The CHCH TV complex at 163 Jackson Street West is being demolished almost exactly 40 years after it was opened with great fanfare in 1983. When the new studios opened the Spectator dubbed it “Spaceship 11,” owing to its ultra-modern appearance for the day. Ironically, the former Southam mansion on the property is 130 years older, but will remain in place, due to a heritage designation that protects it from demolition. It will be dwarfed by the new Television City condo towers which will rise behind it and are scheduled to come on the market in 2027.
Looking at the debris and skeleton of the CHCH Building—the one we all called the “new Building” when we were in it, is kind of like looking at what has happened to broadcast television and the news business over the past 40 years. In the 1980’s television was still the king of media. Water cooler chat was all about what was on Johnny Carson the night before or on the news. There was no internet, of course.
When the new building was opened, Premier Bill Davis was on hand for the occasion. He always said he watched CHCH news to see what was going on with the “real people” in the province outside of Toronto. That night the station staged a gala bash at the Convention Centre. The heads of all the national advertising agencies were Limo’ d down from Toronto. In the newsroom it wasn’t just new digs–we had just launched a news cooperative with other non-affiliated TV stations across Canada, using the relatively-new availability of retail satellite technology. That allowed CHCH to collect stories and go “live” from partner stations across Canada and to operate a daily news feed from Ottawa, just like the big guys. Prior to that we were flying in videotape (and before that, film) from Ottawa.
They were heady days in the new building. CHCH was the big time, punching above its weight in the Toronto Market. The station had the Toronto Maple Leaf mid-week broadcasts, pulling in huge numbers of viewers. The Young and The Restless was the number one soap opera in the afternoons. The station was airing hit US TV shows like Hill Street Blues and LA Law in prime-time. And the news was working pretty well, having expanded to more than 20 hours a week and getting decent audiences. Somewhere around this time the station’s value was estimated at $120 Million. (nearly $300 million today).
But in the mid-1980s the TV landscape was quickly starting to change. First, Global, which was the only TV outlet in Ontario broadcasting simuiltanously from several locations across the province including Ottawa, decided to stop running Love Boat reruns and instead start to compete for prime-time programming. That put CHCH at a disadvantage because it now had one more competitor to outbid for US hit TV shows, and this competitor was able to reach a bigger audience, offering a more efficient buy for advertisers. Around the same time CHCH was outbid for the Maple Leaf games. And in 1986 Global outbid CHCH for the Young and Restless which had been a big money-maker.
The big blow came when Southam, which had been a silent partner in CHCH from the day it launched, decided to get out of TV and put its stake in CHCH up for sale. That move triggered the first of several ownership changes over the next decade. It marked the beginning of a string of money-losing years, despite the ambitious plans of the various owners. One of the owners decided to rename it as just CH, inviting the inevitable wry comment that the station was only half what it once was. Eventually its last owner, Global, sold the station for a dollar to the current owner, Channel Zero. Channel Zero placed the station into bankruptcy, and re-launched the current iteration of the station.
CHCH had always been a leader in Canadian television—first TV station in North America to air the Godfather, first station to go independent, Canada’s first Superstation–many other firsts; and finally, the first major market station to fail. But it turned out the industry trends that buffeted CHCH would soon hit the entire over-the-air TV industry. First came the specialty channels that siphoned off niche advertising. Then DVR which allowed viewers to skip commercials altogether, and in the past decade—streaming—which has just about killed so-called “appointment viewing.” Drama and movies have largely migrated to streaming, leaving over-the air TV to broadcast “unscripted” programming– amateur performance contests and various reality shows. Network news depends almost entirely on geriatric pharmaceuticals for its revenue. Late night talk shows, still work on broadcast TV, as does sports, but that is about it.
Still, here’s CHCH, now closing in on its 70th year, still on the air, still the only TV news operation covering a vast swath of southern Ontario– the western golden horseshoe, Niagara, Brant. They seem to be making a go of it with a schedule that swings from nostalgia during the day to movies and increasingly, some new stuff in the evenings. In the 1980s and 90’s the news was a cost centre—there to satisfy conditions of license with the CRTC. Now it appears to be bringing in some of the bacon, with tons of local advertising. In many ways CHCH in 2023 more closely resembles the nimble, locally-focused CHCH that Ken Soble launched in 1953 than the cash machine it was in the 1970’s and 80’s. One hates to think what a vast TV news desert this region would be without CHCH news, although I would add, (at the risk of offering unsolicited advice) that there is some VERY low-hanging fruit over at both Hamilton and Burlington City Halls.
CHCH wasn’t really sold to Channel Zero for only a dollar. There was a symbolic sale of the license, but then a real number was negotiated that factored in the assets of the company including vehicles, buildings, equipment and the value of contracts they held. The move from CHCH to CH was a marketing blunder but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the OnTV model that pretended that they weren’t even in Hamilton. Of course now they are CHCH and are no longer in Hamilton. In fact their on camera presentation might very well suggest that they broadcast on a space ship or from the dark side of the moon. They exist in a virtual set removed from their surroundings. Which is a real shame. Let’s not forget that their news first approach failed when the local news subsidy program ended. It was a real departure from the days when they operated a full local TV station. A local news department is important for any license, but at one time CHCH had news, current affairs, talk shows, variety programs, game shows, produced university sports coverage. Maple Leafs hockey and the local WWF wrestling shows. It was a full service TV station with all sorts of production taking place in their facilities and with their mobile production units.
Four different owners tried to make it a Toronto news station– all failed.
And it couldn’t have worked when its just a company owning one TV station and not receiving much in ad revenue to help pay the bills for the continued operation of CHCH during their “News and Movies” era. Doing news, talk, and information from 4am-7pm for a small station like CHCH wasn’t feasible, yet, somehow made it work for six years from 2009-2015.
Only on the cheap easy news stories. Nothing that took in depth reporting and a long runway before making it to air. It’s cheap to read the daily police reports. Without the local news subsidy they claimed bankruptcy real fast.
There was a time when convergence was all the talk and many advocated for Hamilton to get a second conventional TV license. They argued that other cities the size of Hamilton and even smaller had two or three TV stations with their own news rooms. The Hamilton Spectator/Toronto Star was looking to get into the game. If I remember correctly they wanted the license that became Toronto 1/Sun TV. Every media player thought they needed a TV channel, radio station and a relationship with print. CHCH did a KLite FM look in on CHCH Morning Live for years. Columnists from the Spectator were used for theatre and arts pieces or local history segments. The business model has changed so much. Expectations have changed so much.
It is a Toronto TV station. There news bureau is all that remains inside the New City Of Hamilton. Their master control and programming is done out of Toronto. It has been for years now.