Before Toronto Had the 6ix, We Had Toronto 1
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Before Toronto Had the 6ix, We Had Toronto 1

Viceland takes over channel 15 on the Rogers dial today, which is haunted by the memory of Toronto 1.

Today marks the debut of the Viceland channel in Toronto, a $100 million venture by Vice and Rogers to make television relevant to 18–35 year olds. The new station will occupy prime real estate on the dial as channel 15 for Rogers subscribers, but it comes with a catch: the station appears to be haunted. Most notably, 13 years ago another channel designed to appeal to the young downtown urbanite launched with much fanfare, but then disappeared two years later. Do you remember Toronto 1?

The short-lived tv channel had a vision for Toronto—a vision of condo ownership, hip and cool young people, and their fascinating water cooler conversations. But just like Poochie, when people asked if it had something to say, it suddenly said “I have to go now,” and died on the way back to its home planet.

Toronto 1 was the first general-interest non-specialty channel to hit the city’s airwaves since Citytv debuted three decades earlier. In 2002, five media groups bid for the coveted broadcast license when it was offered by the CRTC but in a surprise decision, the Commission passed on bids from CanWest and TorStar and awarded the license to the Western Canadian cable giant Craig Media. For several years Craig had borrowed heavily from Citytv’s style, running City programming on their A-Channels in Calgary and Edmonton and aping their approach to hip local news coverage. In 2001 Craig competed directly with City’s parent company CHUM by launching MTV Canada, muscling in on Much’s turf. Now here Craig was, launching a new channel in Toronto that promised “Citytv with a twist.”

Toronto 1’s advantage in securing the license was their promise to offer a Toronto channel that, unlike City and Rogers’ OMNI properties, wouldn’t be aimed at Ontario. Instead, it concentrated on local advertisers at local rates, as well as introducing a channel pitched directly at the 18-34 age group (skewing 18-49), with a modern swagger and approach befitting this diverse city. Station GM Barbara Williams explained Toronto 1 thusly:

“There’s a huge appetite for change and a new approach to local television. The city is so different. The demographics, the cultural makeup, the size are all so different from when each of the existing stations launched and I’m not sure any of them have really captured that change. It’s been same old, same old, same old for 30 years.”

CHUM responded to this direct threat to their home turf by ending their programming arrangements with A-Channel (suffering revenue losses) and even launched failed retaliatory bids with the CRTC for broadcast licenses in Calgary and Edmonton. Toronto 1 headed for their 2003 launch by poaching recognizable personalities from other networks, landing Ben Chin from CBC, Sarika Sehgal from CHCH, and Wei Chen from CTV’s Canada AM.

On September 19, 2003, Toronto 1 hit the airwaves with a live special with Jann Arden and David Usher, and in the following days rolled out their new programming, including a morning news program that started at 5:30 am that directly competed with Breakfast Television and Canada AM. There was also: a weekend variety program called The Toronto Show, a late night chat show filmed in the YYZ bar in the Adelaide Street club zone called Last Call, a lifestyle programme co-ordinated with Toronto Life, syndicated daytime programming from the likes of Wayne Brady and Ellen DeGeneres, and overly-familiar prime-time movie offerings (The Last Action Hero, My Cousin Vinny). But it was clear to most viewers after only a few weeks on the air that this channel was aggressively bubbly and light on substance.

Their supposed commitment to local news was suspect, perhaps due to financial and organizational constraints; a month after the channel went on the air, they were the only Toronto basic cable channel that didn’t provide complete coverage of the 2003 provincial election, instead providing brief election updates during commercial breaks on their 8 p.m. Prime Ticket Movie, Throw Momma From The Train. Toronto 1 made up for this embarrassment somewhat by partnering with the Star to present a well-received televised municipal debate a few weeks later.

The Toronto 1 show that garnered the most attention was their 7 p.m. news broadcast Toronto Tonight with anchors Chin and Sehgal. While rival Toronto stations aired a 6 p.m. news broadcast, Toronto 1 positioned their program to catch a younger audience getting home from work a little later, and ran episodes of Extra and Celebrity Justice in the earlier time slot. Toronto Tonight was defined as more of a newsmagazine show than a conventional news broadcast but seemed much more comfortable delivering entertainment news or consumer reports than when they made an effort to report on local issues or attempt investigative journalism. It was a house style that seemed inspired by an eager-to-please local LA affiliate mixed with the newsbreaks from Robocop, except with a limited budget and plagued by on-air glitches.

It appeared Craig Media limped into the Toronto marketplace in poor financial shape, and when the advertising revenue didn’t materialize as forecasted the investors came knocking. After only 4 months on the air Craig Media was suddenly looking for a buyer for their media empire. This news was greeted with suspicion, with Craig Media selling off their empire so quickly after landing such a prized and difficult-to-obtain broadcasting license. In cost-cutting measures, shows were cancelled and staff were laid off.

CHUM bought up Craig’s properties but because they already owned City they were forced by the CRTC to divest of Toronto 1 because of competition regulations. By the end of the year Quebecor, themselves breaking into the Toronto broadcasting market, bought up Toronto 1, cancelled Toronto Tonight, expanded their entertainment news show The A-List and continued on for a few more months before rebranding the channel Sun TV in late summer 2005. Sun TV was a CHCH-like mix of reruns of McMillan & Wife and The Super Dave Osbourne show, although they did splurge on rights to simulcasting popular American shows like 60 Minutes. In 2011 it transitioned into being the ill-fated Sun News Network, and the spot on the dial has been dormant ever since that channel crashed, until today’s debut of Viceland.

The purchase of Craig Media by CHUM was the first tremble of the earthquake of big media mergers and layoffs that have continued in this country for a decade. Some of the top executives at Toronto 1 moved to Global. Rogers (partners with Viceland in Canada) now owns City and the OMNI channels. Many of the on-air talent at Toronto 1 have turned out to be local media mainstays, from Dina Pugliese at Breakfast Television to Tracy Moore as the host of CityLine, and Roz Weston at ET Canada. Ben Chin left Toronto 1 for Global, though he quit to run unsuccessfully for the Ontario Liberals; he is now the communications director for the Christy Clark government in British Columbia.

It’s hard to find any evidence that Toronto 1 ever existed, but thankfully this writer preserved some memories of this channel’s time on Earth, including the video above of Toronto Tonight. It captures the tone of the channel as it was presented to viewers, as future generations would want to understand how Toronto lived in the early 21st century.