W5 says goodbye after 58 years

Michael Taube: There will never be another program like W5 on Canadian TVW5 has signed off for the last time.

The 58-year-old news magazine television program aired its final episode in March. The first story examined the 2023 double murder of talented animator/director Daniel Langlois and his partner Dominique Marchand on the island of Dominica. Their brutal deaths may have been related to, of all things, a dispute over an island road. A second story focused on Emily Nash, an 18-year-old who can recall just about every moment in her life with precise detail. This type of supermemory could potentially help advance medical and scientific research into finding a cure for dementia.

The final couple of minutes were a small synopsis of the program’s history. There were a few scenes involving some award-winning investigations, several clips with well-known Canadian celebrities like Jim Carrey and Justin Bieber, a few canned farewells from past hosts like Ken Cavanagh, Eric Malling, and Helen Hutchinson, and a final send-off from three recent hosts – Lloyd Robertson, Kevin Newman, and Avery Haines.

That’s a wrap, folks.

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Why was W5 cancelled? It got caught in the unfortunate decision by Bell Media’s parent company, BCE Inc., to cut 4,800 staff in February “at all levels of the company.” There will still be reports under that old banner, but they will be featured in sources like CTV National News and CTVNews.ca.

Assigning blame isn’t difficult. Finding ways to continue producing the type of important work that W5 achieved for decades is.

“It’s disappointing because there’s a shrinking number of places and ability to perform investigative journalism in Canada,” Newman said last month. “As outlets and opportunities for that kind of journalism – which takes time and resources – disappear, I worry that we’re losing an important skill set. It’s a pretty sad day for people who care about the kinds of things that ‘W5’ tackled.”

He’s right. The disappearance of W5, the “gold standard of Canadian broadcast journalism,” as another former host, Lisa LaFlamme, posted on X on Mar. 25, will directly affect the craft of investigative journalism. There are still a few investigative journalists employed by Canadian newspapers, television, radio and other mediums. Alas, it’s not as high a priority as it once was. The fundamental lack of available outlets and money doesn’t help, either.

My sense is we’ll never see another program quite like W5 on Canadian TV again.

W5 first hit the airwaves on Sept. 11, 1966. CTV, which was close to bankruptcy, decided to roll the dice with this program. It was an enormous risk, to put it mildly. CBC’s This Hour Had Seven Days, a news magazine created by Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman in 1964, had closed up shop only a few months before W5’s launch. While the two networks obviously had different approaches and financial streams, it seemed unlikely that one would be able to succeed where the other had failed.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

The hour-long program, which had been labelled a “documentary series” since 2000 due to CRTC regulations, became one of the most successful shows in Canadian TV history. It won numerous honours, including Gemini Awards, Canadian Screen Awards, RTDNA Canada Awards and a CAJ Award. It helped pave the way for other Canadian news magazine programs like CBC’s The Fifth Estate. It even served as a source of inspiration for CBS’s 60 Minutes, which became a massive American and international success.

A large reason for this was the focus on diverse programming. There were hard-hitting pieces of journalism on domestic and international issues, a focus on politics and current events (which often veered to the political left) and some frothy topics in the worlds of sports and entertainment.

Some of its investigations, which can be accessed on the CTV News website and its YouTube channel, Official W5, included shady businesses and whistleblowers, cases involving the murder of adults and children, law and order, hate crimes, illicit drugs, money laundering, UFO sightings, future of the monarchy and the used car industry.

There were also episodes focusing on political figures like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Mark Carney, and others. There were also interviews with famous celebrities like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Muhammad Ali, George Chuvalo, Shania Twain, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Nurse, Jim Henson, Paul Anka, Celine Dion, and John Cleese.

This approach enabled W5 to attract a significant number of regular and occasional viewers in its prime-time slot for decades. It was intelligent and thought-provoking, even if you didn’t always agree with the reporting, analysis, and conclusions. It became a show with something for everyone, utilizing an outside-the-box approach (of sorts) for its subject matter and techniques to acquire as many eyeballs as possible. Finally, it gained a long-standing reputation as an example of quality television.

Duplicating this type of success in today’s Canadian TV landscape seems like a near-impossibility. The award-winning W5 may turn out to be one of the last of its kind.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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