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CBC Program This Hour Has Seven Days Changed Face of Public Affairs TV
Inside Seven Days
Reviewed by Helen Carscallen
Any Canadian born before 1945 will likely remember This Hour Has Seven Days, a CBC public affairs television program that dominated the Canadian airwaves from October 1964 to May 1966. Eric Koch, who was department administrator in the public affairs department at the time, has written an entertaining and lucid account of the rise and fall of a program that gave Hockey Night in Canada a run for its money in audience appeal but which was pulled off the air at the height of its success.
Sunday nights from 10 to 11 more than 3 million viewers were entertained, shocked, titillated and amused by this program. It was devised and produced by two successful young public affairs staffers. Douglas Leiterman was an experienced newspaperman who had studied under a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University during the early fifties "when Senator Joe McCarthy was at the height of his terrifying influence." He witnessed Edward R. Murrow put an end to McCarthy's witch hunt on his television program See It Now through carefully selected evidence. Investigative journalism was accepted practice. Host and co-producer Patrick Watson was an English and linguistics major who had become interested in the new language of television through a free-lance assignment as host of a CBC-TV children's show.
I especially admire the clarity with which Koch outlines the political and historical context. He avoids becoming mired in the legislative and managerial details of the CBC's history, well documented in other studies.
Koch starts his drama in the heyday of Murrow, the popular use of cinema verite, and candid camera techniques.
Leiterman and Watson in 1963 laid their plans for a new high velocity television program. They drew up a manifesto to sell their program to the managers. In it they described their determination to mount a... show ranging over the complete spectrum of responsible journalism, of such natural interest, such vitality and urgency, that it will recapture public excitement in public affairs television and become mandatory viewing for a large section of the population.
...tone will be energy, maturity, intelligence. The program will be provocative, thoughtful... the all-seeing eye. It will view the human spirit with dignity.
CBC president Alphonse Ouimet and his staff didn't foresee where such objectives could lead. Apart from Ouimet they did not understand the new language of television. Koch makes a very cogent statement early in his analysis of the Seven days controversy:
They (management) thought it was the content of the program which was upsetting to them. But it was the form.
As newspaper columnist Dennis Braithwait said in his Globe and Mail column:
For how do you rationally control something which may make its strongest point in the wink of an eye, with a jump-cut or with the tone of voice, not the content of the words it is speaking.
I would have liked a more sophisticated discussion of the technological revolution of the 50s and 60s. Leiterman's "ten-ton pencil" (film equipment) which he used to report on events or interviews was more like a large paint brush which highlighted and coloured certain aspects of an interview, made others recede and involved the viewer in feeling: Anger, sympathy, amusement, titillation. This was often accomplished through adroitly juxtaposing contrasting images.
Out of many examples three stand out. Two Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan in an interview with Robert Hoyt claimed they were very willing to enter discussions with Blacks about crime, discrimination and poverty. But when a Southern Black clergyman was brought on the Seven Days set without their prior knowledge, they refused to shake hands with him. One Klansman was so upset at the prospect that he walked off the set.
In another memorable program, then Justice Minister Guy Favreau claimed in an interview that his (Liberal) government had done everything possible to track Hal C. Banks, former head of the Seafarers' International Union. Banks had jumped bail on a charge of assault. Confronted with the revelation that a Toronto Star reporter had easily tracked Banks down on his yacht in New York harbour, beads of sweat on Favreau's brow were shown close-up.
Then there was the mother of Steven Truscott, a 14-year old accused of the rape-murder of a classmate. She shed tears when pushed to the brink by Roy Faibish's questions about her feelings for her son.
Music and lighting were used as counter-point, zooms and close-ups highlighted fear, sadness and discomfort as the camera moved in on the faces of the Grand Dragons, the beads of sweat, host Laurier LaPierre's tears in watching Mrs. Truscott's tears. Management objected to the emotion but was increasingly frustrated by its inability to control the palpable feelings emerging form the screen. "Yellow journalism," H.G.Walker, vice president and general manager of English Network Broadcasting, called it.
Eric Koch writes of the build up of the Seven Days War. He provides biographical sketches of the protagonists, the producers and their superiors. In some instances these character sketches are superficial. For instance Douglas Leiterman's religious affiliation (Christian Scientist) is given too much weight as an influence on his journalistic practises. Koch's description of President Alphonse Ouimet's background as an engineer, his technical expertise and his diplomacy, however, are given full and insightful treatment, serving to increase our understanding of the imbroglio.
The programs which caused the most friction in the Seven Days War are identified as benchmarks in a continuing drama which was as interesting off screen as on.
From the vantage point of 1987 what Koch calls the "pristine classicism of Ouimet's ethical code" seems naive. Ouimet had said: "No program must consistently advocate social change. The Corporation's job was to reflect public opinion, not to change it." He failed to recognize the growing power of investigative journalism.
That the conflict did result in change is evident in the way in which the current CBC program The Fifth Estate leads rather than follows in digging up sensational news which frequently has important implications for the viewing public. And Koch reminds us after he left the CBC, Leiterman helped develop the CBS program 60 Minutes.
Just as Edward R. Murrow and Mike Wallace profoundly influenced Seven Days, Eric Koch's book shows what a deep impact Seven Days in turn had on the breadth and depth of public affairs programming on this continent.
This article originally appeared in Sources, the Tenth
anniversary issue, Summer 1987.