On Toronto's trendy Queen Street West, a crowd is pressing against the glass of the neo-Gothic monument that once served as the symbol of uptight WASP rectitude, the former headquarters of the Canadian Methodist Church. Now home to City TV, dubbed "the temple of the ultra-hip" by San Francisco-based Wired magazine, the storefront set offers a glimpse of television-in-the-making - a jungle of exposed cable where, inside a spotlit clearing, Monika Deol, the stunning Sikh star of MuchMusic's live dance party, boogies in a traffic-stopping denim micro-mini. For passersby, the impression is one of hustle and hype, a study in unscripted exuberance that president Moses Znaimer likes to call his "Living Movie" - a phrase for which he has obtained the registered trademark. But upstairs in the black-walled office that is the hushed, artfully lit heart of Znaimer's empire, another sort of living movie is unrolling. Here, where a dozen TV sets lend the room an eerie glow, every gesture is calculated, each phrase uttered in practised tones. Beneath the television lights permanently installed above his huge oval black desk, the man routinely hailed as one of the country's most innovative broadcasters is already savoring his new role as the victim of the print media. "Print has been pissing on television since the day it arrived," he bristles, arguing that book-learning is headed for the scrap heap of history. "I want some respect for my profession. People haven't appreciated it as a creative act." For years, Znaimer has been repeating that refrain. And last month, the CBC turned over three hours of its Sunday night prime time to the bad boy of Canadian broadcasting, allowing him to make that argument as the self-styled philosopher king of the small screen. In the course of a $1-million special entitled TVTV: The Television Revolution, Znaimer so inflamed the critics with his trumped-up thesis of a media war that he promptly found himself the butt of his own self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Far-fetched nonsense," scoffed The Globe and Mail's John Doyle, while The Toronto Star's Greg Quill dismissed him as "an outrageous pompous bore, a self-promoting Big Brother talking down to us all." For Toronto Sun columnist Claire Bickley, Znaimer's costumed star turns - one minute as a conductor in white tie and tails, the next in jodhpurs and riding boots as Gen. George Patton - seemed so "ludicrous" that she dubbed him a "New Age Mr. Dressup." But the most damning verdict came from viewers themselves, who left the show with one of the lowest Sunday night ratings in CBC history.
For Znaimer, that rebuff merely provided confirmation of the role he has carved out for himself throughout his career: that of the scrappy outsider constantly taking on the Establishment. "He loves to position himself that way," says former CBC colleague Peter Herrndorf, now head of TVontario. "But it's hard to take seriously. We're talking about a man who, inside the broadcasting system, has been a highly skilled player." Agrees Ivan Fecan, the head of CTV's flagship Baton Broadcasting: "Moses makes a profession of being the outsider. But in any roster of who the Establishment of Canadian television is, he'd be right up there."
Indeed, with two major stations and three national networks - including his controversial new arts channel, Bravo! - even Znaimer is finding that outsider's role increasingly difficult to carry off. As the dizzying new 500-channel universe looms on the horizon, television executives from around the globe have taken to pilgrimaging to his upstart station on Queen Street West to study its interactive formulas as a recipe for survival. And at a time when the competition for viewers' attention is becoming increasingly stiff, analysts are predicting the emergence of more channels with City's feisty, in-your-face style - one that is both defiantly local and global in its ambitions. Already, Znaimer has spun off MuchMusic's storefront video formula into Montreal's Musique Plus and Buenos Aires' MuchaMusica, with another contract just inked for Mexico City. And his productions, including Jeanne Beker's FT-Fashion Television, have been sold to more than 50 countries.
As if those were not conquests enough, now he is awaiting a decision, expected this summer, from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for approval of the landmark application that he calls "the great mission of the next phase of my career." In typically provocative Znaimer timing, at the very moment that he was trumpeting the demise of the western intellectual tradition in TVTV, he was in Edmonton seeking the CRTC's blessing for his takeover of Alberta's Access educational channel from Ralph Klein's government for $1 - the country's first privatization of a public network.
Since Klein's alternative was to close down the operation as part of his budget-cutting spree, the hearings seemed little more than a bureaucratic nicety. But to many, that bailout provides a disturbing precedent. With critics already tolling the death knell for the CBC, not only does the sale serve as a test case for privatization, but it offers commercial broadcasters their first foot in the door of the potential advertising gold mine of public educational television. Already, Znaimer and his Learning Skills Television of Alberta group have asked for the right to ad revenues - a move vigorously opposed by the Alberta Broadcasters Association. In the most strongly worded objection, Glenn O'Farrell, vice-president of the CanWest Global System, charged at a CRTC hearing last month that, under the guise of a provincial learning channel, Znaimer would be acquiring the infrastructure for Calgary and Edmonton clones of City TV, unfettered by public accountability. "What we're saying," O'Farrell warned, "is you may be agreeing to the demise of public educational broadcasting as we know it."
Still, if the CRTC's approval seems sure to cement Znaimer's place in the pantheon of the Canadian communications establishment, no one seems more determined to fight that status than the brash iconoclast who set out 22 years ago to take on what he brands "old fart television." During the final shoot for TVTV, he suddenly slips around the corner of his office suite to a bedroom loft complex and opens a mirrored closet. With a flourish, he produces his sartorial pride and joy: a full-length navy Mao coat bought in Beijing for $40. He slips it on, twirling beside his desk like a runway model as he exults: "Revolution - that's the theme of my life."
Indeed, so taken is Znaimer with his revolutionary image that he tries to pitch a computerized image of himself as Vladimir Ilich Lenin as a magazine cover. Weeks later, undaunted, he will produce a new version, this time of himself as Mao, under the message: "Let 500 channels bloom." For hours, he argues, cajoles, even insults, in a curious exercise that seems more about style than substance. Finally, in the small hours of the morning, he tries one last anguished plea. "Does that mean," he bleats, "you don't see me as a TV revolutionary?"
The interview, scheduled for 5 p.m., begins four hours late - without apologies. And like all interviews with Moses Znaimer, it has been preceded by an elaborate public relations minuet. Before meeting, he demands approval of all photographs. As it turns out, the pioneer of freewheeling we-leave-the-flaws-in TV has a distinct distrust of spontaneity. That compulsion to control his own image is hardly surprising from the author of one of the Znaimer maxims inscribed on the black T-shirts for sale in the station's lobby boutique: "The struggle for individual personality is the struggle for the modern age." But staffers also blame Znaimer's photo phobia on his previous incarnation as a CBC star. More than 25 years ago, as a tousle-haired charmer on the network's afternoon talk show Take 30, Znaimer was routinely deluged with fan mail from adoring housewives. Now, his mop of curls has given way to thinning locks twisted back into a knot over his signature black suits and white shirts. At 52, he still cuts an elegant figure. But three years ago, during his abortive bid for a fifth British channel, writer Emily Bell of The Observer cited English journalists who had cruelly likened him to E.T. and "the appearance of Anthony Hopkins as the reptilian media mogul in David Hare's Pravda."
Still, with a print of Niccolò Machiavelli on prominent display behind his desk, Znaimer also makes clear that he revels in mind games for their own sake. As he points out, he has never held more than minority interest in his own empire. And in 1981, he ceded his shares to current owner Allan Waters of Toronto's CHUM radio group. "I'm proud to say I've stayed in the saddle by force of the power of ideas," says Znaimer. "I have had control by being nimble and quick."
At meetings of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, that penchant for psychological one-upmanship has frequently offended colleagues. "Moses' general style is to demonstrate that he's the one with all the brains and the rest of us are dullards," says one official. "It burns their asses." But during a Toronto meeting on television violence last year, that chippiness earned him grudging respect. As his fellow media moguls looked on aghast, Znaimer blasted CRTC chairman Keith Spicer for increasing on-air mayhem by allowing more U.S. channels into the country. "He quite literally savaged Keith," the official marvels. "That was one time we all sat there and silently cheered."
In fact, like the medium he has made his lifework and passion, Znaimer is difficult to pin down, a quixotic study in contradictions. Within the space of an hour, former associates will characterize him both as a sentimental softie and a shrewd manipulator - a man of intense, even touching loyalties who nursed his dying mother with unflagging tenderness two years ago, but who has also become known for his abrupt firings. During an interview, he tries on various personae with the ease of his costume changes in TVTV, yet seldom allows a glimpse of the man behind the stylized masks. One minute he is the prophet without honor in his country: "My tragedy is to have been successful in Canada," he declares without a trace of irony; the next, he dismisses the notion that he might have moved to the United States. "It never crossed my mind," he insists. "I have a sense of serious obligation."
For Toronto writer Bruce Powe, Znaimer is a distinctly Canadian phenomenon, not unlike Pierre Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan, two other charismatic rebels whom he profiled in The Solitary Outlaw - a book that Znaimer was toting when he sought out its author two years ago. "I think there's a tradition in Canada in that many of the iconoclasts and visionaries are deeply enigmatic - a bit evasive, cloaked," says Powe. "There's an insider-outsider quality." CityPulse anchor Anne Mroczkowski agrees. "He doesn't live a conventional life," she says, "so it feeds the aura, the mystique of the Moses legend."
Part of that legend was immortalized in a Toronto Life cover story last June entitled "Moses' Women." But for the past 33 years, the man who has not been reluctant to nourish his own playboy image has shared his life with award-winning actress Marilyn Lightstone, who now provides the velvet offscreen voice of Bravo! They met as undergraduates at the McGill Player's Club, when he was a freshman and she was already a campus star. "She was an older woman," he says, "and she picked me up. Ms. Lightstone taught me how to hold my knife and fork." Later, during a weekend at Harvard, where he was studying for his MA, they found a print of a Renaissance madonna which still hangs over his desk - a striking likeness of Lightstone. But beside it hangs an etching of Spinoza, whose eyes, Znaimer pointedly remarks, unasked, "remind me of another girl I once knew."
In fact, as master of a station known for its sexy image, he seems terrified of seeming less than a Sixties-style free spirit. In 1978, when writer Val Ross profiled the Znaimer-Lightstone relationship for Chatelaine, she found a note the actress had left on the refrigerator: "To whom it may concern, take good care of him," it read, concluding with the date of her return from the Maritimes. Znaimer phoned Ross later, miffed - but not, it turned out, at that indiscretion. "You made me sound like a one-woman man," he wailed.
For nearly two years, Lightstone played a lead role in his Los Angeles and New York City productions of Tamara, a theatrical thriller where the audience pursues the assorted plot lines unfolding in assorted rooms. And in 1976, on the opening night of Miss Margarida, another play he produced for her, he sprinkled the corridor to her dressing room with rose petals in homage to a relationship he still describes as "spine-tingling." Despite his protests that he is "more interested in a romantic relationship than a domestic one," Lightstone has long shared the airy heritage house he is painstakingly restoring on the edge of Toronto's High Park. In fact, that sylvan setting seems a paradoxical choice for the determined urban hipster who declares: "Grass makes me nervous." But in another twist, he has lately taken to seeking out "lots of fear" on annual Outward Bound survival experiences in the wilderness.
Survival, in fact, has been the theme of Znaimer's life since the summer of 1942 when his birth waylaid his parents in the remote Soviet province of Tajikistan. On the run from Hitler's pogroms, they had been headed toward Shanghai when he arrived on the scene in what he recalls as a "sort of baked mud hut village." Applying for asylum in Canada, his mother knew his tubercular lungs would never pass the admission X-rays and substituted a neighbor's boy for inspection. But he started life with that child's view of the world as a perilous place. "My first consciousness," he says, "was there was this vast universe out there waiting to kill me."
At 6, that consciousness was replaced with another perception that would drive him for the next half century - a refugee's outsider sensibility. Snapped by a photographer coming down the gangplank at Halifax's Pier 4 with a boatload of other displaced persons, his photo appeared in a national magazine above the cutline: "DP with a future." That title - and slur - put him at the bottom of the social pecking order on St. Urbain Street, the east-end Montreal neighborhood chronicled by Mordecai Richler in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, where the family found a third-floor walk-up.
His father, who revered learning and opera, eked out a living as a bricklayer and later a shoe store clerk. "He was one of those guys sitting in the back room of the store on Saturday, the busiest day," Znaimer recalls, "listening to the Met." His mother, the iron will in the family, was a waitress. With both at work, he was left to babysit his younger brother, Sam, now a Vancouver venture capitalist, and sister Libby, who is City TV's business reporter. "He was going through puberty," she says, "and he discovered having a cute baby in a carriage was a great way to meet girls." In fact, those who ask why Znaimer never settled down in mainstream mundanity need only ponder those boyhood duties. "I had my children," he says quietly.
Undersized and scrappy, he learned early to hustle pool and fight, already surviving by his wits. He boasts of a police record at the local station with the same pride that he refers to playing a gangster in Louis Malle's movie Atlantic City. "I developed this kind of stance," he says, stiffening in a caricature of his occasional make-my-day strut. "I think it affects your posture. And I still have it."
At the Jewish parochial school where his parents scrimped to send him, he identified with the Hebrew prophets, all solitary figures who pitted themselves against society. Then, on his first day at Herzliah Junior High School, a leonine figure strode into class, cocky and outrageous, providing a lusty role model. Poet Irving Layton, his seventh-grade teacher, walked up to the blackboard and began to scrawl 99.9 repeatedly across the slate, then suddenly, dramatically, whirled to make his point: 99.9 per cent of people are Philistines. "I didn't even know what a Philistine was," Znaimer recalls, "but I knew I didn't want to be one. The whole point was you want to be that one per cent and you can't be by being somebody else."
Already, he had refused to anglicize his name, stubbornly clinging to Moishe. And, enrolling at McGill, in what he describes as a rite of passage, he signed in as Moses - as he terms it, "the ultimate power name." Later, it was no accident that City became the first TV station to reflect Toronto's, and the country's, mosaic with ethnic faces and names on air. "I knew I wasn't the only immigrant," he says. "So where were they on TV? What I put on the air was merely reflecting life as I saw it on the street. But I also knew intuitively it was good business, because there were lots of us."
That notion has since become an on-air cliché. But in the early 1970s, it was an act of courage. "He made all of us feel it was OK to be ethnic," says former City reporter Mary Garofalo, now a star of Fox's A Current Affair in New York. "It was OK our mothers and fathers didn't speak English very well." As Monika Deol, the daughter of Punjabi teachers who was raised on a dairy farm outside Winnipeg, recalls: "When I was growing up, you never even saw anyone Asian on television. I felt like an outsider because of the media."
No one was more familiar with that formative influence than Znaimer who, at 13, handed over his $200 in bar mitzvah money to his parents to buy the family's first television set. In TVTV, he re-created the night it arrived, when, lying in bed behind the drape that separated his bedroom from the parlor, he peered out over his parents' heads at the flickering screen that would provide his own window on the world. Despite his family's reverence for academics, he never lost that fascination. And after winning scholarships to McGill and Harvard, he showed up on the doorstep of the CBC in Toronto to wangle his first job.
With co-producer Andrew Simon, he helped dream up radio's Cross Country Check-up and promptly landed in trouble with a typical Znaimer provocation: a show on the abolition of the monarchy. Banished to Ottawa, he commandeered a budget earmarked for a Sunday religious show and dashed off to Moscow to put together a 13-part series on the history of the Russian Revolution that launched his career as a CBC wunderkind. "I used to say what helped me understand the labyrinthian nature of the CBC," he quips, "was my study of the Communist party."
Hailed as a potential president of the corporation, Znaimer was boasting of his accolades one night to his mother when he met with an unimpressed silence. "So if you're so smart," she demanded, "why are you working for them?" It took two more years and a lacklustre detour into the venture capital business, but out of that maternal goad, City TV was born - an example of Znaimer's talent for adapting others' ideas to his own unique vision. In fact, the station was the brainchild of Israel (Sruki) Switzer, a Toronto broadcast engineer who realized that, under CRTC rules, cable companies were obliged to broadcast even low-power local signals. But when Switzer and his exuberant wife, Phyllis, turned to Znaimer for help with financing, he promptly stepped in as guiding program guru.
Cheeky, local and live-to-videotape, the station's initial formula - complete with Baby Blue Movies - owed less to its founder's philosophy than the fact that it was, as he admits, "wildly underfinanced." On screen, Znaimer might be trying to demystify the television process, leaving hardware and foibles exposed. But one backstage process he had no desire to expose was his incessant emergency shuttle to the bank. "The ultimate test of a business is 'Can you make the payroll?' " he says. "And on two occasions, we made the payroll with five minutes to go."
By 1975, City TV's debt had mushroomed to $1.5 million when the Montreal wing of the Bronfman family came to the rescue. Buying a 45-per-cent share through their Multiple Access Ltd., they promptly shipped in a Washington-based news doctor named Jacques de Suze, a leading U.S. broadcasting consultant. Booking into a Toronto hotel, de Suze watched TV for three days and noted that, at the time, the city had no major local newscast. Out of his recipe - "to create a very street-oriented style," as de Suze puts it - came the station's signature CityPulse news. In fact, many of the innovations credited to Znaimer - from videographers roaming the streets with hand-held cameras to anchor Gord Martineau roaming the scarlet newsroom - owe their origins to de Suze. Nineteen years later, he remains on exclusive contract in Toronto to City TV, despite the fact that - during hours of chronicling the station's origins to a reporter - Znaimer never once mentions his existence.
Still, even after Waters's CHUM group bought out the Bronfman interests in 1978 - injecting the ample financing that allowed the station to expand to its current digs - Znaimer instructed architect Les Klein not to lose City's raw, makeshift feel. "He said, 'That's what makes us the underdog,' " Klein recounts. " 'And I don't want to lose that spirit.' " Banning the notion of studios - and even the word - Znaimer insisted on a free-flowing storefront shooting "environment" where the spectators became part of the interactive plot. And disdaining journalists for what he likes to call "visual storytellers," he personally cast each on-air personality in a process that was frequently idiosyncratic.
Turning up for an audition, Mary Garofalo found herself ushered into Znaimer's empty boardroom while he watched a tape of her work. When he walked in, he sat at the far end of the boardroom table and inquired: "Do you really get paid for that s--?" Sizing up her ladylike frock, he ordered her to stand up and turn around. "Is this an indication of the rest of your wardrobe?" he demanded. Incensed, Garofalo got up to walk out. "He sat back very smugly and said, 'So you've got a temper!' " she recalls. " 'I like that.' "
Now, despite her New York success, Garofalo looks back on her City days as the highlight of her career. And last July, when she came back home to get married, Znaimer's wedding present to her was a honeymoon weekend at a Bordeaux château in which he owns an interest. "Since I've been in the big time, I can't tell you how many people are trying to copy his ideas," Garofalo says. "One day, Moses will be coming to the United States, and the day he does, there will be executives shaking in their boots."
But not all former employees have the same sense of nostalgia. Bill Cameron, whom Znaimer had lured from Global TV to anchor City's 10 p.m. newscast, was on vacation, his wife six months pregnant, when he found out that he had been fired. "At the time, I was shattered," he says. Although Cameron credits his City stint with "removing the starch from our collars - it was like a session with a major masseuse" - he now compares Znaimer to Kaa The Snake in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. "He can transfix a whole crowd of monkeys simply by looking at them," Cameron says. "They fall under his spell and then he devours them."
In early April, Moses Znaimer hopped onto a ladder beneath a spotlight in his studio-less universe to play a modern-day Medici. On the site of a former shipping area where rock bands once dropped off their drums, he unveiled a lavish rehearsal studio for his new arts channel, Bravo! "Elsewhere in this building, it's no secret there are animals who do rock 'n' roll," he told the assembled crowd, urging them to follow the example of MuchMusic. Announcing the creation of a video fund called Artsfact, he called on cultural companies to produce five-minute MTV-like performance shorts as marketing tools to entice audiences to the theatre. "Think of your performances as your albums," he said, "and think of the videos as your promotions."
But as waiters passed trays of hors d'oeuvres and wine among the crowd, few arts groups had shown up for the occasion. Many were still fuming over the CRTC's award of the country's first arts channel to the godfather of Canadian televised rock 'n' roll, who had promised as much as 60-per-cent foreign programming content during the network's first two years. A coalition of cultural groups filed a formal appeal with Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy. And although some later backed down, the Directors' Guild and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television & Radio Artists have proceeded with that protest.
Still, the outcry caught even Znaimer off guard. "I was not prepared for the antediluvian reaction," he says. "My God, you would have thought I was the devil incarnate." Not that he has ever been one to back off from a fight. When ACTRA's national president, Sandy Crawley, turned up at a City TV reception last fall to discuss the appeal, Znaimer called in the station's burly security team. "He said, 'You asshole, you've thrown doubt on my credibility,' " Crawley recalls. "Finally, he summoned some of his thugs and I was frog-marched out and told never to enter the building again."
Znaimer is still steamed at his critics. But since Bravo! went on the air on Jan. 1, many of them have been pleasantly surprised by the seriousness of its fare. And given the January cable revolt that threw the fate of all the new specialty channels into question, some arts groups have decided to rally around Bravo! as their last best hope for a cultural outlet. Acknowledged Keith Kelly, national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts: "This last dustup with the cable companies has made a lot of us go back and think about things."
For Znaimer, the fight was bitterly ironic: his Bravo! application was an afterthought, thrown together only days before the CRTC deadline. Having prepared seven other specialty channel applications, he found himself with unaccustomed time on his hands. "I said, 'Fellas, this is unbelievable. We're ready,' " he recounts. " 'Let's go for another one.' " In fact, Bravo! was scant consolation for the licence he had most coveted, his proposal for a nationwide Canadian Learning Channel. And now, both Znaimer's friends and foes see his bailout of Alberta's Access as a second chance at realizing that ambitious educational vision. Says Ian Morrison, head of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting: "What he has acquired is the infrastructure to run a Canadian Learning Channel without the licence."
But for the solitary outlaw of the country's airwaves, the Access project also offers a new way to pit himself against what he still perceives as the powers that be. "He has had the fame and recognition," says his sister, Libby. "I think he really wants to make a lasting contribution." Already, Znaimer talks lyrically of the fact that "teaching is one of the great Hebrew professions. It's a noble calling and it's a vast market." He pulls out a copy of the Talmud, the Hebrew scriptures, with scholarly commentaries running down each side. "There," he declares, "your first CD-ROM."
For a brief instant, the broadcaster who has spent his career attacking print seems caught in yet another contradiction. But then, in the new 500-channel universe he champions, Znaimer has already warned there will be less certainty, more ambiguity. It is a prospect that the czar of City TV, wrapped in his Mao rebel coat, clearly relishes. "The new world is dynamic, shifting," he smiles enigmatically into the night. "I like it."
Maclean's May 8, 1995