Citytv without Moses

What does the station stand for without the man who was its brand?

Marketing Magazine, February 24, 2003   

Moses has left the building. But that’s about all we know. We don’t know if he’s coming back, if he’s just taking a few months off or whether this is permanent. The only certain thing is that right now, Moses Znaimer, prime architect of Toronto’s Citytv, duplicator of its philosophy and approach in numerous broadcast and specialty channels (starting with MuchMusic in 1984 and continuing through the latest flight of diginets), the person who planted Citytv spores in Eastern Europe, Spain, Colombia and (perhaps his greatest challenge) Vancouver, is not in the corner office upstairs at 299 Queen Street West anymore. Officially, the company is calling it a “sabbatical,” which implies it will end and he’ll come back. But coverage right after it happened in late January made it sound as though it’s more than just a hiatus. A couple of things about that don’t make sense.


But before we consider those, a disclosure: I worked for Moses Znaimer from April 1998 through September 2000. I was an anchor and reporter for all-news cable channel CablePulse24, as well as reporting for Citytv’s CityPulse newscasts. In June 1996, I wrote a story for Canadian Business magazine about Citytv replicating its style and approach in places like Finland and Argentina.


Writing that story was instructive about how CHUMCity viewed Znaimer, and how people outside the company viewed him and Citytv. Canadian Business, for example, wanted the story only if Znaimer were part of it — no Moses, no story. Any coverage of Citytv has always had Znaimer as its core. Just as reliably, every time Znaimer appeared in a story, the word “visionary” would precede his name. It seemed as though if you checked his I.D., you’d find that “Moses” was actually his middle name, and “Visionary” his first.


For good or ill, Moses Znaimer and Citytv are the same thing. Znaimer is to Citytv as Bib is to Michelin, as Snap, Crackle & Pop are to Rice Krispies, Tony the Tiger to Frosted Flakes, Smokey Bear to fire prevention, or that little girl with the umbrella to Morton salt. Try to imagine an announcement that Ronald McDonald was taking a “sabbatical” of an undetermined length, or that the Keebler elves were vacating their hollow tree and might or might not return.


And that’s what seems weird about his vacating the building — the optics. If this departure was Znaimer’s idea, you’d expect some kind of Zen-koan-like pronouncement — the kind of McLuhanesque haiku or pithy aphorism that Znaimer usually delivered to explain what Citytv does and why: “Now what is the point / Of one-thumb channel surfing / Without Moses’ view?”


Znaimer was always only a part — albeit a very large part — of Citytv. Consultant Jacques de Suze was the other, non-public lobe of that corporate brain. But few reporters sought de Suze’s ideas about Citytv’s philosophy; explaining Citytv was Znaimer’s job, as much as building it and selling it.


Znaimer made branding an integral part of his and Citytv’s success before the culture at large understood what branding was or why it mattered. Was that lesson missed? If the folks at CHUMCity wanted to reduce his role, why not limit his power and keep him on as a figurehead? Some speculation surrounding this move says it’s aimed at Bay Street. But don’t people in the investment business identify Citytv and Znaimer with each other just as much as the rest of us sofa spuds? If the departure was supposed to be symbolic of a move from an artistic, maverick, cult-of-personality approach to a tougher, bottom-line-focused corporate pragmatism, then wouldn’t it have made more sense to really underscore that by making much more of the change?


People who cover television can’t seem to find anybody willing to guess at what this portends, either. Straightforward reporting has included acknowledgement of how little anybody knows about the motives and purpose behind this move, and some critics have unleashed surprising “I-never-liked-him-anyway” sniping, which makes you wonder why those people were so quiet about their antipathy while Znaimer was running the show.


One of the few certainties left us with Znaimer out of the building is that now nobody knows what Citytv is or what it means. As competition increases in the media business, does a media company really want to abandon differentiation, especially when that’s always been its foundation, its product and its brand? I think we can guess how Moses Znaimer might answer that.