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Newspapers and radio have long been staples of McGill's thriving student journalism scene. And when a group of McGill students observed the need for a campus television station a few years ago, they added a third outlet to that list: Television McGill (TVM), a twice-monthly television show featuring student contributions on news, arts, culture, sports and entertainment.
The idea was almost 20 years in the making. A McGill television station was conceived in 1984, and took the form of ILL-TV, station letters borrowed from the last three letters of "McGill," and making reference to a popular colloquial term used during the decade for everything current hipsters would consider cool or de rigueur. But while ILL-TV was popularly received, an overambitious mandate and lack of funding forced the station to close shop. Sixteen years later, another group of students decided to revisit the idea. They dropped the slang and adopted more conventional call letters: TVM.
Zayna Aston, a final-year psychology major, is co-president and co–executive producer of the television service this year. "We have progressed so far since the days of ILL-TV and have grown exponentially in our reach in the past four years," she says. "It wasn't until two years ago, under the direction of then-President David Sax, that the station began to take off."
In order to increase TVM's profile, Sax and his team conducted a joint venture with The McGill Tribune. Under that agreement, TVM, which remained editorially independent from the campus weekly, received news tips and leads from the newspaper. The paper then made the station's content accessible on its website.
Sax admits the idea wasn't as fruitful as he'd hoped. "I chose The Tribune because it is a widely read paper on campus. Numbers meant better exposure, but in the end the relationship was never as solid as I would have liked it to be — not enough commitment from The Tribune, and never enough content for TVM." After graduating, Sax moved to Argentina, where he now lives and works as a freelance reporter, covering the Latin American country for various broadcast and print outfits, including CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Business and, most recently, the prestigious U.S. political magazine, The New Republic.
The challenge of increasing the station's profile was left to Amber Sessions, TVM's next president and executive producer. Sessions, who finished her degree last year, and her team implemented infrastructure and obtained funding to create a twice-monthly television show, which would air on closed-circuit television sets across campus. Steadily, the station's profile grew — but it was not without its challenges.
"SSMU [Students' Society of McGill University] was our main source of funding," explains Samantha Banack, TVM's other current president and executive producer, and a final-year cultural studies and sociology major. They gave TVM money for a new computer and editing equipment, and a challege for TVM to prove themselves. With that equipment and a club member's donation for a new digital camera, TVM raised production values and attracted customers to buy space for text commercials on air. "And as we did that, we got more money from SSMU, and were able obtain more equipment and create a better show," Banack says.
Growing pains aside, members of TVM enjoy the creation process, though not all, like Sax, are interested in pursing film or journalism professionally. TVM's news producer, political science student Daniel Stern, who has interviewed such noted Canadians as Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and CBC's Peter Mansbridge, hopes to be a lawyer or politician. "I don't want to be a journalist, but I'm a news junkie. I'm not doing it for TV experience, because frankly, having TV experience is not going to get you through the doors of law school. I do it because I enjoy it."
Members meet once a week, at which time reporters and camera crew are assigned stories, or pitch their own. After they've written, shot and voiced the story, it moves into production. At this point, material captured on the digital cameras is fed into a computer for editing. When the story is complete, it is stored in a computer bank and viewed on televisions across campus on a looped cycle.
Because the organization is relatively new, all members have a chance to report or edit. "You don't need to pay your dues for five years before you can do what you want," says Stern.
For some, the production experience they're receiving is equal to — or greater than — a film or journalism school education. Banack, who works in film during the summer, says that industry professionals look at her TVM experience positively. "It's very practical. Everyone's been to film school. But when I say that I help run this station, with our meagre resources, that's impressive — especially with 15 hours of classes and four essays to write a semester."
Sax says, "TVM was as close to journalism training as I ever got at McGill, so it's helped me tremendously now that I'm actually a journalist." He learned crucial narrative skills at TVM. "A story is still put together the same way, and you learn quickly what works and what does not."
The budding television station hopes to become a viable news source for McGill students — equal to campus newspapers, such as The Tribune or The McGill Daily. And while members are enjoying the journey toward this possibility, looking back, Sax admits there was at least one pitfall to the job. "Spending each Saturday morning locked in Shatner [the Student Union building where production takes place] had its downside, especially after some dirty pitchers on Friday night at Peel Pub."