Niagara Stay Tuned...
-by Andrea Hannen
By the time he was 33, Wendell Wilks was being hailed as the boy wonder of western Canada's broadcasting industry. He had already launched the flagship station in the Allarcom chain — Edmonton's CITV and had held and quit the top job at Izzy Asper's Global Television Network. He went on to build CTS, Canada's first commercially viable television station devoted solely to religious programming. Along the way, he produced dozens of top-rated television shows in Canada and around the world. Now, at the age of 61, Wilks has his sights set on Niagara.
Earlier this year, Wendell Wilks moved to St. Catharines. Since that time, he and his eldest son Tracy, and award-winning reporter Al Lutchin, have been working feverishly to get Niagara's first regional television station financed, licensed and on the air. Wilks has been making the rounds, telling business clubs, service clubs and anyone else who will listen, about what TVN will do for Niagara.
at the Old Court House in Downtown St. Catharines
Persuasive and outspoken, Wilks has pitched the creation of a regional television station as a first step in addressing some of Niagara's most pressing economic, social and environmental challenges. And, he's raised more than a few eyebrows. BNM met with Wilks recently to find out why he's so interested in Niagara and more importantly, why the Niagara establishment seems to be backing him all the way.
A history and architecture buff, Wilks says he feels right at home in the TVN offices, located in the Old Court House in downtown St. Catharines. He's just come from a meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake and had to wait for the bridge at the canal. He mentions that his grandfather worked as part of the land survey team for the Welland Canal and frequently wrote letters to his fiancé back home in rural Saskatchewan. Wilks has already spoken to the Welland Historical Society about donating the letters to the museum.
Wilks' reverence for heritage is evidenced by the photos and momentos that adorn the walls, and almost every surface, in his modest second floor office. A large portrait of John Diefenbaker sits just inches away from a faded photograph of the building that housed the first television station Wilks ever launched. On the credenza behind his desk are photos of friends and family, including the latest addition — a Yorkshire Terrier-like mixed breed named Annabelle.
Wilks was born on the Saskatchewan homestead his grandfather created — a farm his mother ran by herself during World War Two when his father was overseas. With little money to raise her young children, Wilks' mother supplemented their diet by hunting. After the war, his father found work as a truck driver and oil driller and the family moved frequently in search of better opportunities. So frequently in fact, that Wilks almost didn't finish ninth grade. He credits a Vulcan, Alberta school principal, Einar Kumlin, with changing his life forever.
"My family was about to move again and when my mother went to get my transcripts, Mr. Cumland explained to her that if I missed any more days of school, I wouldn't be able to pass," recalls Wilks. "Seeing the predicament we were in, he offered to let me stay with him until the end of the school year. It was just for four months, but he helped me appreciate the importance of the written word, which allowed me to explore a world that was much broader than the one I had known. He also taught me how to speak clearly and helped me overcome my shyness about being in front of a group."
Wise Words From ‘Dief'
A few years later, when Wilks' parents settled in Edmonton, his father insisted that he learn a trade and for a time, Wilks apprenticed as an embalmer. The undertaker for whom Wilks worked was a friend of John Diefenbaker's, and Dief was a frequent visitor to the funeral parlor. One day, as Wilks was helping him with his coat, he said, "you know, you should be in the media." When Wilks concluded his apprenticeship and was looking for work in nearby Medicine Hat, one of the undertakers who turned him down mentioned that the television station across the street was hiring.
Wilks got the job. While he did well as an advertising sales rep, he soon discovered his passion for the production side of the business. Soon, he completed a correspondence course in television technology and landed a job at the TV station in Swift Current, where he worked as an announcer, sports director, kids' show host, producer and painter. After a brief stint as technician with the CBC affiliate in Edmonton, he landed the position of production manager at CKRD Red Deer, where he developed a talent for public affairs programming. Within a few years, the CBC affiliate in Calgary lured him away to a senior executive position.
His role at CBC afforded him the opportunity to serve on the network committee, which seems to have been a pivotal point in his career. "What I realized is that 90 per cent of what viewers in Western and Atlantic Canada were seeing was produced in Ontario. The affiliates serving these areas weren't given access to the same quality or quantity of equipment, or money, and there was really no opportunity for them to see themselves or their concerns through anything but an Ontario-based producer's eyes."
1974 — Dr. Allard and Wilks toast to the future of ITV.
1981 — Wilks battles to bring Pay TV to Alberta.
1991 — President of Alberta Television Network (ATN).
Not long after, Wilks teamed up with Dr. Charles Allard, then the chief of surgery at Edmonton's General Hospital, to create the west's first independent television station, CITV. (Prior to CITV, the city was served by CTV and an affiliate CBC television station).
Now a Canadian senator, musician Tommy Banks worked with Wilks back in the early days of CITV. "We had produced two installments of a totally new style of variety show and Wendell took the tapes to advertisers and television stations across the country and down in Los Angeles. Next thing you know, our little show had become the Celebrity Concert TV series," recalls Senator Banks. He adds, "Wendell is a nationalist — he's committed to producing quality Canadian television and to doing it profitably. I tell you, if we had 50 guys like Wilks in Canada, Canadian broadcasting wouldn't be in the shambles that it's in."
In fact, in trying to get Wilks to talk about his television career, the interview never gets much beyond the shows he's created. The Palace, Live at the Forum, and most recently, the Galloping Gourmet's new series Graham Kerr's Gathering Place are among his production credits. Yes, he's opened a number of new television stations and yes, he's made them profitable. (When the late Dr. Allard's media assets were sold in 1988, his initial $7 million investment had grown to hundreds of millions). But to Wilks, it's the programs that count; profit is just part of the package.
"Television isn't about selling Jell-O or Quaker Oats," says Wilks. "Sure, that's part of it, but essentially, television is about producing programs that change people's lives. Unfortunately, here in Canada, most of our television stations have never been in the business of producing programs. Instead, they've been in the business of wrapping Canadian ads around American programs. That's why so many of our best storytellers have had to go to the US to find work. Imagine how much further ahead Canada would be if there had been opportunities for producers like James Cameron (Titanic) or Norman Jewison (The Hurricane) to pursue their careers here."
Why Niagara needs a TV station
Wilks sees Niagara as strategically positioned to help change that. "Niagara Falls is our nation's most recognized landmark, and the Niagara regional economy is one of the hottest in the country. It's also one of just two metropolitan areas in Canada not to have at least one television station," says Wilks, pointing out that Edmonton has six, Windsor three, and London two. Even Peterborough and Barrie have their own stations. According to Wilks, the question isn't whether Niagara needs its own TV station; it's whether or not we want local people to own it.
Hamilton's CHTV has already begun tapping Niagara's lucrative television advertising market and is in year two of a five-year plan to increase its coverage of the region. "After September 11th, we organized the CH TOWN HALL broadcast, which brought together business leaders, politicians and tourism interests to discuss the dynamic future of the Falls as a destination for visitors. We've since started doing weather segments live from the Sheraton Fallsview every Friday morning, and there's more Niagara coverage to come in the new year," says CHTV's station manager Patrick O'Hara. CHTV was acquired in 2000 by CanWest Global Communications Corporation, the same company that publishes the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review.
Torstar Corporation has also been eyeing Niagara. In 2000, the company commissioned a study to measure demand for a new local "home town" television station to serve the Niagara Region. In April of this year, the CRTC denied Torstar's application to launch television stations in Hamilton, Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. Torstar also publishes newspapers in those communities.
The TVN plan includes a board of directors comprised of close to a dozen investors from across Niagara; studios in Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines; six mobile news units; a daily morning show from Niagara Falls; a daily public affairs show from the Market Square in St. Catharines; and a minimum of 40 hours per week of locally produced programming representing all sectors of the Niagara community. Wilks estimates that TVN will create approximately 77 full-time and 60 part-time jobs.
Wilks makes it clear that TVN will not be a religious TV station, but quickly adds "our programming will be driven by strong family values. We will be very local and very vocal and we won't have to get permission from someone in Toronto or Winnipeg to express our editorial opinion." Wilks points to the popularity of Cogeco's volunteer-run community access channel, Cable 10, as one indicator of the desire Niagara citizens have for programming made for and by local people.
"The feedback we've received indicates that more people are watching community programming than ever before," says Joann Tweney, manager of programming and community relations for Cogeco Cable 10. "While CRTC regulations require us to maintain our focus on community events and not-for-profit organizations rather than on local businesses, we created our magazine-style show The Source so that we could provide coverage to more groups and organizations than ever before."
Attracting the right investors
Niagara College President Dan Patterson, who serves on CHTV's board of directors has also endorsed the TVN plan, calling it "a compliment to the broader Golden-Horseshoe perspective provided by CHTV." He notes: "graduates from our Radio, Television and Film Production program are in high demand across North America, but we'd like to see more opportunities for them here in Niagara." Wilks has also secured written endorsements from Brock University, the Regional Municipality of Niagara, 12 area Mayors, four MPPs, four MPs, the Niagara Parks Commission, three area Chambers of Commerce and close to 100 businesses and community groups.
When asked who will own the station, Wilks says only that he's managed to attract more than half of the private sector support required to get TVN on the air. "Attracting local investors isn't that hard. The trick is attracting the right kind of investors. Owning a broadcast license is a very serious public trust and we've had to reject a number of offers we felt would not be in the community's best interest."
St. Catharines-born advertising giant Terry O'Malley has bought in to TVN and will chair the TVN board, but making the business case for a new over-the-air television station is no small feat. While the CRTC has granted a great many specialty channel licenses, they've only authorized a dozen new over-the-air TV stations in the last 30 years. Mounting a successful bid takes months of painstaking research and planning, half a dozen staff and commitments in principle from local advertisers. To finance this process, Wilks sold his home in Oakville and bought a more modest one in St. Catharines, where he now lives with his wife Janine and 17-year-old son Jesse.
Wendell, his wife Janine and two sons Jesse (left) and Tracy (right)
When asked what initially prompted Wilks' interest in Niagara, he mentions a boat trip he took 23 years ago. He was a guest at a party hosted by Inniskillin's Don Ziraldo. So was Janine Heaven. Wilks and Heaven married soon after, but it wasn't until the year before last that the couple began spending time here.
Wilks had just left his position as general manager of CTS and was producing a tourism show for Buffalo's WUTV. As his work in Buffalo continued, Wilks began looking at Niagara more seriously largely because the people he encountered kept telling him about the serious environmental, economic and social issues the region faces. "I wanted to help and since TV is what I know best, I began asking the question--could a regional television station make a difference?" he explains.
When the people he met kept telling him, emphatically, "yes," he suggested to his wife that maybe they should move here. "When I first said it out loud, it was kind of out of the blue," recalls Wilks. "We were celebrating Janine's birthday with lunch at East Dell Estates and the words were no sooner out of my mouth when a deer walked past the window. I guess you could say we took it as a sign."
Listen to TVN's CEO Wendell Wilks on a radio interview from CHSC.
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