First of all, a disclaimer: I have passionately consumed, defended and absorbed the local and national output of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for nearly my entire life. I am proud and grateful for any association I have ever had with the CBC, including the opportunity to provide on-air municipal-council reports for its Cape Breton radio wing’s Information Morning broadcasts over the past decade.
This natural attraction and affection towards Canada’s public broadcaster has often coloured my views of our country’s private TV networks, particularly those that seem beholden to rebroadcasts of revenue-generating American series rather than pouring their resources into telling our stories. (Yes, I’m well aware that the CBC is still as guilty of this as anyone else, just over two decades after it dumped most of its prime-time U.S. content amid considerable fanfare.)
And yet, it’s impossible for me to tell my personal story as a young (and now middle-aged) Atlantic Canadian without giving credit where credit is due, in terms of a true East Coast success story that impacted my life from a young age. With this in mind, I’m happy to tip my hat to the folks who launched the groundbreaking ATV series Live at 5 just twelve days before I celebrated my 10th birthday, in September of 1982.
A little background: ATV, officially the Atlantic Television System, began in 1972 as a partnership between three private TV stations in Halifax, Moncton and Saint John, eventually spreading its reach throughout the three Maritime Provinces and becoming a key East Coast affiliate network for Canada’s biggest private broadcaster, CTV. I didn’t know this during my first ten years of life, during which ATV’s (and CTV’s) key purpose for little Adam was as a source of American cartoons and sitcoms, in addition to the occasional homegrown favourites like Definition and such children’s shows as Romper Room, The Uncle Bobby Show, Funtown, Harrigan and the only regionally-produced youth-oriented series I can ever recall from ATV’s early years, the Sydney-produced Shantytown.
That all changed in the fall of 1982, when my fifth-grade homeroom teacher at Ecole L’Ardoise, Nancy Sampson, told her Social Studies class that our first homework assignment was to go home and watch a brand new TV newscast that had just started up, and write down five news stories that we heard about on this particular show. Of course, it was The ATV Evening News: Live at 5.
I can’t remember what news stories caught my attention that night; the only thing I vividly recall from that particular assignment was the humour I derived in seeing Yassir Arafat’s name for the first time. (Remember, I was nine going on ten.)
Actually, that’s not true. I also remember, as clearly as if it was happening right now, the hard-hitting approach ATV took to its news presentation, with its aggressive theme music, colourful graphics, and the impossible-to-ignore personality of the first evening news anchor that I ever watched on a regular basis, Dave Wright. No matter what was coming out of his mouth, we just had a sense that it had to be important, whether he was covering a major international story or just inviting you to visit a part of “our Maritime neighbourhood.”
How wide was Dave Wright’s reach during his two stints of hosting the various incarnations of the ATV Evening News (1982-86 and 1988-93)? He was the only ATV personality ever imitated by my earliest CBC mentor, Switchback host Stan “The Man” Johnson, during Stan’s seven years at the helm of the Sunday-morning show. (To this day, I wonder if Stan ever got any blow-back, either from CBC or ATV, from his live-on-air vocal impersonation of Wright’s in-your-face style in 1984.) He even rated a joke in the Cape Breton Summertime Revue, when Bette MacDonald’s lovable busybody Mary Morrison declared, in 1992: “You know who would make a great Prime Minister? Dave Wright,” adding: “He’s cute!”
The first season of The ATV Evening News: Live at 5 was a nightly ritual in the Cooke household, and to this day, ATV regulars like sportscaster Paul Lethbridge and meteorologist Susan Dunn still resonate when I hear their names. (Dunn even figured into a story I submitted to “Miss Nancy’s” fifth-grade creative writing class, in which a Nova Scotia family welcomes a visitor from an isolated European village that doesn’t have television, and he’s convinced that the family’s TV set is about to devour the nice young woman predicting the weather. No, I have no idea what I was thinking, either.)
My family and I collectively drifted away from The ATV Evening News: Live at 5 after its first season, gravitating to the Halifax-based CBC newscast First Edition and the more grounded approach of its veteran anchor, Jim Nunn, and the Mother Corp’s reporters. So I missed the bulk of Live at 5′s various innovations in the late ’80s and ’90s, including the “Celebrate The Maritimes” series launched in 1987 and the arrival of new faces such as the co-hosts pictured above, Paul Mennier (who replaced Lethbridge as sportscaster in 1983 and then co-hosted the show from 1993-97) and Nancy Regan, a daughter of former Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan and a winner of the Miss Nova Scotia title in 1986, only two years before she began a fifteen-year Live at 5 hosting stint. (Click here for a fun little retrospective that sees Mennier and Regan crashing the current CTV News at 5 studios in 2016.)
Now, it’s not that I didn’t think any of these people, or their colleagues, put in a full day’s work at ATV. Of course they did. They just weren’t my cup of tea, and the bells and whistles that often accompanied Live at 5 didn’t jibe with my teenage and young-adult concept of a serious newscast. In the early ’90s, as I launched my studies at the University of King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax, I chafed at ATV’s ads for the series, which usually involved a story that had run on Entertainment Tonight the previous evening, tagged with the promo line: “Live at 5 – right after Oprah, on ATV!” Regan’s co-host at the time, Steve Murphy, even interviewed Oprah Winfrey, live via satellite from Harpo Studios in Chicago, to help promote the series’ broadcasts on ATV. (Murphy began a 24-year run as host of The ATV Evening News, now CTV News at 6, a year after that 1992 interview.)
I found it all so plastic, so phony, so un-Canadian, and definitely not a genuine representation of the Maritimes. For the most part, my King’s Journalism colleagues, students and professors alike, seemed to agree, even though the college obviously had a good relationship with the private broadcaster, with several of its graduates filling up slots at ATV. (During my five years at King’s, graduates of the one-year post-grad journalism program included longtime Live at 5 sportscaster and fill-in co-host Paul Hollingsworth, now with TSN, and Liz Rigney, who has served as everything from Breakfast Television co-host at ATV’s sister station ASN – now CTV2 – to Live at 5 entertainment reporter, and is now CTV Atlantic’s Promotions and Community Relations Director. In the interest of full disclosure, Liz was also the musical director for my second King’s Theatrical Society production as an actor, “The Frogs,” and is directly responsible for the first two of my four musical appearances on Breakfast Television between 1994 and 2002. But more on that later…)
We loved pooh-poohing Live at 5 at King’s. At the end of my fourth year, for the second annual edition of our mock J-School awards show “The Golden Cobdens” (named after the school’s director at the time, Michael Cobden), I was asked to sit in as house musician and play the show’s theme music to accentuate the hosts’ portrayals of Mennier, Regan, Murphy et al. They totally went aboard the slogan that had accompanied Live at 5 for the first half of the ’90s, “The Team You Trust,” reworking it as “The Cheese You Trust” and spoofing the earnest here’s-why-I-love-working-at-ATV commercials that accompanied this campaign. (One of the female co-hosts even sat on a bar stool so “everyone can see my legs, just like [reporter and ATV Weekend News anchor] Janice Landry.”)
Sharper barbs accompanied three thesis papers that my King’s classmates submitted as part of their final year of study in the Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) program. All three compared ATV, CBC, and Global-owned MITV (originally launched by Irving in 1988) in terms of actual local news content, the differing approaches to story presentation, and the tactics each used to bump up their ratings during sweeps-weeks. (Yes, we have sweeps-weeks in the Maritimes, too.)
This last topic dealt with a longtime sore point of mine in terms of the first two decades of Live at 5: the wanderlust of the ATV producers, hosts and reporters. Yes, I’ll admit that it’s impressive to visualize Dave Wright broadcasting live from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (click here for some of the footage), but the concept that a Halifax-based newscast would direct its resources towards, say, covering the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in Quebec on St. Jean Baptiste Day in 1990 still leaves me scratching my head. As do Live at 5‘s two most controversial remote broadcasts, both from Florida – a week’s worth of 1988 shows from Walt Disney World (to tie into the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse), and a five-day March 1994 showcase of golf courses and beaches in The Sunshine State.
By the time my King’s classmate Michal Kapral caught up with Live at 5 assistant news director Ian Morrison to talk about the latter Florida remotes as part of his thesis research, Morrison had likely had enough of critics questioning the likelihood of a Florida TV series reversing the ATV gambit and doing a week’s worth of shows giving free plugs to Nova Scotia, and answered thusly:
“I’m a little tired of that particular line of b***s***. The touch and the feel of the scope of the things we did that week in Florida – and I know very well because I was there on the ground – it was not specifically, vastly different from what we normally do on a day-to-day basis on Live at 5.”
And yet, despite these misgivings, I’ll point out that when I was asked to give my own assessment of the three nightly newscasts available to Nova Scotians for a King’s J-School assignment in the back half of my second year, my final analysis was that all three of them gave viewers exactly what they promised in their mandate. In other words, CBC’s First Edition was the best Nova Scotia newscast, MITV presented the strongest Halifax-centric newscast, and ATV – in Dave Wright’s final year in the anchor chair – delivered the goods for a Maritime audience, despite the fluff that regularly preceded him on Live at 5.
So let’s fast-forward to the summer of 1999. By this point, ATV-ASN veteran Ron Kronstein was co-anchoring Live at 5 with Nancy Regan, and I was a few months into my first of two go-arounds with the weekly Port Hawkesbury newspaper The Reporter. Little did I know that a fellow Cape Breton native was about to take me on a strange new journey with the ATV folks that I had alternately admired and chided over the previous 17 years – or that she’d do it by fainting while on the job.
Our newsroom was abuzz that day with the news that a reporter had collapsed at the Sydney Tar Ponds site, overcome with the fumes that arose during a protest by activist Don Deleskie (who vowed to shovel out the toxic sludge himself until some higher-ups addressed the issue). Nobody knew who it was, but viewers were about to find out on that evening’s edition of The ATV Evening News, when rookie reporter MairiAnna Bachynsky finished the live wrap-up to her report on the Tar Ponds protest, took a deep breath, and then declared: “And for the record, Steve, that was me that fainted while I was covering this story.”
My mouth dropped open; I could swear that Steve Murphy himself needed a couple of seconds to recognize what had just happened. By getting out in front of the issue, and thus putting a spike in it, the young woman from Sydney had shown incredible courage. Whether or not that led to Bachynsky’s follow-up assignments – co-host of Breakfast Television, and then entertainment reporter for Live at 5 from 2002-05 – is up to somebody else to confirm. All I can tell you is how impressed I was with the self-deprecating bravery that I’m not sure I would have displayed in the same circumstances.
Inspired by both her career trajectory and the lyrical quality of her name, I concocted a silly musical Valentine called “(I’m In Love With) MairiAnna Bachynsky” in 2002, which also allowed me to name-check practically everybody on the Live at 5 roster. The song already had a few months’ worth of public performances by the time I arrived at the ATV-ASN studios on Windsor Street in Halifax for my second of two Breakfast Television appearances that year.
Co-host (and Sydney native) Scott Boyd, who had cracked up when I played the song during a sound check, arranged for me to perform it live during the first hour, which was the only portion of BT available to ATV audiences. That meant I could only squeeze in the first three verses (leaving out the one which opens, “Now I know that MairiAnna’s got a boyfriend…”) before BT went to its final commercial before the 7:30 newscast, but I had made my mark, at least on Boyd and his floor director, a young blonde woman with a ponytail named Maria Panopalis. (BT co-host Jayson Baxter, out in the field somewhere, briefly crooned “I’m in love with Maria Panopalis…” before they got down to business. I wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or horrified.)
This portion of the story ends with a few important tidbits: I did indeed present MairiAnna Bachynsky with a copy of the song and its lyrics, about half an hour after she was named Media Person of the Year during the industry portion of the 2005 East Coast Music Awards in Sydney. She received it graciously but I have no idea if she liked it, or even listened to it. Also, I take no responsibility for that song being the reason she left Live at 5 later that same year, and left broadcasting entirely a few years later. (Here’s what she does now.)
And, fifteen years after they participated in that bizarre moment in Maritime television, Jayson Baxter and Maria Panopalis are now the co-hosts of CTV News at 5 (the title that replaced Live at 5 earlier this year). They both do a terrific job – Baxter, in particular, has grown in leaps and bounds as an investigative journalist over the past five years – but I have yet to write a song about either of them, although I came perilously close after Panopalis donned a huge lobster costume for a visit to Cheticamp that was part of her own brief BT co-hosting stint.
One of my favourite performances of “(I’m In Love With) MairiAnna Bachynsky” came on the night I opened for the legendary Canadian musical-comedy act, The Arrogant Worms, at Glasgow Square Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. I likened the song to their twisted salute to Celine Dion; I didn’t know if they would appreciate the comparison. I also didn’t know that, in the audience that night, was the woman I would marry only four years later – and a key reason that I’m watching CTV News at 5 and Steve Murphy’s 6 p.m. newscast on a regular basis.
You see, Cathy worked in Fredericton, New Brunswick for a decade before returning to Nova Scotia 20 years ago, so she has appreciated the ATV/CTV approach to regional news coverage. Nearly nine years into our marriage, I’ve had a steady diet of CTV Atlantic’s afternoon, evening, weekend and morning shows – supplemented by CBC’s supper-hour news show, of course, but we’ve gotten better at striking a balance in recent months.
And now that I’ve had the chance to see it on a regular basis, I must admit that the elements of Live at 5 and The ATV Evening News that got my back up – the inexplicable out-of-the-Maritimes remote broadcasts and the over-reliance on Hollywood-style graphics and content – are largely gone, with the broadcasts now concentrating on more actual East Coast material than ever before. (I’m still disappointed that Prince Edward Island has been largely ignored following the retirement of the sole ATV/CTV reporter covering that province, Dan Viau, but I’ll leave that up to somebody else to address.)
And I would be lying if I tried to convince you that CTV Atlantic hasn’t hired – and retained – quality people over the past decade. From an objective basis, it’s hard to argue with the calibre of material delivered by the likes of reporters and on-air contributors Ron Shaw, Kelland Sundahl, Sarah Ritchie, Amanda Debison, Kelly Linehan, Dan MacIntosh, Ryan MacDonald, Kyle Moore, Ana Almeida, Priya Sam, Mike Cameron, Laura Brown, Cami Kepke and Nick Moore on a nightly basis, not to mention meteorologists Cindy Day and Alyse Hand and a fellow who has genuinely surprised me with the gravity and maturity of his work since leaving the Live at 5 co-host’s chair a year ago, weekend news anchor and part-time reporter Bruce Frisko. (I’m disappointed that CTV Atlantic couldn’t hang on to Kayla Hounsell, who I had pegged as Steve Murphy’s successor for years, or Saint John reporter Ashley Blackford, now working in Maine, but hey, it happens.)
Finally, to help illustrate how far I feel CTV Atlantic has come in its approach to news gathering, let me explain the two photos above, which were taken an hour apart from each other in the winter of 2012. That’s CTV News at 6 anchor Steve Murphy on the left, sharing a laugh with the man who was Port Hawkesbury’s mayor of the day, Billy Joe MacLean, at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre. Murphy interviewed MacLean as part of a live broadcast designed to illustrate the troubles facing mill towns at the time – our biggest employer, the NewPage paper mill in nearby Point Tupper, was up for sale, and the Bowater-Mersey mill in Queens County (represented by a satellite interview with Mayor John Leefe) was also shut down.
While I took sanctioned off-camera pictures of the newscast for The Reporter, I didn’t talk to Steve Murphy that night; he was doing a live broadcast and I didn’t want to disrupt him. Instead, I headed down the hill to the Port Hawkesbury library branch (at the SAERC high school site) and interviewed longtime Live at 5 host Starr Dobson, who was giving a reading of her new children’s book My Goat Gertrude. Starr was as natural off-camera as on-camera, giving me one of the most honest, genuine, delightful interviews I’ve had in the past decade. (Small wonder that this woman of great heart and greater generosity is now the President and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia; here’s her blog.)
Now that’s a Maritime news magazine – balancing the real stories of our people with the warmth and sincerity of on-air presenters who truly know what it’s like to live in our part of Canada. Congratulations, folks – thirty-five years later, you’ve finally got this CBC junkie onside.
(Much more Live at 5 video is available on this YouTube channel.)