press, Moses Znaimer is one of the most mythologized media executives in Canadian history, perhaps the only one to have attained the one-name status granted to religious, political, and entertainment icons. His story is irresistible, even to the ink-stained wretches whom he believes resent the cultural dominance of TV. Born in 1942 in Soviet Tajikistan, where his Latvian father and Polish mother had found refuge from Hitler's advance, Mr. Znaimer came to Canada with his family six years later, settling in a third-floor walk-up on Montreal's gritty St. Urbain Street. He has two siblings: Libby, who is Zoomer's business reporter; and Sam, a venture capitalist.
Mr. Znaimer recalled those early years with fondness in Passages: Welcome Home to Canada, a 2002 hardcover collection of essays by Canadian immigrants. At his parochial Jewish school, he wrote, "I led the [school's Sabbath] services as a cantor and was pretty good at it. In fact, I developed a bit of a following, mostly Orthodox girls who would come every week to catch my solos. It was my first taste of performing, of being in the spotlight, and of what we would today call groupies." Irving Layton, who occasionally appeared on TV and radio, was one of his teachers, providing Mr. Znaimer his first glimpse of someone who worked in the world of media.
He did his undergrad at McGill, received a master's degree in government at Harvard, and then moved to Toronto, where he landed at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He and another producer created the radio show Cross Country Checkup, a technologically innovative broadcast which allowed regular people to have their opinions heard by listeners thousands of miles away.
By 1968, Mr. Znaimer had made the leap to an on-air position at CBC's TV operations, interviewing celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman and Gloria Steinem for the current-affairs program The Way It Is. In a clip of the final show from that season which is posted online, he and his co-hosts – older and more seasoned journalists including Patrick Watson, Warren Davis, and Barbara Frum – speculate about the future of the medium. Playing the Young Turk, Mr. Znaimer sketches out for them a vision of specialty television, more than a decade before it came to pass. "If we broke up the [TV] and said, 'One channel – news; one channel – variety; one channel – drama, we … make it easier for someone to get exactly what he or she wants out of television," he explained.
If Mr. Znaimer was prescient, he was also cocky, and an evidently poor cultural fit within the conformist CBC. He left to try his hand at venture capital, but by 1972 he had been drafted to run CITY, the first privately owned independent TV station in Toronto. The early on-air product was often amateurish, but Mr. Znaimer saw the channel's lack of polish as a point of pride. And he cast his talent to reflect the changing face of the city itself, as Toronto's Protestant establishment began to give way to a new multi-culti makeup. A takeover in 1979 by radio giant CHUM Ltd. gave CITY a financial lifeline and allowed Mr. Znaimer to plot a future in the new specialty-channel universe he had foreseen. Backed by CHUM's cash, he launched MuchMusic in the fall of 1984.
Some years earlier, Mr. Znaimer had attended a performance of a play called Tamara that was staged in a 14-room century house in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park. Set in a louche 1920s Fascist Italy, the play offered audiences the opportunity, according to one newspaper account, "to be right there – on the bed, behind the divan or even in the men's room – to visit and watch a house full of aristocrats and servants mate, murder and masticate." As the action unfolded across the sprawling house, audience members could follow any one of the 10 characters; if they were bored, they could simply switch to another. At intermission, the audience convened for dinner and helped each other piece together the various strands of the plot. It was implicitly democratic, and formally radical: each character had a story to tell, none more important than any other.
Mr. Znaimer was so taken with Tamara that he invested in it, becoming (as with CITY-TV's broadcasts) its "executive producer." He took it to Los Angeles, where it ran for about a decade with an ever-changing cast that included Karen Black, Anjelica Huston, and Shari Belafonte, as well as Mr. Znaimer's long-time domestic partner Marilyn Lightstone. Another production played New York in the late 1980s.
Tamara's medium carried messages.. He called the play "a living movie," a phrase he would come to use to describe the studio-less environments he later built for CITY-TV and its cable spawn. It was also an early manifestation of Mr. Znaimer's belief in autonomy and self-determination: that people should be able to choose their own storyline, their own niche TV channels, their own way to die.
A passion for advocacy
Mr. Znaimer is beaming as I follow him into the office. He stands behind his desk, holding up a cheque for $5,747,000 that he is about to send off, which he says represents Zoomer's final payment for VisionTV. "I have cleared off all my debt," he declares. "We're now in really good health."
Still, he begins with a caution: There are a couple of subjects on which he will not say much, including what he sees as the future of media. "People say, what would you do about this, what would you do about that? I know what I would do, but I am not going to tell you." It's a business secret, he explains.
So we discuss that cheque. The lack of debt means Mr. Znaimer no longer has to answer to the banks, which had been breathing down his neck. (According to regulatory filings, ZoomerMedia had been in breach of a debt covenant, and RBC had given the company a tight deadline to resolve the matter.) He has always prized independence. It allows him to do whatever he wishes with his outlets, even if that means strapping their fate to the rockets of contentious causes. "I've met a lot of business leaders who say, 'I never impose my personal views, it's just business, we do a lot of social research and give them what they want,'" he says. "It's not me. Personal experience, personal taste, I make the things that I like and I find out how many people agree with me."
We are supposedly discussing his advocacy, but the words also reflect his earlier time as a media mogul, when he seemed to be minting a new channel every six months. Back at Humber, he had slipped up and referred to "the suits who currently operate some of my own channels." He didn't mention the company by name, but he was referring to Bell Media, which a few years ago scooped up CHUM-City's specialty channels, including Space and MuchMusic. He seems especially heartbroken over Bravo!, which under his direction had been an exuberant chronicler of the performing arts but now shows mainly U.S. network dramas.
"It was the most beautiful channel in the world! I took great pride. That red curtain!" he says, recalling the animated intro to shows. " Fanfare for the Common Man! 'Da-da-daaa!'" he sings. "It was great. It was beautiful. And it was honourable!"
"And now?" he says. "It is what it is."
Still, there is honour to be found elsewhere, in causes such as dying with dignity, which he says attracted him for the same reason that he backed medical marijuana. A long-time squash player, he was hampered by chronic pain after knee surgery. His doctor prescribed Vioxx – but then, a short time later, regulators yanked the drug from the market because of an increased risk of heart disease. "I'm thinking, a legal synthetic can kill me. But I've been around marijuana my whole life – if you're in show business, communications, media, music …" He trails off, then explains: "I'm not a smoker. But I know that if I can get a puff or two down, it kind of takes the top off [the pain]."
He realized, he says, that thousands of people were being charged every year with possession – "mostly kids. These are my MuchMusic viewers. That's not right. And so: the personal, to the professional, to a position." So it was with assisted death. "At some point, I think, I'm going to be old. If I'm lucky, I'm going to be really old. And then one day I may have a debility. Chances are, I will. And in that last period of my life, I should have a decision about whether I go out screaming in agony or whether I can find a peaceful exit."
But it is more than that. Though he has thrived in an industry that took root largely under the protection of a federal government trying to keep American cultural forces at bay, and he is profoundly grateful for the haven that Canada offered his family after the war, he is sharply resistant to the authorities – be they government, medical, or religious – meddling in people's lives.
Or their deaths. "The image of a half-dozen hale and hearty suited men in their 40s and 50s, to add still another layer of review to someone who's in indescribable agony, is an arrogance that I don't think we should have to countenance," he says. "If you think there's something purifying about that kind of pain, then you are welcome to it. But that you should have the hubris to tell me, is astonishing."
His pace, normally mannered, quickens as he speaks of himself as a non-conformist. "I'm not afraid of being the outsider," he explains. "Because, you know, when you see yourself as an outsider, there are two classic responses. I think the majority of people try to pass. And I rather intuited what Cocteau said." To wit: 'Whatever the public blames you for, cultivate it; it is yourself.'
Sometimes, the non-conformity and passion for advocacy can bump up against ethical boundaries. A documentary entitled Pensioner Power, which aired on VisionTV before the federal election last fall, noted that seniors in Israel, Croatia, and Slovenia had enjoyed brief success with their own political parties, but that their power had quickly withered; the program concluded they were better off trying to effect legislative change through lobby groups. Though the program amounted to an extended commercial for CARP, it failed to disclose Zoomer's ties to the group.
If Mr. Znaimer values independence, the modern Canadian media market does not. In 2009, Zoomer paid $25-million for a collection of assets that included VisionTV and OneTV, a small specialty channel focused on wellness and spirituality. The purchase, Mr. Znaimer said at the time, "puts me back into TV, where I have a little experience, and a few ideas that should grow shareholder value." He received a vote of confidence when Prem Watsa's Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. purchased 28 per cent of ZoomerMedia Ltd. for $17.6-million, giving the company a $63-million total valuation.
But Zoomer has lost more than 60 per cent of its value since then; this week, its market capitalization hovered in the neighbourhood of $22-million. Zoomer magazine loses about $1-million annually; although Mr. Znaimer insists advertising agencies are starting to realize the value of targeting his "gang," last year both the magazine's subscriber and ad revenue were down. Still, Mr. Znaimer's own financial situation remains comfortable: He has a professional services contract with ZoomerMedia that pays him a flat rate of more than $1.5-million in annual compensation.
He says he is unconcerned about the share price. "Do I wake up every day looking to pump my stock? No," he says. "I don't know and don't look at the share price." He chuckles. "I know I'll be drummed out of the club of CEOs." (Still, when I mention the low market cap during a subsequent interview, Mr. Znaimer retorts that the share price has just gone up.)
To be sure, even the large media operators are flailing. Bell Media's conventional TV stations, which include the CTV and CTV2 networks, lost more than $20-million in the year ended Aug. 31, 2015. Rogers Media, which now owns the CITY-TV network, recorded a whopping $67-million operational loss on its conventional TV operations. But independent channels such as Vision are worse off because they have little negotiating muscle with the companies that bring them into people's homes, such as Rogers Cable or Bell Fibe.
"All the cards have been dealt to the [carriers]," says Mr. Znaimer. "There's this radical imbalance of power, and regardless of how good my channel might be, it is a rounding error in a company that's doing 12- or $20-billion a year." He blames the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for giving the green light to pick-and-pay under the guise of empowering consumers, and for failing to make the argument that bundling channels is both financially and culturally advantageous. "The beauty of the bundle is that it permits falling on something you didn't know about," he says.
Once an energetic prophet of the future, he now sounds disheartened by how things have turned out. "The thing about buying exactly what you want is that you're in these silos. The digital world, which appeared to be this combining force when it first arrived, has now revealed itself to be a tremendous fragmenting device," he says. Still, Mr. Znaimer insists there is life in the old channels: He'd love to get his hands again on CITY or MuchMusic.
"There are managers who want to suggest [the channels] are in the grip of history. And I believe that talent matters," he says. "We have too many suits and too many MBAs on that side of the business." The art of the channel has been lost, he says. But is that because the channels stopped trying to be more than mere collections of shows? (Mr. Znaimer decries the large companies that program the same shows across many of their properties: This year, for example, the drama Castle aired on Bell Media's CTV, CTV2, and Bravo.) Or is it because viewers have now become their own programmers, rendering the notion of the 'channel' obsolete?
In 1995, Mr. Znaimer produced and starred in TVTV, a three-hour pet project that aired on CBC. In the special, he unveiled his 10 Commandments of Television, McLuhanesque aphorisms that highlighted the medium's political power and esthetic underpinnings. Some were mere platitudes ("Television is the triumph of the image over the printed word") while others only later became obvious. ("TV is as much about the people bringing you the story as the story itself.")
But it's difficult, in this era of social media, to not notice that the most insightful of his commandments are even more applicable to the new platforms. Like this one: "The true nature of television is flow, not show; process, not conclusion." (Here's looking at you, my endlessly scrolling Twitter and Facebook feeds.) Or this: "Print created illiteracy. TV is democratic. Everybody gets it." He might as well be talking about Instagram or Snapchat.
Mr. Znaimer himself has a Twitter account, but despite its smiling avatar, he is a largely unenthusiastic user of the service. He says he understands the appeal of social media, but he finds it enervating. "It's the attraction of being a star. Everybody gets to be a star for a minute," he shrugs. But the sheer volume of users – take Speakers' Corner and multiply it by millions – "reduces it to meaninglessness. So – everybody and nobody is a star. And [Warhol's] 15 minutes has been reduced to 15 seconds." He sniffs. "So – fine."
Technological upheaval is not the only fight Mr. Znaimer has been waging: He has also been fending off lawsuits. A developer of seniors residences by the name of Bruce Stewart said in a statement of claim filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that, in 2010, he was creating a customizable TV service – something like the news channel CP24, with its split screens and local content – that would be carried in retirement residences, adult-lifestyle condominiums and seniors apartments. He claimed that Zoomer requested a meeting with him early that year, and that Mr. Znaimer himself was so intrigued with his idea that he "advised Stewart that [he] should look no further for funding as ZoomerMedia would be able to provide all funding that would be required." According to the claim, Zoomer committed to providing content, too.
But Zoomer failed to fulfill its financial obligations, according to the claim, and in May, 2011, the company informed Mr. Stewart that it would not be proceeding. By that point, unable to carry on without a partner, Mr. Stewart shut down the business and sued Zoomer for breach of contract. In a statement of defence, Zoomer denied all of Mr. Stewart's claims, including the suggestion that it had ever pledged any funding. None of the allegations were proved in court. After years of attempted mediation, Mr. Stewart dropped the suit last month, citing legal costs. In a statement to The Globe, he said that dropping the suit, "does not alter the facts encompassing the proceedings."
In the meantime, Zoomer lost a separate breach-of-contract dispute. In 2012, Bill Roberts was dismissed without severance from his job as president of Zoomer's TV division, which included VisionTV. He sued, and in February won a summary judgment in the amount of $672,000, plus $80,000 in costs. Last month, Zoomer filed an appeal.
That suit caused the collapse of one of Mr. Znaimer's most enduring friendships. He and entertainment lawyer Michael Levine had met in 1973 when Mr. Levine, representing the aspiring celebrity interviewer Brian Linehan in contract talks with CITY-TV, wound up signing Mr. Znaimer to his agency roster as well. But Mr. Levine, one of this country's few true media machers , had represented Mr. Roberts in his contract talks with Zoomer, and he said Mr. Znaimer's behaviour in the matter had deeply disappointed him.
"I've rarely in my life met such an original brain," Mr. Levine told me last month, speaking of Mr. Znaimer. "His enormous contribution has sometimes been overlooked – partly because of personality, and partly because technological change and other circumstances occurred beyond anyone's control, that absolutely put him in a less prominent position than he should have been."
"But our attitude to other individuals was very different from the beginning, and I tended to overlook behaviour that made me uncomfortable for a long while, until I couldn't any more."
He added: "I have no anger – and I think this is important to put on the record. I have profound sadness, because I respect him to this day, enormously. I am extremely fond of Marilyn Lightstone, and I have many happy memories of adventures together." But "I'm very moral about certain things, and I have certain attitudes about how you treat people."
When I ask Mr. Znaimer about the fact that he is no longer close with old friends such as Mr. Levine, he chuckles, which he seems to do when he is uncomfortable. "That's another thing I'm not gonna tell you," he says. "These things come, these things go. There are a lot of people who are still with me."
By that point, we have been talking for more than two hours. Outside, nighttime is taking hold. Mr. Znaimer stands up and begins to point out some of his memorabilia: a poster for Tamara's New York run; some 3-D photographs, framed in light boxes, of CITY-TV personalities in action; a hi-fi with Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems on the turntable. ("Peter Munk doesn't have his any more," Mr. Znaimer crows. "I've got two of them."). Off to the side of his desk, a sculpture of a man carving himself out of rock.
Mr. Znaimer says he is headed off again soon, to the annual MIPTV marketplace in Cannes. He is going primarily as a buyer, but Zoomer has a growing collection of health-and-wellness shows it might try to sell internationally.
They aren't his first foray into the genre. In the early eighties, CITY-TV's 20 Minute Workout featured three women performing aerobic routines on a rotating platform as the camera slowly swooped up and down their unitard-clad bodies. It was produced by a fashion photographer who later went on to shoot erotic art.
I mention the show to Mr. Znaimer, and his face lights up. "Don't you think that was a great show? Bess Motta," he exclaims, naming the host. He begins to purr in a Southern accent, in an apparent imitation of Motta. "'I know you're strong. I know you can. One mo'. Two mo'! Three mo'!' She had this little trickle that went down her chest after a while." Mr. Znaimer pinches three fingers to his mouth and makes a kissing sound, like a chef praising his own recipe: "Mwah!" He is thinking of bringing the show back, he says. "Bess! We found her! She's a girl of about 55 now." Mr. Znaimer seems swept up by the idea. He begins quoting Motta from the old days, when she would urge viewers to keep going, to never give in to exhaustion, to never give up.
For a moment, he seems to be speaking to himself. "'Oh, I know you're strong!'" he coos in his Motta voice. "'One more. I know you can. I know you can.'"
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Gail Goldman's name. This is the corrected version.
Simon Houpt is The Globe's senior media writer. You can reach him at email@example.com