WATSON, PATRICK

Canadian Producer/Host

Patrick Watson has played a key role in the development of Canadian television, starting as producer, then host, for many of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) early, groundbreaking public affairs series. In 1989 he was named the chair of the CBC Board of Directors. He resigned in June of 1994. His career in Canadian broadcasting, with several short detours into U.S. television has been recognized by many for its innovative and substantive contribution to television journalism. He currently holds two honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada for his journalistic efforts. At the same time his career has been distinguished by well-publicized struggles with CBC management and a number of Canadian politicians, both as producer and board chair. Lending substance to his television journalism has been his wide ranging interest in the arts and social affairs.

His first broadcast experience was as a radio actor in 1943, in a continuing CBC children's dramatic series called The Kootenay Kid. He has maintained his interest in dramatic television production by performing in several CBC dramas and by producing and performing in his two dramatized series of fictional encounters with great historical figures: Titans and Witness To Yesterday. In 1983 he wrote and acted a one-man stage version of the Old Testament's The Book Of Job.

Canadian television received its bilingual launch on Saturday, 6 September 1952 in Montreal on CBFT, a CBC station in Montreal. Watson's involvement with television started in those early years, first as a free lancer in 1955, then as producer for Close-up, 1957-60, and then, the national affairs series, Inquiry, 1960-64. Both shows were noted for their hard-hitting, sometimes confrontational interviews with the Canadian elite. The goal of Inquiry seemed to be to establish exciting and stimulating public affairs television that would attract a larger audience than a narrow, well-educated one. Watson's next project, which attracted the largest Canadian audience for a public affairs series in Canadian history, also proved to be the most controversial series of its kind. This Hour Has Seven Days was the creation of Watson and his co-producer from Close-up and Inquiry, Douglas Leiterman. Broadcast before a live audience on Sunday nights from the fall of 1964 to the spring of 1966, this public-affairs show became the darling of over three million Canadians until its demise at the hands of CBC management who could no longer withstand the criticism from Parliament or the insubordination of the Seven Days' team. Shows featured satire of politicians in song and skit mixed with "bear pit" interviews, probing film documentaries, on-location stake outs and street interviews--all dealing with current important, but often ignored, social and political issues. Critics hailed it for its freshness and probing investigations and condemned it for its sometimes sensational and "yellow" journalism. Watson was the co-producer for the first season of Seven Days, and became the on-air co-host and interviewer in the second year in a move that the CBC management thought would curb some of the more controversial ideas and methods of the series. Watson and the extraordinary team of producers and writers assembled for the series (many became influential documentarists and producers through the 1960s and 1970s) became even more innovative and "in-your-face" with their journalism, daring the CBC management to take action. In a later interview Watson admitted to the arrogance of those days, inciting his crew to "make people a little bit angry, frustrate them . . . come socking out of the screen." The management took the dare and cancelled the show to the public outrage of many, some of it orchestrated by the Seven Days' team to try and save the show. There was an avalanche of calls and letters, public demonstrations, a parliamentary committee hearing, and a special investigation by an appointee of the prime minister--quite a response to the cancellation of a TV show. The show has taken on mythic proportions in the history of television journalism. It certainly pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate journalism, predated the current concern over the fine line between news and entertainment, and created a very chilly environment for CBC producers of public affairs for many years.

Because of his highly visible contribution to Seven Days and the aftermath to its cancellation, Watson was popularly touted for president of the CBC. He let it be known that he was interested. He was not to reach high administrative office in the CBC until 25 years later. In the intervening years he turned his attention to a number of creative projects in and out of television. In addition to those already mentioned, he wrote, produced, hosted, and directed for The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, The Watson Report, The Canadian Establishment, Lawyers, and The Fifty First State (for PBS Channel 13, New York), among others. In 1989, before being named chair of the CBC, he created, produced and hosted the international co-production television series of ten parts, The Struggle for Democracy. It was the first documentary series ever to appear simultaneously in French and English on the CBC's two main networks with the same host. Researched in depth and reflecting the dominant values of western democracy, this substantive and ambitious series took the viewer across the world and into history, to the sites of many experiments, successes and failures of the democratic effort. In the years after Seven Days, Watson was frequently and deservedly praised for his skills as a host and interviewer.

Watson's years as chair of the CBC board of directors were difficult ones for him and the corporation. The CBC had to face many severe budget cuts, subsequent layoffs and the closing of regional outlets. He had to face a board becoming stacked with Tory appointees, several of whom advocated the privatization of the CBC. Watson was expected to both manage the board and lobby parliament. Though he toured the country speaking up for public television he was seen by many CBC staffers and some of the public as less than effective in his efforts. In his last year the CBC was hit with a new controversy over a public affairs series on the Canadian effort in World War II, called The Valour and the Horror. This series challenged many standard versions of World War II history by critically examining the actions and the fallibility of military and political leaders. While the series won awards and was praised by many, it was vilified by veterans' groups and conservative politicians. After intense pressure, including a Senate hearing controlled by the critics of the program, the CBC issued an ombud's report, supported by statements from the president of the CBC and the board, that essentially chastised the show's producers for their research, methods of presentation, and conclusions. As vhair of the board, Watson was criticized for not speaking out publicly in support of the journalists and/or for not resigning. Insiders, including the producers of the show, credit Watson for moderating the board's and the president's response and mediating the dispute with CBC management.

Ironically, it seemed that Patrick Watson's career had circled back in on him. He began by pushing the boundaries of TV public affairs, stretching the limits of management tolerance, and establishing a precedent for interpretative journalism that would eventually challenge his own authority, role and accountability. Throughout he has remained dedicated to the important role television can play in creating an informed public. His influential career has both reflected and addressed a number of the issues and tensions facing Canadian broadcasting and society.

-William O. Gilsdorf


Patrick Watson
Photo courtesy of CBC/ Fred Phipps

PATRICK WATSON. Born Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1929. Educated at University of Toronto, B.A, M.A.; studied Linguistics at University of Michigan. Married: 1) Beverly, (divorced, 1983); three children; 2) Caroline Bamford. Joined CBC-TV, early 1950s; founder, Patrick Watson Enterprises, 1966; co-founder, Immedia Inc., 1967; helped pioneer CBS Cable Network during 1970s; chair, CBC, 1989-94; first North American filmmaker to film in the People's Republic of China. Officer of the Order of Canada. Award at Bruxelles Festival, 1984; 12 Junos; two ACTRA Awards.

TELEVISION

1957-63 Close-Up (co-producer)
1960-64 Inquiry (producer/director)
1964-66 This Hour Has Seven Days (executive                                                       producer/co-host)
1967 Search in the Deep (producer)
1967 The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau                 (producer)
1968 Science and Conscience (host)
1973-75 Witness to Yesterday (interviewer/writer)
1975-81 The Watson Report (interviewer)
1977 The Fifty-first State (editor/anchor)
1978 Flight: The Passionate Affair (host/writer)
1980 The Canadian Establishment (host and contributing                                                     writer)
1981 The Chinese (host, narrator, and contributing writer)
1981-82 CBS Cable Service (host)
1981 Titans (interviewer/writer)
1985 Lawyers (host)
1988 The Struggle for Democracy (10 parts;                                             writer/host/executive editor)

TELEVISION SPECIAL

1983-86 Live, From Lincoln Center (host)

FILMS

Bethune (actor), 1963; The 700 million (producer/director), 1964; The Terry Fox Story (actor), 1982; Countdown to Looking Glass (actor), 1984; The Land That Devours Ships (co-producer), 1984.

RADIO

1942 The Kootenay Kid (actor)

STAGE

The Book of Job (writer/performer).

FURTHER READING

Borowski, Andrew. "The Watson Report" (interview). Canadian Forum (Toronto, Canada), June/July 1991.

"CBC Chairman Resigns Post." Montreal (Quebec, Canada) Gazette, 15 June 1994.

"CBC 'Consultant' Watson Criticized Over Sale of Democracy Episode." Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 25 May 1990.

"The Future of the CBC" (interview). Policy Options (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), January/February 1994.

Johnson, Brian D. "Making 'Democracy'." Maclean's (Toronto, Canada), 16 Jan. 1989.

_______________. "A Televisionary." Maclean's (Toronto, Canada), 16 January 1989.

Koch, Eric. Inside Seven Days. Scarborough, Canada: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

"The New Men in Charge of the CBC." Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 27 September 1989.

Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. S

tewart, Sandy. Here's Looking at Us: A Personal History of Television in Canada. Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1986.

"Watson's Sights Set on Democracy and the CBC." Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), 24 December 1988.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English; This Hour Has Seven Days