John Candy introduced Canada’s first station devoted to children’s programming.
When John Candy hosted YTV’s inaugural broadcast on Sept. 1, 1988, he started off with bad news.
“There are gonna be certain shows you’ll never see on YTV. For example, Financial Week in Review. They won’t be showing it,” said the late actor.
That certainly wasn’t kids’ stuff. In the early days of specialty programming, YTV, celebrating 25 years on the air this weekend, was the first Canadian station devoted entirely to children’s programming.
“It just made sense to have John Candy host our launch party. Kids loved him,” recalls YTV co-founder Kevin Shea, a former child actor who rose up the corporate broadcasting ranks and is now chairman of the Ontario Media Development Corp.
With the production budget for the “First Night” show set at $25,000, YTV couldn’t afford Candy, whose popularity then commanded 10 times that amount for appearances. But Shea thought Candy might help out an old friend.
“We met on his first acting job. We were in a series of toothpaste commercials with Art Linkletter.” When a production assistant called Candy’s agent and asked on behalf of the “Colgate Kid,” Candy immediately agreed.
“We paid his airfare and hotel, that’s it. When he came to the rehearsal, he remembered the script for one of the commercials verbatim.”
Along with various collaborators, Shea had been trying to launch a kid-centric station since 1975, but the CRTC always rejected the proposals. But the arrival of satellite TV, beaming advertising-filled animation into Canadian TV sets, was a turning point.
“The CRTC’s chairman, André Bureau, realized that if we don’t start licensing Canadian alternatives that we would be dominated by the American shows. None of us wanted that,” he adds.
The fledgling station’s flagship program, You Can’t Do That on Television, where kids always had the upper hand over parents and teachers, set the tone at YTV.
The show, which had been airing since 1979 and was already an international hit, focused on gross-out humour and was famous for its “sliming” scenes: buckets of green goo dropped from above whenever a young cast member said “I don’t know.” Shea often received angry letters from parents opposed to its content but laughed it off. “We were all about kids’ rights.”
Limited to six minutes of commercial time, never used until prime time, YTV later introduced PJs or program jockeys to fill in airtime during broadcasts. “It was difficult for us because we had to fill that time and didn’t want to be showing public service announcements to kids,” adds Shea.
The PJs brought a sense of spontaneity and anarchy to the network, says television archivist Ed Conroy, whose Retrontario Youtube channel gets more views on vintage YTV clips than any other Canadian network.
“It’s always been run more like a radio station than a TV station,” says Conroy. “Television by its very nature is vanilla. The trains run on time, but with the PJs it felt like anything could happen.”
But by offering day-long kids’ programming, did YTV and similar round-the-clock networks put an end to the anticipation once reserved for Saturday morning cartoons and after-school shows?
“It’s a completely different experience now,” says Jocelyn Hamilton, vice-president of original programming at Corus Kids, YTV’s owner since 1999. Despite iPads and Netflix, kids are still tuning in.
“As much as people think that enthusiasm’s gone away, because now we can find it everywhere, there are still opportunities for appointment television,” adds Hamilton, who during YTV’s inaugural year was a production assistant at CJOH Ottawa, where You Can’t Do That on Television was produced.
In order to keep those youthful eyes and ears glued to the television sets, YTV has broadcast events than can only be seen on the network. “We hosted live finales of our show The Next Star and entered the reality genre, albeit from a teen and kids perspective, which has a heavy social media interaction because we want to make sure we’re still in tune and participatory with our audience.”
Shea, who left YTV in 1995, says only the methods of delivery have changed. The base content stays the same.
“Without question, kids will always love animation.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on August 30, 2013.