Starting when I was nine or so, during the summer and on weekends I would try to stay up as late as possible. This is not unusual for kids, of course, but I was moderately creative about it: I would read in bed with a flashlight, and then, when I heard my mom go to bed, I would wait a while and then I would sneak downstairs, since the TV was in the basement. Then I would watch late-night TV with impunity. Of course, I soon found out the hard way that the air conditioning vents would act like string telephones to my parents’ room, but this did not dissuade me since I quickly figured out that stuffing cushions into the vents would effectively mute them.
I can’t say that the late-night TV at that time was particularly engrossing. My mom usually didn’t go to bed early enough for me to catch anything earlier than the second half of Late Night With David Letterman (e.g. “the not as good half”). But there were sitcoms: episodes of Check It Out! (which started getting late-night airing soon after it debuted, never a good sign), Alice, Gloria, and One Day At A Time. There were plenty of movies airing from one to three: the first time I ever saw Night Shift was by staying up late. Ditto The Great Train Robbery, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, A Shot In The Dark, The Omega Man, The Dream Team, The Seven Per Cent Solution. Probably I was too young to be seeing a lot of these, but so what.
However, at a certain point even TV would give up the ghost; this was the 80s, and 24-hour channels were a thing of the distant future. I, of course, being a irrational kid, wanted to stay up as late as possible, because dammit if I was going to stay up then I was going to stay up. But, inevitably, come 4 a.m., there would be only one thing on the air. Night Drive. Night Drive was Global Television’s late-night programming stroke of genius, because Global recognized that there were people at 4 a.m. who wanted to watch something on television that wasn’t static or a test pattern. Granted, most of these people were drunks. But they still wanted to watch something. Global figured out that, since nobody else aired anything at that time of night, they could therefore air anything and some people would watch it.
Hence, Night Drive. The entire show was three hours of pretaped footage of somebody driving around in Toronto, and it was set to soft jazz. That’s the whole thing. And here is the fun part: there were commercials! In later years I would find out that Global would either sell the ads on Night Drive for a pittance to companies too cash-strapped to buy commercial time anywhen else, or offer ad time on Night Drive as a bonus for companies buying ad time when people were actually watching TV (“if you buy space on ALF, you get Night Drive for free”). Its largest audience was supposedly prisoners who loved watching scenes of sweet, sweet freedom, but I have trouble imagining, in retrospect, that prisons would let prisoners in the TV room at 4 a.m., so I think that must have been an urban legend.
Watching Night Drive now makes me almost nostalgic for Toronto-that-was. You can see a lot of old Toronto here that no longer exists – the original Sam the Record Man, the arcade strip on Yonge (which is long gone, the last of the great arcades now over a decade dead and gone, and the buildings which housed them bulldozed for larger, more modern, multi-story commercial developments), Maple Leaf Gardens before it was retrofitted to become a Loblaws. (In New York, they had the good taste to call Madison Square Garden’s replacement Madison Square Garden, because they appreciate history. Maple Leaf Gardens’ replacement is the Air Canada Centre, which is soulless and sad and everything that is shitty about pro sports today.) Now, Toronto is gradually becoming a more brightly-lit city, which generally I welcome – it’s both safer and prettier – but there is that mood that a dark city brings that is not duplicable in the modern age. It feels like pulp.
In any case, Night Drive was far more successful than it had any right to be. So what did Global do?
It did what any good television channel did: it created a spinoff.