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. The program may simply appear different, and may be dismissed as farfetched and implausible, but when they catch on, they catch on like wildfire. This Hour Has Seven Days (CBC, 1964-1966) is one of those programs. It has been noted 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, it wasn’t limited to one or two core stories as most Canadian TV newsmagazines are. Seven Days 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, Seven Days was a very well-rounded show. It covered everything from books, sports, music, politics and even the taboo subject of sex.
Early on in its run, 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 notable example was their coverage of Beatlemania, a fairly early concept of the since common place boy band phenomenon. The piece for Seven Days consisted of lengthly scenes of screaming fans drowning out a Beatles 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‘ coverage 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.
Their story tackling racism and segregation 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 with Seven Days is staunch reminder that while the 60s have been romanticized with the likes of Mad Men and the less successful Pan Am and The Playboy Club, that things were just as bad back then, perhaps even worse.
As with early incarnations of television programs, however, Seven Days wasn’t perfect. Somethings from the show’s early days have changed for the better. You don’t see interviewees distractingly fidgeting in their chair as much these days. Anchors, reporters and guests no longer smoke on air today. Not as many pedestrians distractingly stop to stare into the camera when an interview is taking place on the street. 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 one episode 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 story 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 anchor 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. 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 overly sensationalized 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. CTV’s W5 is still, however, considered one of the descendants of 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 as Seven Days might have.
Both the shows shock and provoke but there’s something about the way Seven Days does it that is much more captivating. Broadcasting shocking things isn’t the problem. Seven Days did broadcast a dead body being dragged out of water, W5, 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 W5 feels remarkably tired, like it’s all been done before. In fairness, however, it probably has been.
These days, W5 is like a voice lost in among inane things like yet another rerun of that day’s Sportsnet Connected and random infomercials on a Saturday evening. W5 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 that Seven Days had during its original run.
To get your This Hour Has Seven Days fix, hit up the CBC online archives.