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From the St. Catharines Standard

Driven to distraction by his TV dream

By Erik White

Local News - Saturday, June 04, 2005 @ 01:00

Wendell Wilks wants to start Television Niagara.

Photo: By Blair Gable
It happens so suddenly.

One moment, Wendell Wilks is leaning way back in his chair, his hands behind his head like a small-town wise man on a front porch somewhere.

And in the next frame, he’s springing forward, yanking open a desk drawer and pulling out hand-drawn maps of downtown St. Catharines.

They show several streets coloured green, with felt-marker dots all over them. Those are gardens. As in Garden City. A pedestrian district lined with bars, restaurants and nightclubs luring 20-somethings who don’t care for Niagara Falls or gambling.

And, of course, many of them would come into town on a light rail system Wilks foresees carrying tourists from the Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake to St. Catharines and down to Port Colborne.

But some of them might drive and park in the parking garages he wants to build in the lower level parking lot or they might even live in the condominium towers he would build on top of parking garages.

“Once I get going, I can’t turn it off,” Wilks says in quick and quiet confession, sandwiched between colossal concepts.

He can also see Canada’s Wonderland moving down to Niagara so housing developers can plant subdivisions on the theme park’s coveted north-of-Toronto lands.

And he’s in the early stages of a plan to buy the Garden City arena complex from the city and convert it into a rink big enough to attract a Junior A hockey team.

“So, what the hell does this have to do with a guy who wants to start a TV station?” Wilks says, sitting back a little now, lagging a few breaths behind.

“It’s a sense of community. It drives me to distraction.”

He has spent 40 years living off this steady stream of ideas, but has never stopped reaching for the dreams others believe to be just outside his reach.

A morning spent reminiscing over his decades in the television business is crowded with underappreciated accomplishments, colleagues who went on to bigger things and grand schemes that just didn’t work out.

Three years ago, Wilks came riding into St. Catharines. He was looking to start a local television station and researched which Ontario cities were most underserved by the current roster of regional channels. And which presented the best chance at landing a licence from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Niagara topped the list, followed by Brampton, Guelph and Brantford. And he still sees TV stations popping up in those cities as well. Local TV is the next big thing. He’s sure of it.

But not by his hand. At 64, next week’s hearings into his Television Niagara bid will likely be his last kick at the CRTC can. The last line on a long and well-distributed resume.

“I’m a communicator,” Wilks says. “You can change a society simply by showing what’s happening in it.”

Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, CBC radio was the only communicator speaking to Wilks and his family. After high school, he became an undertaker’s apprentice in Prince Albert.

According to personal legend, then-prime minister John Diefenbaker used to stop in at the funeral home to hear the latest news circulating around town and told Wilks he was in the wrong line of work. Wilks keeps a framed portrait of Dief the Chief in his office.

He broke in as an account salesman at the CBC station in Medicine Hat, Alta., and was managing the Red Deer affiliate by the time he was 24, before moving on to six years as manager of Calgary’s CBC outlet.

In the early 1970s, Wilks saw an opportunity in Edmonton where there were only two stations — he is quick to point out that Edmonton had the same population Niagara has now — and pitched the idea of a new station to local businessman Charles Allard from a room he rented in a hotel Allard owned.

ITV was launched in 1974 and except for a brief stint as general manager at a fledgling Toronto channel called Global, Wilks worked at the overachieving independent station through the 1970s.

One of his favourite resume highlights is the key role he played in selling SCTV, which was based out of Edmonton at the time, to NBC in 1980. It was the first Canadian show on network TV in the U.S.

“ITV did things no other Canadian station was doing at the time,” Wilks says. “We were Hollywood North long before Toronto.”

Throughout his career, Wilks has always worked as a freelance producer on the side, putting together a range of musical specials and feature TV series.

But he’s also made frequent attempts to start a station of his own.

In 1982, he applied for a pay TV licence for Alberta and then in 1986, he tried to start a local station in Ottawa.

The next year, he began work on the Alberta Television Network, an independent provincial channel he envisioned with stations in both Calgary and Edmonton.

The arguments for ATN might sound familiar to Niagarans. Wilks believed Alberta was underserved, with only three stations in each city, and all of them part of “absentee” national networks.

“Surely in a 100-channel universe, there can be room for one Alberta-owned television station in each major city,” Wilks told reporters in 1991. “All we ask for is our day in court.”

The area press portrayed him as a brash, charismatic dreamer.

The Calgary Herald called Wilks a “controversial figure” whose “image with federal bureaucrats worked against his hopes for a broadcast licence.”

At the same time, he was also working on plans for an $800-million entertainment complex on land he owned in Calgary. Wonderland West would have included a hotel, convention centre, movie studios, western-themed amusement park and an indoor alpine skiing facility.

The project drew skeptical chuckles from Alberta media, but Wilks maintains it only fell apart because his contractor died, his architect got sick and his German backers got cold feet.

And after six years of trying, he sold ATN before the start of the CRTC hearings that would eventually award the licence to Craig Media and its A-Channel, which signed on in 1997.

Wilks told the media at the time that he “opted for a payday” and took a lucrative, and as it turned out, short-lived position with an American production company.

In 1994, he tried to bust into the glitzy world of professional wrestling, with plans for a $25-million Las Vegas studio and arena that would be home to his National Wrestling League.

Wilks, who had produced wrestling sideshows at the Calgary Stampede in the 1960s, said he was hoping to clean up the wrestling business, which “seemed to lack any kind of moral leadership.”

After that, it was a big career leap over to Burlington-based Crossroads Communications, the makers of 100 Huntley Street.

Wilks came up with the idea for a religious network that gave air time to voices from all faiths. Selling his evangelical Christian bosses on the plan proved to be his biggest obstacle.

“Once I got them convinced, convincing the CRTC wasn’t difficult,” said the married father of two, who is Jewish but “not deeply religious.”

In 1996, the CRTC turned down the first bid. The station was eventually launched in 1998.

Wilks moved from Oakville to St. Catharines in 2002 and while his history shows he rarely stays in one place for too long, he believes this will be his final stop.

“I fell in love with the place. It’s just a spectacular place. Nobody here seemed to know it. They were just mired in … a negative, defeatist attitude,” Wilks says.

“It’s the best place I’ve ever lived. The only way I’m going to leave is feet first.”

So, what will he do if the CRTC turns down his application?

“It’s not an option. If it is, it isn’t the CRTC turning down TVN. It’s the CRTC turning down Niagara,” Wilks says. “It’s unthinkable.”

After organizing January’s Enough is Enough rally against inaction at St. Catharines City Hall, one might think Wilks is lining up to run in the municipal election next fall.

He says he would rather play the part of a strategist, “but you never say never.”

Besides, being a politician would be tough, Wilks figures. After all, how would you reach out to the people without a local television station?

Listen to TVN's CEO Wendell Wilks on a radio interview from CHSC.
A terrific interview in MP3 format, which you can stream from our site or download in four segments.

To download these files, please RIGHT-CLICK on the link and select "Save Target As" to save the MP3 files onto your computer.
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