Media Circus – revisiting radical TV criticism

In 1974, Ontario’s public broadcaster (OECA) launched a unique experiment in live broadcasting and media criticism. Media Circus was 90-minutes of live commercial-free analysis of ‘what is on TV right now’.

Until recently it was believed that no recordings of this groundbreaking TV series existed, but recently a copy of the first episode came into my hands. I was particularly happy to see it because my father, Ken Sobol, was one of the hosts of Media Circus, along with Shelden Greenberg and David Hamblyn.

This is Part 1:

This episode of Media Circus aired on a Wednesday evening, but other weeks Media Circus aired on Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, Friday night and other days and times, so that every aspect of the TV schedule could be surveyed and critiqued.

The show included skits and guests, among whom were Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye at various times, both watching and talking about ‘what is on TV right now’. This episode features an interview with the actor Tony Musante.

This is a remarkable glimpse into another televisual era, not only an era with just 12 channels, but also an era in which public broadcasters took bold risks and invested in genuinely radical media experiments, of  which Media Circus stands out as a particularly notable example.

Because it was ‘live TV’ and no recordings have been in circulation since the series aired in 1974, Media Circus has been all but forgotten. I hope this video will help it to regain a measure of the attention and respect it deserves as one of the most critically sophisticated mainstream media programs ever produced.

As Harris Kirshenbaum wrote in an early Canadian Film Development Corporation newsletter

“…Among the best have been Media Circus, a totally experimental programme last season that ran three hours in its final form, and dealt with the ideas of television, its sociological effects, its capabilities and future, and its legalities. Where else on major market television could you see the host of one live programme having a telephone conversation with the host of a concurrent live show, and see them both on split screen?”

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