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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

TV gives grand sendoff to a man who was sound-bite savvy

Andrew Ryan
Friday, September 29, 2000

Throughout his various terms as Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the original television darling. TV reporters knew that the colourful Mr. Trudeau was always good for a colourful sound bite -- even when the topic was mundane -- and they rarely missed the opportunity to goad him into saying something provocative. Even after he left this Earth yesterday, he was still dominating the airwaves.

A few short hours after Mr. Trudeau's death, both CBC and CTV went out of their way to cover the still-breaking story in their early-evening broadcasts. (CanWest Global chose to stick with its regularly scheduled programming, which included the kids series Ready or Not and Entertainment Tonight, followed by a Friends rerun.)

At 7 p.m. EDT, viewers could choose between two decidedly different approaches to the death of Mr. Trudeau. Simulcasting on CBC and CBC Newsworld, there was venerable anchor Peter Mansbridge interviewing various Canadian political figures for reaction. Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin took the opportunity to glorify Mr. Trudeau, then added a jab against Alliance leader Stockwell Day. At CTV and its sister station, CTV NewsNet, Lloyd Robertson was talking with Mr. Trudeau's former press secretary Patrick Gossage, who served up anecdotal stories. The stories were innocuous enough, but Mr. Gossage seemed far too giddy for the occasion.

Next on CBC came a droning interview with Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who had little to say and at least said it in brief terms. CTV, meanwhile, switched over to live news coverage of family members dodging TV news cameras and leaving the family home in Montreal. After that, CTV switched over to a lengthy montage, obviously prepared well in advance, that showed Mr. Trudeau over the years, from his days as a student to his first triumphant victory as Prime Minister. Viewers saw Mr. Trudeau in his sixties heyday, with long hair and sideburns. Back to the CBC, which featured a low-key interview with Max Nemni, editor of the Quebec political newspaper Cité Libre.

After that came a brief screwup on CBC: Mr. Mansbridge tried to throw to a phone interview with former finance minister and Trudeau cabinet minister John Turner, who was not on the line. Only slightly flustered, Mr. Mansbridge quickly recovered and went to a satellite feed with Stockwell Day, who intoned such fawning comments as, "He will loom as a huge figure in Canadian history." Back on CTV, the video montage was still running Mr. Trudeau dancing at a nightclub, Mr. Trudeau greeting fans, Mr. Trudeau talking to the press during the crisis of the Front de libération du Québec. In each archival example, his charisma and camera presence shone through.

By 7:30, CTV switched over to an interview with Joe Clark. CBC wisely decided to go to on-the-street interviews with citizens in Halifax.who were eloquent about their affections for the late prime minister. In the end, CTV went past the 8 p.m. mark, with Mr. Robertson talking to various political commentators. CBC, meanwhile, ended its main network coverage at 8 p.m. to resume reportage of the Olympics on a clever note. It used a clip from the 1984 Liberal leadership convention, in which Mr. Trudeau surrendered his leadership role to Mr. Turner. The fiery, clear-eyed Mr. Trudeau had the crowd in his hands, saying, "Our dream for this beautiful country will never die!"

It was a great TV moment from a man for whom the TV camera could have been invented.

He will be missed.
Andrew Ryan is editor of Globe Television.

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