File 13

Produced at CKCO-TV from 1968 until 1971

In the mid to late 1960s, ‘File Thirteen’ had just come into the popular lexicon, on its way up as a catch phrase. CKCO since the early 60s had been promo’d as ‘The Big Bright Thirteen’. So when it came to titling a new locally – produced prime-time regional affairs newsmagazine, the two just sort of came together. Like Scan for the 6 o’clock news hour, it worked, and worked well.

The Wednesday night 9:30 time slot had come open up in a shuffle of network programming. There was a Baton Channel 9 production available out of Toronto, but CKCO decided instead to pick up the time and run with it, turning it over to the News Department to mount something different by way of a local news half-hour, and the mandate was given to me to develop it.

CKCO had all of but the extreme southwest corner of Southern Ontario within Channel 13’s A, B and C contours, – close to being but not quite yet a ‘must buy’ television market for national advertisers, – and we were in the build-up to expansion into the Georgian Bay area and Channel 2, Wiarton. As a news operation, moving into prime time meant we were pushing out into waters where the BBC’s This Was the Week That Was had been torpedoing all who came within its cross-hairs – NBC’s Saturday Night Live is its legacy – CBC’s high-flying This Hour Has Seven Days had gone down in producer-vs-management flames; CTV’s W5 picked up where This Hour left off, pioneering a first-person, watch-dog journalism, aped by CBS’ fledgling 60 Minutes – and it was our intention, marshaling such talent and resources as were available to us to carve out an audience for regional affairs, something we had only just begun to define in reference to our audience and our local news.

More by default than design, we fell into W5 mold. Stories were hashed out, reporters and photographers assigned and air dates set at weekly editorial meetings, along with the current week’s final line-up and who was to be on-camera – Gary McLaren, Ed Doyle, Bruce Johnston, Rennie Heard, Terry Thomas among others on the roster – with myself as producer-host. Photographers, giving credit where credit is due, included Paul ‘Pablo’ Cassel, John Arajs, John Donahue and, as the story demanded, Guy Goodwin in the London area.* The show was broadcast live or live-to-tape, repeated, with updates, in the Sunday afternoon line-up.

As a news-magazine, it gave us the opportunity to take on and open up in greater depth stories that were not necessarily hard news, but were of interest and importance regionally in Southern Ontario. Ed Doyle, for instance, scored with a piece on the need for an air service in the Owen Sound area. The night of the broadcast, there was a phone call waiting when we left the studio: a St. Thomas aviation company was interested in relocating, eventually moving and re-establishing themselves. Our Owen Sound source was Geoff Nightingale, then manager of the Owen Sound Chamber of Commerce, who later came on board first as a stringer, then as a full time CKCO reporter/cameraman in Owen Sound area.

It also meant we were not necessarily bound by the constraints of ‘objective’ reporting, but could be ‘one-sided’ as we were when the recommendations of the ‘progressive’ Hall-Dennis Report were brought in tossing out traditional education in Ontario. Living and Learning replaced prescribed courses of study with curriculum guidelines for child-centred “individualized programs of instruction”, – self-directed learning with minimal supervision, – and advocated, among other reforms, the “removal of corporal punishment”. We went to air with an affirmative point of view, fully aware – hoping actually – we would provoke strongly expressed alternative points of view. When the responses came in – and they did – we used them as a springboard in something of an on-going dialogue with the audience.

Just as television news then was still very much ‘radio with pictures’, documentary reporting was still very much narrative supported by visuals, or the vice versa, visuals supported by narrative; but there was a nagging awareness that there were stories that could better be told by letting the camera tell the story, even letting the story tell itself, and, if, as on This Hour, a satirical song could tell a story, then a tongue-in-cheek scenario could also be effective. More than once we pulled Pat Miles out of the film lab for his comedic talents. For a New Year sequence on car-owners failing to meet the December 31 deadline for purchase and installation of new vehicle license plates, we ran a series of scenes of Pat, a package under his arm, slogging purposefully along a snow-covered sidewalk; dodging slush thrown up by passing cars; waiting at a light, traffic criss-crossing in front of him; disappearing in a crowd of pedestrians; and finally of Pat squatting at his bumper in the snow, the package wrappings open, finger-tightening the bolts to attach his new markers. Point made, story told. We didn’t realize it then, but we were already onto the now universal technique of telling a story from point of view of the ‘one-among-many’ impacted by facts of the story, not ‘covering’ the story in the standard journalistic five W’s.

Likewise in the studio we wanted to break away from the static announcer-at-podium or behind-a-desk set for a more dynamic presentation. The set department came up with moveable columns and shapes which could be lit and shot freeform as sets-within-sets, and for the first season they worked, – though not necessarily for the crew who had only a minimum of time to light and set their shots. However, when the next season’s news sets were introduced, we were back at a podium.

File Thirteen was on the air for three seasons, 1968 to 1971, I like to think successful on the whole for what we had set out to do. In 1971, there was word the network could be taking back the Wednesday 9:30 slot. At the same time, I was considering an offer of a faculty position in Conestoga College’ Broadcasting/Radio Television program. In the end, I said yes to the College, no to continue freelance with the show. Whatever were the determining factors, File Thirteen was gone from the 1971 Fall schedule.

*And to give credit where credit is due, my apologies to those other contributors to File Thirteen whose names regretfully defy recall at this stage of the game – I hope they will come forward to be included in the credits for the show.

submitted by Larry McIntyre
February 3, 2011