Moses Znaimer (Interview)

No one loves TELEVISION more than Moses ZNAIMER - and few can claim to have done more to influence its direction. Znaimer, who never gives his age, foresaw the rise of specialty TV and created techniques now copied worldwide to break down traditional walls between performers and their audience.

Znaimer, Moses (Interview)

No one loves TELEVISION more than Moses ZNAIMER - and few can claim to have done more to influence its direction. Znaimer, who never gives his age, foresaw the rise of specialty TV and created techniques now copied worldwide to break down traditional walls between performers and their audience. The Citytv empire he oversees totals 17 specialty channels - including Bravo! and MuchMusic - and eight local outlets between Toronto and Victoria, and City licenses similar stations from Argentina to Finland. Znaimer recently opened the MZTV Museum in Toronto, which traces the history and impact of television around the world over a century. From June 19-21, he's also host of Toronto's IdeaCity Conference, a gathering of prominent Canadian Big Thinkers where Maclean'swill serve as a media sponsor. Znaimer talked recently toMaclean'sEditor Anthony Wilson-Smith. Excerpts:

Maclean's: You've just opened a museum dedicated to television. What motivated you, and what is TV's place in society right now?

Znaimer: My motive was to counteract a ceaseless barrage of 40 or 50 years of criticism levelled at my chosen vocation everywhere you turned, particularly in print, and among the academics, politicians, and clergy. It rang false to me. That was a fundamental moment. My second moment was, I fell in love with the objects. I responded to their earthly beauty, their simple elegance.

Maclean's: Do you have a lot of sets at home?

Znaimer: Eleven at home, 16 in my office.

Maclean's: Do you remember the moment when you said, 'TV, that's for me, where I want to spend my life'?

Znaimer: The moment was when I bought the family's first television set, with the money I'd received for my bar mitzvah. This was the middle Fifties. We were in a third-floor walk-up, and the workmen kind of manhandled this thing, finally uncrating it, sticking it in the corner of the living room. My bed was in the other half of this living room. And there I was, later that night, half up on my elbow, watching TV, my parents turning occasionally to shoo me in, and I had this "aha!" moment: it was not only my house, and delivered to me, it was on tap. I could turn it on, and it was in my bedroom. I understood in an intuitive way that not very much gets into peoples' bedrooms - it's the ultimate in intimate - and that was significant in some really profound way.

This, however, ran parallel with, and in a curious way, contradicted my education, which was classical and almost formal, and book-oriented. I did Bible studies, which very few people did, in the original language. Talmudic studies. So I had these parallel streams

Maclean's: You have over the years talked a lot about the potential for television to educate when, in fact, many educators aggressively sneer at the medium.

Znaimer: Intuitively, I always felt that education and the high arts totally missed the boat on television, and made an unnecessary enemy of a great instrument. If you don't get the next generation involved, what is the future for opera? What is the future for ballet? What is the future for reading? If you want to interest young people, you're going to have to speak their language. And instead of taking the media for its potential, some educators created a distance from TV, and spurned it, and it's all so pathetically self-defeating. Well, the battle is over: TV has won. It is arguably the fundamental technology of the last 100 years. It's not only the box we see that gives us sitcoms, it's a foundation technology radar, it's a foundation technology space fair, it's a foundation technology medical advancer.

Maclean's: You pioneered interactive TV, the breaking down of the traditional walls. Where do you see interactivity going - the converging of computer and TV? Is this inevitable, or are they separate streams?

Znaimer: It's got layers of answer in it. First, the technology now exists to really advance interactivity. You watch City and Much now, we're the first out of the box. You see the little "I" up on the TV screen? If you're enabled, you can punch that and you're going to get some value-added off the box. What that might be in real terms is obviously in the process of an investigation. And all that's well and good, and we're there.

That's answer one. Answer two is, I am not persuaded that this will develop as an all-purpose machine. In fact, I am unpersuaded, in the sense that you could build something that could drive on the street, deploy a wing and fly, and float on the water. That'd be a pretty awkward concept, not to mention kind of crazy-expensive, and hard to maintain. And that's my feeling about where it's going. Ultimately, the beauty of television is its utter simplicity. You know, there are vast tracts in the world where they don't have cellphones, and they do have TV, and there are vast tracts in the world where they don't have a pot to piss in, and they don't have a toilet, and they do have TV. Who knows if there'll be another thing like it?

Maclean's: Television has been a shared experience: people watch shows at home at night, and discuss them at the office the next day. How does the fragmentation of viewership affect that?

Znaimer: I'm not as nostalgic for that as some people are. Look, there was a time when there was one god, one king, the official voice - things were kind of clear. You know how to get a 100 per cent share of tuning? Have one channel. It's the Soviet way. It was our way: the CBC. And in a way, the CBC has been kind of downhill ever since. It hasn't really quite ever adjusted in a kind of comfortable way with new reality. Fragmentation is a negative word, and it betrays in its language the position of the guy who had it all, and resents every slice that disappears. Once upon a time, the big issue was, who gets to speak? Now, there's a new issue, and the new issue is, if we're all talking, who's listening?

I say to the people who are nostalgic about that enforced togetherness: work harder. It's the art and science of persuasion, and you can't ever get complacent, because you can't count on them coming back to your one-track any more, so you have to engage their attention. If you can't force 'em, you've gotta seduce 'em.

Maclean's: In the future, should Canadian content regulations be lifted, strengthened or left the same?

Znaimer: What every left-wing idiot in the country would like is for the private guys to be revealed for the treacherous, hard-hearted capitalist lunatics that they really are, yeah? And the best way to do that would be to relieve them of their obligations. They would all go thundering directly into the arms of America, and the CBC would be revealed as our last bastion of nobility and grace. It's a crock. I'm not looking for less Canadian content: I want to make more Canadian content. I resent deeply the way the argument plays itself out, because it suggests that they are nicer people than we are; they do this because they're better-quality human beings. The fact is, they do it because we pay them to do it, and it is sometimes remarkable to see how little of it they have done.

I've been trying for 100 years to produce fiction, but I'm disqualified. The government wrote rules, all of which basically got rigged to benefit the CBC in an off-balance sheet form, or to stuff productions of Alliance Atlantis and two or three others, so-called independents who have taken all that money. I'm saying, you think I don't want to produce prime-time drama? I've been thinking about it my whole life. You say to any privateer who wants to do it, 'Here's a million dollars an hour. Your show's gotta be written by Canadians, directed by Canadians, acted by Canadians. You've got to spend the entire budget on the actual doing of the thing, OK? You get to sell it internationally.' You would see this tremendous blossoming of new brains, more runners, some of which will succeed. That's excellence.

Maclean's: Are you a Canadian nationalist?

Znaimer: Yes. By that, I mean there is a Canadian voice. The excitement of living in Canada at this time is you not only get to discover it, but you get to define it. That's the beauty of a not yet fully defined country. Canadian culture is what you and I are interested in, and there are many others like us, but it's the sum total of that. That's an important difference from what it might be in the old established cultures; I mean, you come to England, France, and the basic message is, 'We've been here for a thousand years, you can try and add something, but really, we don't need you.'

Maclean's: If you had not been a TV guy in any way, what would you have been?

Znaimer: I was headed to be a print guy. My early heroes remain writers, and I had decided early on that I was headed for some kind of punditry. I read Max Learner, and as a teenager, I read Walter Lippmann, I read the columnists, and I thought maybe I might do that kind of thing. I was disabused when I finally got to the world, and found they weren't much interested in my background, my education. By contrast, television was relatively new and, for that reason, less fossilized. Once I turned my hand to it, I found I had a knack for it. The best reason for loving anything still is that it loves you.

Maclean's: How tempted were you ever to leave here for the United States?

Znaimer: My tragedy is that I succeeded here. And why do people go? Ivan Reitman didn't go to California because he had a burgeoning film career in Canada; he went to California because he had no film career in Canada. So my tragedy is that at every step, I was actually getting done what I wanted to get done.

Maclean's April 29, 2002