CTV Vancouver marks 20th anniversary of broadcasting at Robson and Burrard
Published Wednesday, September 20, 2017 12:44PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 21, 2017 4:08PM PDT
“It is a wonder we were not cancelled on the spot.”
Canadian broadcasting icon Vicki Gabereau never minces words, not even when looking back on the pivotal role she played on the morning of September 22nd, 1997. It was just before 6AM. Gabereau was standing under bright lights recently hung from the rafters on the fourth floor of the old Vancouver public library building. She was looking into the lens of a brand new television camera fresh out of the box. Everything around her was brand new.
For weeks, construction crews had been toiling around the clock in a frantic effort to turn the old heritage site at the corner of Robson and Burrard in the heart of downtown into a fully functioning television station, complete with two large studios and hundreds of kilometres of wiring hidden in the walls and ceilings. The deadline had arrived but the work was far from finished.
“Concrete dust was everywhere,” Gabereau recalls. “It was frightening in the extreme.”
As the clock struck 6, Gabereau and fellow host Aamer Haleem spoke three words that would launch one of the most remarkable experiments in Canadian broadcasting history: “Good morning, Vancouver.”
A new TV station, Vancouver’s first in decades, was on the air. The launch was far from perfect. “Window washers descended during the show,” says Gabereau. “It was the highlight.”
TV licences in Canada are carefully regulated by the government, and getting a new one is an extremely rare event. The competition between broadcasting companies for the coveted prize had been fierce, the winner summing up the mandate in the simplest terms as it announced the station’s name: Vancouver Television.
The idea – to provide a new broadcasting voice focused squarely on the people living in Canada's third largest metropolitan region, and the crew hired to make it happen was one of the most talented groups of broadcasters ever assembled under one roof.
Veterans of BC journalism like Cameron Bell and Clive Jackson had been brought in to scour the world for the best of the best. Engineers, directors, photographers, editors, producers, all handpicked from thousands of applications.
“We were part of something special,” says news photographer Murray Titus, who still works at the station that’s now called CTV Vancouver. “How we got to launch day was nothing short of a miracle.”
That’s not much of an exaggeration. The timeline was impossibly short. Once the team of builders and technical people was assembled, it was time to find the on-air personalities. News anchors, talk show hosts and reporters were chosen from piles of audition videos that arrived daily in the mail. Reporter Steve Chao was one of the lucky ones. Today, he’s the senior Asia correspondent for Al Jazeera English.
“Vancouver Television was an incredible chance to learn from some of the finest,” he says. “Our failures and our triumphs forged a family.”
Satinder Bindra was the station’s first business reporter. Speaking from Manila, where he now works for the Asian Development Bank after stints with CNN and the United Nations, he also remembers that family feeling.
“More than the launch, I remember the energy, commitment and sense of camaraderie on the team.”
Giving eager young broadcasters a chance to learn how to make television from the best on that team was one of Vancouver Television’s defining characteristics and remains one of its most enduring legacies. I should know. At 27 years old, I was one of the youngest of the "cub" reporters, having jumped ship along with Denelle Balfour and Kimberly Halkett from BCTV in Burnaby.
Many more staff members came over from the local CBC and CKVU and from stations across the country like ATV in Halifax and CJOH in Ottawa - all of us lured by the supremely rare opportunity to build a TV station from scratch. And I mean literally build. Many were still wearing hardhats on that cold September morning when the clock finally ticked down.
“It was chaos and crazy for sure,” remembers Bridgitte Anderson, one of the first news anchors and now a communications executive in Vancouver. “The energy was electric, and we all knew we were part of something very special.”
Her co-anchor was Ravi Baichwal, who now hosts the evening news at ABC7 in Chicago. “I knew immediately it was a special place,” he says, calling the experience, “a dream-come-true opportunity for a young broadcaster.”
The station's first slogan was "We're Alive" and for those of us who worked there, it had a double meaning – a celebration of the near-miraculous fact that we had actually constructed a television station from nothing – and a promise to bring a new kind of energy that we firmly believed was missing from the local airwaves.
One of the keys to delivering on that promise of energy was live television – like a three hour morning variety program with musical acts performing for commuters walking to work on Burrard Street and talk shows with a studio audience often assembled from people we pulled right off the sidewalk. It was unpredictable, spontaneous and in many ways quite new for Vancouver.
CTV News at 6 co-anchor Tamara Taggart got her first taste of live television on the Vancouver Breakfast morning show. She’s now the longest serving employee at the station.
“I was stung during a live segment on beekeeping,” she remembers. “They told me not to take off my bee suit but I did because it was too hot. There was a bee on my neck and everyone ran in the opposite direction. Anything can happen.”
Bindra describes the atmosphere as “heady and empowering.” Anderson remembers the feeling as “magical.” News reporters, photographers and a fleet of vans packed with the latest in mobile broadcasting technology fanned out across the lower mainland. Everything on those newscasts was live. It’s something viewers take for granted now, but in 1997 it felt revolutionary and it triggered a transformation in the tone and style of electronic journalism in Vancouver.
Over the years, the startup station at the corner of Robson and Burrard would continue to embrace change and new ideas. Vancouver Television (a name that was always a mouthful for those of us who had to say it out loud into a microphone every day) became the snappier “VTV.”
Ownership changes in 2001 reshaped the local television landscape again and the VTV logo gave way to the familiar red, blue and green colours of the CTV network. The established CTV News brand came with more credibility and higher ratings. Then there were the big stories – a deadly mudslide in North Vancouver, destructive wildfires in Kelowna, a serial killer hunting women in the Downtown Eastside, a ferry sinking off the BC coast, a Stanley Cup riot and the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Still, many of the original employees look at the very earliest days in 1997 as the most memorable. Titus sums it up best. “I feel so very blessed, honoured and humbled all at the same time to have played my part in the birth of this dynamic station. I am so very proud of what we have accomplished.”
And the accomplishments are many. Being the new kid on the block is a distinction that comes with a built-in expiry date. In broadcasting, building a loyal audience takes years. It means being there day in and day out for the important stories. Now, after 20 years, success in the more conventional sense of the word has come to the TV station in the old library building. Ratings have never been higher and just last year in New York City - in a room filled with some of the biggest names in journalism - CTV Vancouver received the National Edward R Murrow Award as the world's best local newsroom - a first in Canadian broadcasting history.
But for the Vancouver Television 'originals,’ I think it’s a safe bet that nothing will exceed the sense of accomplishment we all felt on that dark morning back at 1997 when we flipped the switch for the first time.
“Walking through the doors one could feel the promise,” says Baichwal. “I was home.”