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Leaving CHCH

It was the ceiling tile that told the story just as my colleague, George Szostak, always said that it would.

For years, it hung broken, water-stained, and askew just outside the assignment area in the newsroom.

Occasionally, George would point to it and say: “There’s what kind of shape we’re in. When they fix that, I’ll know things are getting better.”

We all knew, of course, that the station had been living on borrowed time since the turn of the new millennium. That’s when CanWest Global bought us, and things really went south. They spent nine years stripping us of nearly every asset we had, while simultaneously scraping the leftovers, and trash from their programming schedule, into the Hamilton market. It didn’t work. They went bankrupt first.

Then came Channel Zero, looking like a white knight, from the east. But the ceiling tile didn’t change.

Through it all the staff that made the station run, ran harder. Each day, it seemed we were asked to do more, with less. Just part of the global economy, we figured. But occasionally friendly competitors from Toronto would shake their heads and marvel saying: ” I don’t know how you guys do it.” Channel 11 was turning out more live news each week than any of the four major Toronto stations, and doing it with less than half the staff of most.

It made you feel special. Proud. Part of something wonderful. And, why not? This was the little station that could. The station that brought Vincent Price, and Billy Van into Hamilton on a regular basis. The station that stole the premier of the blockbuster movie The Godfather, from American television networks. The station of huge personalities like Tom Cherrington, Dick Beddoes, Bill Lawrence, Vic Cummings, Matt Hayes, Ken Welch, and even King Kong Bundy — to name just a few. The Leafs on Eleven proved that our technical crews were some of the best in the world, and their expertise was in demand by Major League Baseball, American networks, and Olympic broadcasters, alike.

My first news director, Bert Cannings, was a legend in Canadian broadcasting, so much so, that the top award of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, bears his name. Our little newsroom was constantly poached by bigger Toronto stations that took Wei Chen, Suhana Marchand, Melanie Ng, Marianne DiMain, Ashley Rowe, Michelle Dube, and many others from our ranks.

And then came The Friday Massacre. One-hundred and sixty-seven talented people, terminated. Not ‘let go’. Not ‘laid-off’. Terminated, in the most cold and capricious manner imaginable. No wonder there is a lot of anger, and bitterness, not just among staff, but from countless viewers that watched a great, Hamilton institution, brought to its knees.

In the painful confusion, and blur of that last day I can’t say for sure, but as I walked past the assignment desk on my way to unemployment I believe that broken ceiling tile continued to hang, as it had for years, like a vulture waiting for the last throes of death.

A number of people have asked me what “really happened?” inside of CHCH.

I could regale them with tales of bad decisions, and even worse managers, but I won’t. Instead, I will look to close my chapter in the history of this great station on Saturday Jan. 30 at the Meridian Centre in Niagara on the Lake. That’s where the CHCH Sportsliners, a ragtag group of shinny enthusiasts, will play one of their last games for charity against the Wine Makers of Niagara. Recent weeks have been tough, with many of the departing players balking at the thought of donning station sweaters, and doing anything ‘good’ for CHCH; especially considering their recent treatment at the hands of the station ownership. I will leave you, with the same thoughts I offered them, on social media.

“I bear no ill-will toward the colour burst logo, it represents what was arguably the greatest independent television station in Canadian history. CHCH doesn’t belong to the owners, it belongs to thousands of incredibly loyal viewers who have a proprietary belief that it is “their” television station. The various owners are just caretakers of a community icon that is unique in broadcasting, and I’m proud to say that I spent most of my adult working life playing a part in something so rare and special. If I’m there to pull on the black jersey one more time, I won’t be doing it for Channel Zero, I’ll be doing it to honour the viewers that made me a valued part of their everyday life.”

( Originally published in The Hamilton Spectator: Jan.26, 2016) http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/6247936-leaving-chch-i-was-part-of-an-independent-tv-icon/

scoturquhart@outlook.com

I'm a veteran broadcast journalist, producer, writer, and talk show gadabout. I like to play bad hockey, drink good beer, take sporadic rides on my bicycle and generally annoy my family with Dad jokes and selective memory. ( Lois the dog, excepted. )

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