Mediacheck

They Killed TV's Fun Couple

Fiona Forbes and Michael Eckford were morning TV's best hosts until CityTV execs forced a divorce. What would Moses say?

By Steve Burgess 23 Feb 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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What's the deal with Fiona Forbes? The Breakfast TV host recently got the boot from City TV, and nobody seems to know why.

Don't ask Forbes. "If I understood this decision I'd explain it to you," she told me via e-mail.

On Monday Forbes was pictured in Susie Wall's Province column, hanging out with City staffers at a company staff party. Next day the Province revealed that Forbes had been let go, with City's Julia Caslin declaring "It has nothing to do with her talents at all." Forbes' firing was so stunning that her long time on-air partner Michael Eckford was given the rest of the week off to get over the shock.

A star couple is born

Forbes was introduced to Lower Mainland TV audiences as co-host of Daytime on Rogers community cable (later known as Urban Rush on Shaw). Along with Eckford, Forbes helped make channel four into a destination instead of a dead zone. As the team found its rhythm their popularity grew steadily until they were regular water cooler chat material, not to mention Leo Award winners.

Thus it made perfect sense when CHUM's takeover of CKVU was launched with two new faces-the new Breakfast TV team of Eckford and Forbes, freshly poached from cable. Great move. This seemed like the beginning of the full court press everyone expected from Moses Znaimer, who had long been chasing a Vancouver TV outlet for his corporate masters at CHUM.

Under Znaimer's guidance Toronto's City TV set the standard for hip, young programming in the 1970's, later spinning off cable channels like Much Music and Bravo. CHUM's arrival in Vancouver was much anticipated and Znaimer played a large part in boosting those expectations. The storefront location and Speaker's Corner feedback booths were promised for this City as well, but people expected even more-a new sheriff in town to show the old farts how it's done.

Moses sees; leaves the promised land

But there were problems. Taking over CKVU 13 was not CHUM's first choice. In 1997, the company's original bid for a new license came up short when the CRTC opted for Baton Broadcasting's Vancouver Television, now known as BC-CTV on channel nine. The new CTV station promptly set up shop at Burrard and Robson, scooping that central downtown location CHUM craved. CKVU's 180 West Second Avenue digs ain't quite the same. Znaimer often groused that other outlets had stolen their concepts over the years, a charge that was specifically leveled at the new CTV station after its debut. Whatever-it's tougher to be new and fresh in the 21st century than it was in musty old 70's Toronto.

Znaimer stepped away from CHUM-TV not long after Vancouver's City TV arrived. He probably had his reasons, but it was a canny move regardless. Let others try to fulfill the expectations he raised.

Safe to say, they haven't. City Vancouver has done some things well, including some entertaining promos and a clever, irreverent approach to movie presentation. But are Vancouverites really talking about City TV? Has the station done much to truly separate themselves from other Vancouver broadcast outlets? Recycling soft core sex programming from their Toronto outlet is hardly groundbreaking stuff. We already got a lot of that from Bravo and Showcase anyway.

Faithful are angry

Now City Vancouver's original splashy move-hiring Eckford and Forbes-is half-history. Forbes intelligence and wit were a perfect foil for Eckford's more off-the-wall antics. Splitting up the team simply makes no sense-certainly not to Forbes. "To me there is no logic in splitting up me and Mike. I can only hope it's for the best and something better will come my way."

Whether or not releasing Forbes proves to have been a good idea, there is a strategy at work. City grew disenchanted with the freewheeling style Eckford and Forbes brought over from Urban Rush and decided on a more traditional morning show format.  Breakfast TV was revamped in November.

The new version is based on the Toronto edition of the show-news and weather to start with, guests in the second hour. "We're still going to be fun, but it's more information based," says Breakfast TV producer Bill Nevison. "Our research showed that you just can't grow an audience with [the previous format]. We just weren't getting the ratings." Forbes' talents, he says, were deemed less suitable for the new Breakfast TV, which features few lengthy interviews. "She's very talented and she's definitely going to land on her feet."

City's online message board is sizzling with complaints from the faithful. Online posts carry titles like "Welcome to Blandsville," "BT is BS," and one that goes straight to the heart of CHUM corporate culture: "Fuck you, Toronto!"

'Imagination is gone'

"This illustrates a management that really doesn't make good decisions," writes on online poster. "First they change the format and basically split up Mike and Fiona. Didn't that just take away the most entertaining portion of the show? Now this!"

"What concerns me," writes another, "is that the guests have really gone downhill. I really enjoyed the off-kilter and not-so-mainstream people BT used to book for the old set. With this new format, some days it's very obvious the people who've been booked have come straight from a press release. The imagination is gone and what is left is predictable and horribly boring."

City is betting that this is merely the cry of a vocal minority, and that a more straightforward approach will pay dividends in the end. At any rate, CHUM's first big attempt to go native with a uniquely West Coast show has been shelved. For Moses' Vancouver project, the bloom is off the rose.

Steve Burgess is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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