By Dexter Brown
Today newsmagazines may be met with a yawn. They’re often drawn aside to lousy time slots and throw every predicable gimmick to try to get your attention. There was a time, however, when all that was cutting edge and brand new. This Hour Has Seven Days was one of the genre’s early forms, and this week Rewind takes a look.
As with many landmark television programs, the importance of the show isn’t immediately understood.Â The program may simply appear different, and may be dismissed as farfetched and implausible, but when they catch on, they catch on like wildfire.Â This Hour Has Seven DaysÂ (CBC, 1964-1966) is one of those programs. It has beenÂ notedÂ as heavily influencing the creation of the television newsmagazine genre. W5, the fifth estate, and even CBS’ wildly popular 60 Minutes, all have a lot to owe to Seven Days.
Still, comparing Seven Days to a modern-day TV newsmagazine is a bit unfair. While it did tackle many of its stories in what has since become known as a newsmagazine format, itÂ wasn’t limited to one or two core stories as most Canadian TV newsmagazinesÂ are. Seven DaysÂ played out like a fusion of the assortment of the stories that you’d typically get in a daily national newscast with the style of your modern-day weekly TV newsmagazine. With that said,Â Seven Days was a very well-rounded show. It coveredÂ everythingÂ from books, sports, music, politics and even the taboo subject of sex.
Early on in its run,Â Seven Days often let the story speak for itself. If the story was crazy, the story showed you what was crazy as opposed to a reporter simply describing it that way. A notableÂ exampleÂ was their coverage of Beatlemania, a fairly early concept of the since common place boy band phenomenon. The piece for Seven DaysÂ consisted ofÂ lengthlyÂ scenes of screaming fans drowning out a BeatlesÂ concert, other fans in tears not knowing what to do with themselves and even more fans blindly professing their love for their favourite Beatle. The maddening assortment of clips spoke for itself rather than having a stuffy newsman tell you about the insanity.
Of course letting the story speak for itself meant that if the story wasn’t anything particularly interesting, it would fall flat on its face. Seven Days‘Â coverageÂ of a CFL player who lost a game played out like a movie newsreel of yesteryear or a very dull reality program. It was a sharp contrast to much of the fast-paced, often humorous sports stories you see on the air today.
Despite at this time by treating all their reports with a near consistent feel of importance and also the lack of modern-day cable news’ sensationalism, the stories that were bold still some how stood out. Those reports appear like the gems lost among the rocks.
TheirÂ storyÂ tackling racism andÂ segregationÂ in the south is a prime example. It contained burning crosses, Klansmen marching around spewing the n-word and racist sentiments around repeatedly and even a body being pulled from the water. It was riveting television and felt particularly surreal when compared to a lot of what is on the air today.
Just a few minutes withÂ Seven Days is staunch reminder that while the 60s have beenÂ romanticized with the likes of Mad Men and the less successfulÂ Pan AmÂ andÂ The Playboy Club,Â that things were just as bad back then, perhaps even worse.
As with early incarnations of television programs, however,Â Seven Days wasn’t perfect. Somethings from the show’s early days have changed for the better. You don’t seeÂ interviewees distractingly fidgetingÂ in their chair as much these days. Anchors, reporters and guests no longer smoke on air today.Â Not as many pedestrians distractingly stop to stare into the camera when an interview is taking place on the street.Â Profile shots during interviews are uncommon, as is reading directly from a hard copy of a book to set up a story. The swinging sixties theme music would be laughable if it was still used today.
Seven Days grew tremendously during its run. It grew bolder and gained a grasp for creating even more remarkable television. In oneÂ episodeÂ contained a piece on Penthouse magazine, played with viewers emotions with a piece on the death of a young officer in the line of duty, delivered a much punchier sports storyÂ involving a Canadian boxer compared to earlier sports stories, captivated viewers interest with an interview with the legendary Orson Welles and contained an infamous segment where two Klansmen were interviewed with a black man. Through its run, the strange set where each anchorÂ had their own desk each off to themselves at different angles in front of a black backdrop was dropped. This was in favour of a more traditional desk which was also in front of a black backdrop and usually a female co-host would be off to the side. An live audience also joined them through the series’ run.Â Graphics on the other hand, were virtually nonexistent through much of the series but what was there slowly gained a bit of prominence as the show took off.
While This Hour Has Seven Days did give birth to the TV newsmagazine format, there doesn’t feel like anything like it today. Newsmagazines today seem uninspired and overlyÂ sensationalizedÂ when compared to Seven Days. Seven Days also incorporated humour, satirical sketches and even animation all of which seem to have been lost in the television news magazines of today.Â CTV’sÂ W5Â is still, however, considered one of the descendants ofÂ This Hour Has Seven Days. It hit the airwaves shortly after Seven Day‘s run and has been on the air ever since.
Today, however, in investigations such as excessive force by police, W5 falls into formulaic ways of presenting stories. They throw around words such as “shocking,” and “brutal” and subsequently there doesn’t seem to be as much effort into presenting it a way that was shocking asÂ Seven DaysÂ might have.
Both the shows shock and provoke but there’s something about the wayÂ Seven DaysÂ does it that is much more captivating. Broadcasting shocking things isn’t the problem.Â Seven Days did broadcast a dead body being dragged out of water,Â W5,Â on the other hand, had shown one person with a bloodied nose and someone vomiting blood after being struck by police. While Seven Days had occasionally broadcast offensive words, mild profanity also makes it on the air on W5.
The modern day W5Â feels remarkably tired, like it’s all been done before. In fairness, however, it probably has been.
These days,Â W5 is like a voice lost in amongÂ inaneÂ things like yet another rerun of that day’sÂ Sportsnet ConnectedÂ and randomÂ infomercialsÂ on a Saturday evening. W5Â has to compete with a lot more noise in comparison to Seven Days‘ era where only a handful of TV station were on the air. Arguably that could be one of the reasons, W5 could never attain the type of popularity and success thatÂ Seven Days had during its original run.
To get your This Hour Has Seven Days fix, hit up the CBC online archives.
One thought on “TV, eh? Rewind: This Hour Has Seven Days”
The amazing thing about Seven Days is, even after an exhaustive article like that, you’ve only scratched the surface of how great it was. Some other great things:
– It pulled stunts like bringing out a black leader during an interview with a KKK Dragon and asking him if he’d like to shake his hand.
– It featured documentaries (including Beryl Fox’s Mills of the Gods) once a month.
– It had Dinah Christie singing once an episode (Sadly they’ve cut those from the CBC website version. Shame, she did an amazing version of “Eve of Destruction” once).
– Their hot seat interviews, where a topical figure sat the world’s most threatening looking chair (with a microphone pointed at them like a rifle) and fielded questions from the hosts and reporters, were incredible political theatre (They open the 1965-66 season baiting leaders of the political parties to come in for an interview in the run up to the ’65 election; only Tommy Douglas took them up on it).
– And, the thing which got them into dutch and eventually cancelled, they were not impartial automatons. Laurier Lapierre shedding a tear after a feature on Steven Truscott is the most famous example but it did loads of advocacy journalism long before it was fashionable.
And the thing was, CBC’s News division *hated* the show. They hated the stunts and the lack of impartiality and the gonzo journalism pulled to get a story (occasionally, I’ve read, stealing the news division’s film cameras to do it).
Talk TV (back when there was such a thing) used to on weekends show W5 episodes made around the same time as Seven Days and it doesn’t even compare even in the ’60s. Early W5 is so sedate, so tame, so middle aged. Seven Days is like a radical manifesto against that style of news program: Seven Days’ said “How can we do this story in the most attention grabbing way possible?”
One of the best illustrations of that was back in 2001 when Newsworld showed over the summer a best-of selection of Seven Days episodes (slightly edited for more commercials). They ended the run with a final episode where Wendy Mesley interviewed Laurier Lapierre, Patrick Watson and producer Douglas Leiterman (who went on to work on 60 Minutes). Mesley asked what would they do if they were able to bring back Seven Days now. Leiterman answered he would do a feature where he would put enough constituent elements for a bomb in a bag and see if he could get them through airport security in various places around the globe and film it.
They ended up not airing that final episode with the interview until a run of repeats in December. While it was recorded in August, it was to have originally aired on Newsworld Sunday, September 16, 2001. Seven Days was still controversial 35 years after its cancellation!
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