CFRN at 60: When TV really mattered.

Once upon a time, there was something called local TV. It was made up — quite literally — on the spot, live. Looking back on it today, it was probably pretty bad. But it was ours.

In my early years growing up in Edmonton, there were two channels. One was the CBC outlet, called CBXT. I suppose it produced some programs, but for the life of me I can’t remember them. But to most of the first generation of TV addicts, there was only one station. It was CFRN TV, channel 3.

CFRN — now under the bland corporate moniker of CTV Edmonton — was the source of all things television to those of us who grew up in the 1960s and into the 1970s. The channel is celebrating its 60th birthday this month, with a retrospective of what’s left of their old shows available on the CTV Edmonton (sigh) website. Aside from bringing up memories, the anniversary brings to mind just how much local TV has changed. And not entirely for the better.

Ask any kid in Edmonton today to name the shows they watch on TV, and you’ll get roughly the same answers, with The Simpsons reruns probably topping the list. You would get the same answers in any Canadian city today, or any North American city for that matter. TV has been homogenized. CTV Edmonton looks the same as CTV Calgary, and CTV Winnipeg, and CTV St. John’s, for that matter. The only differences between the channels is the news crew, where you’ll find different middle-aged veteran anchors, different younger co-anchors, different cheery upbeat ‘meteorologists’, and different sports guy/gal.

But back in the early days, every channel was different. I don’t know if CFRN was any better than CFCN in Calgary, or any other Canadian TV station, but it sure managed to produce a lot of memories.

First among them, and a beloved memory for thousands of Edmonton boomers, was Popcorn Playhouse, the legendary afternoon kids show. Thousands of Edmonton kids had their moment of fame on Popcorn Playhouse, interviewed however briefly by the legendary Eric Neville, who hosted the show with a casual charm that made him a made-in-Edmonton star. (You can read my rare interview with Eric Neville here, for a story I wrote for Avenue magazine. It’s one of my all-time favourite interviews.)

While Popcorn Playhouse remains the boomers’ fave (it has a Facebook page called Fans of Popcorn Playhouse, with 2,100 members), I was also a fan of The Noon Show, a weekday lunchtime hour of general nuttiness hosted by the smooth and unflappable Ed Kay (click here for a nice photo album from Ed) and frequently by the towering Norris McLean (my apologies for any incorrect spellings of names). The show had a house band, Gaby Haas and the Barndance Gang, which featured on the clarinet a deadpan comic foil named Clarence Plouffe. (Legend has it that a later Gaby Haas show on cable TV was the inspiration for the Schmenge Brothers on SCTV.) The highlight for any boy who raced home at lunchtime to watch the show (back in the day when mom was home in most families) was the daily airing of The Three Stooges. I loved the Stooges, as did pretty much every boy in Edmonton (I firmly believe that girls did not watch the Stooges). One of my favourite bits on the Noon Show was during the last show of the summer, they would dismantle the set as a deadpan newsreader (Sid Lancaster, as I recall) would read the news without missing a beat.

Afternoons were for ‘women’s programming’, which in Edmonton was a show called Laura, featuring Laura Lindsay (again, not sure of the spelling). I never watched it, even if I was home sick (or “sick”) from school, But everybody knew Laura Lindsay; I remember one day she came into my dad’s Jack and Jill store downtown, and it was slightly exciting to be in the presence of a celebrity. Sometime in the afternoon, weary housewives (or kids home “sick”) could watch an old movie on Siesta Cinema.

On weekends, CFRN really produced, with a couple of other legendary local shows.

Kids Bids was a peculiar show, to be sure. On Kids Bids, a small audience of children would bid on an array of prizes, using boxtops of Old Dutch potato chips as currency. The auctioneering would be conducted by a pair of real auctioneers, whose name I believe was O’Hara, who didn’t cut the kids any slack. They would rattle off their hyper rapid auctioneers pitch until some poor kid bid everything they had for something they probably didn’t want.

And then there was Kiddies on Kamera, a literally juvenile talent show. Kiddies on Kamera was exactly as advertised, minus the spelling. Every week, kids would display whatever talent they had on the show, and if memory serves me correctly, it was divided roughly equally between Highland dancing and baton twirling (occasionally, a really daring baton twirler would light the ends of the batons on fire). Now, that’s entertainment!

Nothing like this exists anymore, which is a shame. I’d bet that a modern version of Popcorn Playhouse would be a smash hit today, but no TV station wants to put those kind of resources into producing a live kids show. I can’t blame them; the cost would be tremendous, and it’s a lot easier and profitable to just plug Judge Judy or Ellen into that time slot. The days of TV producing homegrown celebrities is long past, and that’s kind of sad. CFRN was a big part of growing up Edmonton. Now, as CTV Edmonton, it’s just another interchangeable piece in the big media machine.

Political grab bag time.

And now, in lieu of a real blog of connected thoughts, here are some disjointed thoughts on matters political …

• The leadership race for the provincial New Democrats is even more of a snoozer than the PC leadership coronation of Jim ‘Don’t Blame Me’ Prentice. There are three candidates in the running. One is some guy I have never heard of, and see no need to get to know. The other two are two colorless sitting MLAs, David Eggen and Rachel Notley, both from Edmonton (Edmonton produces NDP leaders the way Calgary produces PC leaders, which is to say almost all of the time). Eggen is not a bad guy (I served with him in the legislature), but he is uninspiring and poor public speaker. In the legislature (not that anyone cares), he’s strictly a scripted questioner. If there’s any passion in Eggen, other than the desire to be an MLA, I haven’t seen it. Notley is better, but not by much. She oozes sincerity, but is as warm and inviting as a school librarian. Notley will win in a walk, I believe, which would be their best decision. Having a female socialist leader of a party will ensure the NDP retains the kit gloves treatment they have always received from the media. She’s no Brian Mason, who was good with the quip for the media, but she’s the next best thing.

•  It hardly matters who the New Democrats choose, however. The next election will come down to a Wildrose/PC winner-take-all brawl, with the NDs and the Liberals hoping to pick up the crumbs. And right now, it looks like the NDs will get the lion’s share of whatever is left over. Every ND and Liberal MLA in the legislature right now owes his or her job to personal popularity and working the doors. The NDs have a skill at targeting ridings and getting a candidate in early — sometimes years ahead of time — to give themselves a fighting chance of winning winnable ridings. The Liberals, however, are in their usual state of disarray. For example, while the other parties had candidates in place when the byelections were announced, the Liberals had nobody in place in two of the four ridings. The Liberals can frequently find good candidates, but then give them little or no backup. With two sitting MLAs (Calgarians Darshan Kang and Kent Hehr) leaving to take doomed attempts at winning for the federal Liberals, the Liberals will lose two valuable assets for the next election. The loss of Hehr, in particular, is a real blow, giving the party a sinking ship feeling.
• On the federal scene, Justin Trudeau is finally getting almost universally bad reviews for his ‘give peace a chance’ stance on combating the bloodthirsty maniacs called ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State, or whatever they’re called today. While the debate on Canada’s role in fighting this scourge is serious and important, Trudeau has been inarticulate and even juvenile, saying the government wants to “whip our our CF-18s and show them how big they are”. That’s pathetic. Trudeau has been rightly roasted in the papers, but one media outlet has been almost muted. The Sun papers, which have been foaming at the mouth over Trudeau since he won the Liberal leadership, have barely said a word. Even their resident Bill O’Reilley wannabe, Ezra Levant, has been mercifully silent. Could it be that the Sun is, however briefly, chastised by having to apologize to Trudeau for its grossly offside Levant rant? I think it’s hilarious that at a time when the Sun should be in its glory attacking Trudeau, they’re practically sitting on the sidelines. Maybe Trudeau really does lead a charmed life.

The Sun will never darken my door again.

A few weeks ago, a nice young man came to my door, offering a three-month subscription to the Edmonton Sun for $30. I know the Sun essentially sucks, but I figured, hey, $30 for three months of a newspaper. What’s the harm?

After about a week, I contemplated cancelling my subscription and getting a refund. After three months of having this daily right-wing screed darkening my door, I can tell you without contradiction that I will never, ever spend so much as a dime on the Edmonton Sun again. And this comes from a lifelong newspaper reader, someone who loves newspapers and wants them to thrive. But the Sun is indefensibly bad.

It’s not just its obsession with the Edmonton Oilers at the expense of real news. It’s not just that you have to wade through dozens of pages of car dealership ads to find the tiniest of news stories. It’s not just that the newsroom is so woefully understaffed that very limited space available for local news is swallowed up by enormous, space gobbling photos. It’s not just that it employs Canada’s worst editorial cartoonist. Considering the tragic state of newspapers today, I could almost live with all of these flaws. But what I cannot abide by  the fact that the Sun is now the Official House Newspaper of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, publisher.

The Sun is, and always has been, brazenly right wing. Right wing blather is what the Sun does, and I know that. It is what it is. But there is such a thing as being intelligently right wing. The Sun is not. It has now gone so ludicrously over the line, so Fox News-ish, that it now can’t even pretend to be objective.

The object of the Sun’s ire is, obviously, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau.

In the approximately 90 days I’ve been reading the Sun, I’ve seen anti-Trudeau stories or columns in easily 70 of those editions. I’m confident in saying that the name Justin Trudeau has appeared far more often in the past 90 days than the name of some guy named Stephen Harper. And Thomas Mulcair, the actual leader of the opposition? Barely rates a mention.

The Sun hates Justin Trudeau — and hates is not an exaggeration — because he represents the gravest threat yet to their glorious leader, St. Stephen of Harper. The attacks on Trudeau are relentless, and sometimes nearly devoid of facts. The Sun tried very hard to tar Trudeau as a terrorist sympathizer because he visited a supposedly radical mosque that was on some kind of government watch list. Turns out that Trudeau visited the mosque before the warning was issued, but that didn’t stop the Sun from trying repeatedly to make something out of nothing.

Then, of course, there’s Ezra Levant. I doubt if any Canadian newspaper has ever hired anyone so venal, so vicious. This self-aggrandizing blowhard has been given free reign to write columns with little regard for the facts. Why he remains in the employ of the Sun organization is beyond me, particularly after the Sun was forced to apologize this week to — ready for this? — Justin Trudeau. Levant went on a screed on his Sun TV show about Trudeau that was so wrong, so cruel to the Trudeau family, that the Sun was forced to apologize.

The Sun’s standard fall back position when Levant goes over the line, which he does regularly and with great glee, is that he is a commentator, and not a journalist, so he is not bound by the usual rules of journalism. This is total bullshit, of course. A columnist is bound by the same rules of accuracy of any reporter; he or she is allowed an opinion on the facts, but the information in the column must still be accurate. Levant apparently works under a different set of rules.

The fact the Sun supports the Conservatives is not reason enough to abandon the whole publication. Lots of papers have made the same mistake. But the Sun’s praise of Harper is so obsequious, so blinkered, so unflinching, that it has zero credibility as a newspaper in national matters. And I’m OK with any media outlet keeping a close eye at Justin Trudeau. For example, in Wednesday’s Sun, national bureau chief David Akin wrote a thoughtful, reasoned piece on Canada’s role in the war on ISIS. The Conservatives haven’t made up their minds yet, the New Democrats are asking pointed questions, but Trudeau’s Liberals have already said “The Liberal Party is not supportive of any extension into a combat role. We think Canada’s role should be strictly non-combat.”

Akin’s point was that the Conservatives and the NDP are discussing the matter, while the Liberals have made up their minds. This is important to bring up. This is how it should be done.

But Akin in a reasoned voice in the right-wing looney bin that is the Edmonton Sun. It is, quite literally, not worth the paper it is printed on.

Someone save me from another NHL season.

So here I am, basking in the late September sunshine, relishing a 27C day. That can only mean one thing — it’s hockey season!

Oh God, no! Didn’t it just finish last month? Or does it only seem like it?

I’ve actually grown to kind of hate the National Hockey League. I hate the grossly inflated size of the league. I hate the way the league has attempted to graft hockey onto any geographical area and arena that will have it. I hate its random, nonsensical approach to discipline for violent acts. I hate the fact the hockey season is spread out over three earth seasons. I hate the fact it only gets interesting when winter is on the way out.

But mostly, I hate how hockey has gone from pastime to obsession, obliterating everything else in its path. Take right now, for instance. Training camps are underway, and already the floundering local rags have devoted hundreds of thousands of words, gallons of ink and God knows how many trees to detailing the minutia of the Edmonton Oilers. From now until they are eliminated from the playoffs, the Oilers will be on the front page of the Edmonton Sun and Car Ad Daily a bare minimum of 100 times. The Edmonton Journal won’t match the Sun’s obsessive coverage, only because it doesn’t have the space. But today’s paper still managed a front-page picture of an exhibition game, and the paper’s only local sports columnist (Canada’s only sports columnist who has no opinions on anything) actually devoted his column to how much promise the Oilers show — after one exhibition game! Every game will be televised with the worst kind of small town ‘hooray for our team’ boosterism usually reserved for Texas high school football. Edmonton hockey fans will fill Rexall Place for every game, paying whatever the team asks for the right to sit on their hands and watch a thrilling tilt between Edmonton and arch rivals, Phoenix, then go out to their frozen cars in -30C weather and spend 40 minutes in the parking lot. They’ll pay whatever it takes for a beer because, hell, they’ve got wads of Fort Mac cash in their jeans, and they’ve got to spend it on something.

I’ll admit that I might get mildly interested in the Oilers sometime around February. I say February because, despite the fact it’s my birthday month, it is the dreariest, shortest-but-longest month of the year, and I always need something to distract me from the spirit-sapping tedium of an Edmonton winter. I hope they’re good — or, more importantly, entertaining. But otherwise, I don’t really care. I don’t care if the Flames are better than the Oilers, I don’t care if Toronto is lousy (although that would be my preference), I don’t care about Montreal, or Ottawa, or Vancouver, or Nashville (they still have a team, right?). Maybe joining a hockey pool would rekindle my interest in the NHL. But that would require actually paying attention to the league and the players, and that sounds like too much work.

I wish I enjoyed the popular obsession with the NHL. In this town, you can carry on hours long conversations with complete strangers if you casually mention the Oilers. But I just can’t bring myself to care about a billionaire’s plaything and his millionaire pawns. Wake me up when — if — they get to the playoffs. By then, it will be spring again.

A few kinds words about a Progressive Conservative. Seriously.

This is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to write. But I feel compelled to say a few kind words about — shudder — a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Oh, this is gonna hurt.

Dave Hancock has announced his retirement from politics. At 59, and after 17 years in elected office and pretty much every position in cabinet from minister to premier, it must have been a difficult decision. He would almost certainly have won another term, regardless of how the next election goes for the PCs, and have enjoyed a very well paid semi-retirement as a backbencher and respected party elder. But, as he quoted a former cabinet minister, it’s better to leave the stage while they’re still applauding. In keeping with that theme, I’ll give him a round of applause.

I served in the legislature while Hancock sat on the other side, always in the front row.  Hancock was a formidable foe, and in a good way. A lot of ministers during the Ralph Klein/Ed Stelmach governments answered even the most honest questions with a snarling insult. Hancock wasn’t that kind of guy. Ask him an honest question, and he would give you an honest answer. But he was no pushover. If he thought a question was stupid (and, believe it or not, that happened) or was unnecessarily combative, he could dish it out with the best of them. When he was angry, it was (apparently) genuine anger, unlike the feigned outrage that cabinet ministers would so often summon. While many cabinet ministers clearly dreaded question period, I always got the impression that Hancock relished it. He even had a sense of humour, the rarest of commodities in government.

Perhaps most importantly, he was competent. You’d like to think that anyone in a provincial cabinet would be competent, but — prepare yourselves for a shock! — many of them were not. Honest! There was no shortage of complete and outright boobs in the Klein/Stelmach governments, second-raters who rose up the ranks thanks to their ability to kiss the right asses. Hancock was not one of them.

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was known as ‘The Happy Warrior’ for his upbeat attitude and his obvious relish for politics. I think you could say the same thing about Hancock, a happy warrior for the cause. Oh sure, it was the wrong cause, but he was just the kind of guy we need in politics.

Worst. Leadership race. Ever.

Somewhere in my collection of flotsam and jetsam of old newspaper clippings from my youth, I have the famous Edmonton Journal paper from the day after the Progressive Conservatives, under Peter Lougheed, finally toppled the Social Credit dynasty. The headline, written in massive type in true Tory blue, read: “Now! It’s Lougheed!”

Now, as the longest reigning Canadian provincial government in Canadian history staggers to the finish line of its third leadership race in eight years, the most likely headline should be “Finally … it’s Prentice.” 

On Saturday, the PCs will announce the winner of their leadership race, and if all goes according to plans (and polls), the new man will be Jim Prentice, another Calgarian with extensive ties to The Industry. (Calgary, it seems, produces leaders or would-be leaders; Edmonton produces opponents. Good thing somebody does.)  As everyone knows, the PCs are in disarray. After 43 years in power, the party seems to be suffering from the political equivalent of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. If you were to lay a bet right now, it would seem the wise choice to put your money on the odds-on favourite in the 2016 election, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

But wait! The PC party obit has been written more often than Mark Twain’s. (Twain, after a premature obit appeared, famously said: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”) In some ways, when Prentice takes over the party, he will be in a better position than Alison Redford.

Redford, you may recall (and it seems almost impossible to believe, considering how far she had fallen), took over with sky-high hopes. Finally, the progressives cheered, a truly progressive Progressive Conservative. A worldly, big-city lawyer — and a woman! (I had a feeling the Liberals were in trouble when a long-time Liberal operative I know greeted the election of Redford not with dread, but with unbridled joy.)

Redford was, shall we say, a bit of a disappointment. The party Prentice inherits is in disarray, bedevilled by a series of puny, travel-related scandals and a general sense of exhaustion. While Redford started on a high with great expectations, Prentice starts with the party at a low ebb. In other words, nowhere to go but up.

(I write this based on my assumption that Prentice wins. If either of the two lame-duck candidates — professional dunderhead Ric McIver, or the slithering Thomas Lukaszuk — somehow wins, you can dust off that PC obit and run it today. If Prentice wins, we can happily write the long overdue obit of Lukaszuk.)

Prentice actually has some potential. After the feckless farmer Ed Stelmach, and the patrician Redford, all Prentice has to do is play the hard-nosed businessman type and ground the government’s silly fleet of airplanes. (By the way, this ‘scandal’ of Finance Minister Doug Horner taking his wife on the occasional plane ride is a whole lot of nothing. If there was an empty seat on the plane, as I assume there was on the times she went along, the actual cost to the taxpayer is nil. This is small change.) Alberta, after all, is in pretty good financial shape, and to most voters, that’s all that matters. Once Prentice realizes that he had billions of dollars to throw at any problem — health care, education, whatever the problem du jour is — he will make these problems go away in time for the next election. 

Once this dreadful, uneventful, petty leadership ‘”race” is officially over, Prentice can get down to business. His first order of business will be, of course, business. Get to work, avoid trivial scandals, and the Tories can easily extend their record setting longevity streak. The Wildrose is always just one dip into the lake of fire away from reminding the public of their extremist roots, as we saw in the last election. 

(By the way, the New Democrats are also holding a leadership vote, pitting the earnest Rachel Notley against the earnest David Eggen, and somebody else who is, I assume, earnest. Just thought I should mention it.)


Thomas Lukaszuk, world’s most expensive relationship counsellor.

OK, I have about a million questions about the Thomas Lukaszuk $20,000 phone bill scandal. Or maybe about seven. 

First, the background. It was revealed this week that Lukaszuk, the soon-to-be third place finisher in the anemic PC leadership race, rang up a $20,000 phone bill while on a personal trip to Poland. Lukaszuk first said it was because of ‘government business’, which at least had a ring of truth to it. But later it was revealed that the ‘government business’ was a call from a frantic cabinet minister who was involved in a family crisis. The police were called, and the minister felt unsafe, so the story goes. Lukaszuk, ever the hero, worked for about an hour on the file, helped the minister obtain a lawyer, exchanged a bunch of legal documents, then went back to his vacation. One hour of work, he says, and a $20,000 phone bill. 

The mind reels with questions. Such as:

1. Who is the cabinet minister? Lukaszuk says the matter in question is covered by a publication ban, which sounds like hiding behind legal mumbo-jumbo. Lukaszuk could safely say he got a call from Minister X about an urgent family matter without violating any publication ban. I guarantee you that everybody in the legislature press gallery knows who the minister is. 

2. Why Lukaszuk? Lukaszuk says he didn’t have a personal relationship with the minister, so why would he/she phone him? Lukaszuk was the deputy premier, and he says the call was referred to him after being pawned off on him by the premier’s office. Why in God’s name would anyone turn to Thomas Lukaszuk for advice? Remember, this is a guy who got into an argument with a senior citizen at the man’s home, and called the cops on him. Asking Thomas Lukaszuk for help is like turning to Charlie Sheen for personal advice.

3. Why didn’t Lukaszuk tell the minister to get lost? If I was in the same situation, and I got a call like that while on vacation, my response would be: “Are you kidding me? I’m on holidays! You’re a grown adult, take care of it. Call the cops or something, but why the hell are you bothering me about this?”

4. What kind of people did Alison Redford appoint to her cabinet? It’s frightening to think that there was someone in charge of a provincial government department and its multi-million dollar budget who was so baffled about how to handle a personal domestic problem that he/she felt the need to call in a stranger for advice. Good lord. 

5. Who leaked the info? Personally, I don’t care. Clearly it was somebody who wanted to discredit Lukaszuk , which seems pointless since Lukaszuk already does a great job of discrediting himself. But this is where the story gets even weirder. Reports today in almost identical stories in both papers say an opposition MLA and a researcher say Service Alberta minister Manmeet Bhullar approached them and told them to look into Lukaszuk’s phone records for some juicy dirt. Bhullar denies the story, but I believe it. 

6. What kind of name is Manmeet?

7. Why is the MLA making the accusations allowed to remain anonymous? If you’re going to make a charge like this, you should be required to put your name and face to it. Frankly, I’m surprised that the Journal and the Sun allowed the MLA to remain unnamed. If you’re an elected official, and you make a charge against another elected official, you should man up (or woman up) and allow your name to be used. What is the MLA afraid of? He/she can’t be fired or reprimanded. Making the claim anonymously is gutless and discredits the story, and the Journal and the Sun should have had the balls to tell the MLA that they needed a name, or no story. It’s unfair that Bhullar isn’t allowed to directly confront his accuser. 

After the endless stream of scandals large and small, and the unmistakable stench of decay wafting over the PC party, the final question is one that I imagine Jim Prentice must be asking himself: Why the hell did I ever want to be involved with this collection of idiots?