Street Cents

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We come to my favourite type of podcast episode, my nostalgia episode! I have covered many wonderful television shows over the past two years and we have one that had a big impact on a lot of young Canadians in the 1990s, while also giving us J-Roc himself, Jonathan Torrens: Street Cents!

The story of Street Cents begins in 1988 with CBC Halifax, which created the pilot that would become Street Cents. At the time, the program was called Moneypenny. Producer John Nowlan would cite Pocket Money, a show from Britain, as a main inspiration for Street Cents. Nowlan would state quote:

“We did some testing of names with kids after the pilot was hugely successful and kids didn’t like it. They preferred the name Street Cents, the play on words. So we switched the title.”

Of course, the real story of Street Cents begins a bit earlier, in 1986, during a round of CBC budget cuts when Nowlan first proposed the idea of the show. He was told any new shows that wanted to be on the network had to be commercially viable.

He would use this, realizing he had to pay at least $20,000 for writers, performers, the sets and more.

Nowlan and producers were able to raise one million dollars from corporate sponsors to make the full season of Street Cents out of Halifax.

With that, Street Cents as we know it, was born, it differed from other programs on the air in many ways. First, sponsor logos were only seen at the end credit of episodes, modelled on how PBS acknowledged sponsors in the United States. The show was also focused completely on promoting safety and ethics and action for young people. As well, it aired without any commercial interruption to prevent any sort of advertising bias that would prevent any criticism of the products or services of the advertisers on the show. The lack of commercial interruption was what CBC’s Marketplace also did.

Nowlan would say about sponsors quote:

“We needed money and in those days shows aimed at young people, unlike pre-school, could have commercials but I said I don’t want Street Cents to have commercials. I felt it really important that it have the credibility of Consumer Reports magazines, which thrives because it doesn’t have any advertising.”

Initial sponsors including the Canadian Banker’s Association who provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for the first season. The Bronfman Foundation and other similar groups also put in money. One sponsor was the Royal Canadian Mint.

Nowlan would say quote:

“I remember we had to do a thing about the mint, the Canadian mint, on a regular basis, but those were field pieces, so it would be about coins, fairly benign, but it was sponsored by the mint.”

Jon Finkelstein, a producer, would say of CBC’s support for the show quote:

“CBC execs were very supportive of us doing topics that really mattered to teens because when you’re doing a show for teenagers, 12 to 17, who like to watch adult programming, grown-up programming, you’re only going to get them if you actually talk about things you care about. So, the show had to be quite edgy…Street Cents talked about everything from underwear street tests to acne cream to sex.”

When the show launched on March 15, 1989, it featured three hosts, Benita Ha, Chris Lydon and Jamie Bradley. The first season would consist of only 12 episodes.

Ha would say of the show quote:

“I was surprised I was cast, this Chinese kid with braces. I thought it was a great concept and I was really happy to be on a show and of course my whole family was perched on chairs waiting for the first episode.”

Midway through season 1 though, Jonathan Torrens replaced Lydon and would go on to become easily the most famous person to come from the show and the face of the show itself to this day. Torrens was originally cast as a tester and was at one point fed nothing but fast food for a week and then he would provide a report on it.

“I ate nothing but fast food for five days, which in retrospect wasn’t much of a stretch. Like, that wasn’t hard hitting journalism, that was just how I rolled because I was actually working at McDonald’s at the time, and you could get a free lunch every shift you worked.”

After his week of fast food, Torrens became a host. Clattenburg would say quote:

“I admired Jonathan’s talent early on. Long before I worked on the show, I was a real fan of Street Cents. We’d see each other around town. Then I get this gig working with him. It didn’t take long for us to become pals, we made each other laugh constantly.”

Macleans would write about Torrens on Street Cents in 1992, stating quote:

“It has launched the career of teen heartthrob Jonathan Torrens. For three seasons, Torrens, now 19, has played an empty-headed preppy. But now he says that after he exchanged his button-down collars for leather jackets, he receives calls from starstruck young women and a deluge of fan mail. Said Torrens, I guess the classic rebel has always been intriguing.”

Also part of the cast was the character of Ken Pompadour, played by Brian Heighton. Pompadour was the lackey of the evil corporation BuyCo, which sold terrible overpriced products that were made to break down. These were marketed in a stereotypical parody fashion on the show with Pompadour trying to sell the products on the show and the hosts foiling his schemes.

Show writer Louise Moon would say quote:

“It’s funny because we had this fictional company called Buy-Co and Buy-Co acquired Street Cents to try to raise its prestige in the corporate community. So, in a way, we were kind of making fun of ourselves in that we have these corporate sponsors but I don’t think it ever compromised the integrity of the series.”

Another popular part of the cast was a pig. Initially the pig was named Penny, then Nickel and then the Vietnamese word for dime.

Nowlan would say quote:

“We thought it would be fun to have a pig on set to show the piggishness and the pork that a lot of corporations take from young people.”

While the pig added a unique aspect for the show, it also presented problems, like going to the bathroom on set.

Ha would say quote:

“The pig would start going to the washroom every single time we started rolling. It was like ‘in three, two, oh wait stop, it’s happening’. It is like it knew. It knew when we were about to shoot. It would be fine for the rehearsals and then, boom”

The pig would last two seasons, before a hedgehog was brought in for season three. The hedgehog, named Two Bit, was also to play on the popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Nowlan would say quote:

“Two Bit’s role is to bring in letters and things impaled on its quills. We also give it lots of extra sound effects.”

Clattenburg would state quote:

“The hedgehog was cute. I remember he rocked some unexpected pisses. We also had a silly robotic hedgehog for stunts and special effects. I loved it.”

The show proved to be incredibly popular. At one autograph signing at a mall in Ottawa, the cast expected 50 people to show up. In the end, 500 people came by to get autographs.

Henry Sawyer-Foner, a producer, would state quote:

“We went from nobody knew about the show to people starting to. The ratings started to pick up and we started to get nominated and winning awards and stuff like that. A little bit here and there.”

By 1993, there was talk of Street Cents going to foreign markets including PBS in the United States, and broadcasters in Malaysia and Singapore were also interested in the show.

Nowlan would state quote:

“They were amazed that a Canadian show that wasn’t violent or sexist, was multi-cultural and taught something, could beat shows like Ninja Turtles in the ratings. Their idea of prime-time kids’ show in Malaysia is GI Joe cartoons. Our goal is to make Canada the world leader in teaching consumer skills.”

By this point, the annual budget for 26 episodes was $3.3 million, with CBC provided $2 million and corporate grants covering the rest.

Torens would say in a 1993 interview quote:

“We’re giving a voice to these kids who would otherwise be ignored.”

Ha would add in the same interview that the show speaks to kids as peers, rather than as an adult authority. She would state quote:

“If we can do this, you can too. If you have a problem, we can help you out.”

The show would often involve parodies of popular shows of the time including Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five or Dawson’s Creek. An example of this was when the What’s Your Beef segment was about skateboards, so there would be a sketch involving a crisis in the world of Dawson’s Creek.

Torrens would say quote:

“Like if Party of Five was on and we were doing a thing about a five-man tent, then it would be Party of Five-Man Tents or whatever.”

When the show heard from viewers about how mall security guards treated them unfairly, the producers came up with the Mall Cops sketch, which followed two overly-aggressive security guards harassing teens with its own parody theme song.

Eventually, Pompadour’s boss would die in Aruba and Pompadour was promoted to the new head of BuyCo. His character shifted at this point from being a weak-willed lackey to a man who wore all black leather and had a goatee, and was able to magically snap his hand to reveal an item he was selling. Around him, he had a group of lackeys and yes men.

Heighton himself would leave the show and with him the BuyCo storyline disappeared as well.

From that point forward, the show became less story-oriented.

During its first eight seasons, considered to be the Classic Street Cents era, there were several common segments.

What’s Your Beef read letters from viewers, as well as phone calls and e-mails that were investigated by the hosts.

Fit for the Pit involved the throwing of an inferior product that the producers believed was not fit for paying for. The product would be thrown into a fiery pit in the Street Cents studio. In reality, the pit was a hole with a 650-watt light with red gel on it and a smoke machine.

Torrens would say quote:

“In the early going, we probably only had one version of the prop that we were throwing in the pit, so if it landed on the light and got singed, that was it.”

An example of a product that went to the pit was one billed as being good for the environment. Nowlan would say quote:

“It came in a package that was a blister pack, covered in cardboard with more plastic. It was such a rip-off, it got thrown into the pit.”

In 1993, the show also picked up a gold medal for best teen series at the New York International Film and Video Festival, and two silver medals. No CBC show had ever won four medals in New York to that point.

The show was also attracting 570,000 viewers a week at this point.

Nowlan would say quote:

“The show never gets preachy. It never breathes the word education, but that is our goal. We are all journalists trying to teach young people and families about money management and environmental skills.”

One year later, the show moved from Saturday morning to Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. This move would cause the show to see its viewership double to one million people. That same year, the show saw the departure of Jamie Bradley and the arrival of Anna Dirksen.

The show was also picking up a lot of credibility that allowed it to help many of its viewers. In 1993, a viewer was charged eight cents GST on a bottle of Coke that he had won at a grocery store. A call from Street Cents pointing out that eight per cent of nothing is nothing embarrassed the grocer to reverse the decision.

Torrens would say quote:

“As a representative of Street Cents calling, it’s almost like the law. It is amazing the kind of power you have.”

In 1996, one review of the show from the Vancouver Sun would praise it, stating quote:

“Street Cents is in its seventh year. It has survived because it is witty, smart, crisply edited and asks its viewers to question everything. It’s mantra could be trust no one, this year’s season premiere featured a parody of The X-Files.”

At the time, the show continued to be the only consumer show for young people. For this reason, the show would also be one of the first Canadian shows to begin using the Internet to broadcast its message. In 1995, the show had a website and Nowlan would say quote:

“Because of the interactive nature of Street Cents to begin with, it was thought that we would be a good test for Internet connection. They thought a teen-oriented show would be perfect because kids are really into technology.”

At the site, users could get week-by-week summaries of the items run on each program, questionnaires, biographies of the hosts, behind the scenes items and more. Within 24 hours of the site launching, it had received 30,000 visitors. 

Torrens would leave Street Cents in 1996 and would go on to create his own teen-oriented talk show called Jonovision. He would then take on the role of J-Roc on Trailer Park Boys, for which he is arguably the most famous for. Another Trailer Park Boys connection comes in the fact that Mike Clattenburg, the creator of Trailer Park Boys, worked as a field producer on Street Cents.

Torrens would say years later quote:

“This was a show on the public broadcaster for kids on Saturday morning, so it was almost uncool. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can now be really proud of what we did.”

The departure of Torrens is seen as the end of the Classic Era of Street Cents. Beginning in Season 9, and continuing until season 17, Street Cents took on a new-magazine style similar to Marketplace. It focused on empowering young people to make educated decisions about the products that they were buying, as well as the media that was promoting it.

In the final years of the show, it would expand to include topics such as eating disorders, divorce and interracial dating.

In August 2006, after 17 seasons and 923 episodes, the decision was made to cancel Street Cents due to a decline in viewership among its target audience. Its last episode aired on Oct. 1, 2006.

Nowlan would state quote:

“It lasted 17 years, which is a pretty good run for a CBC show. A very good run.”

That would not be the end of Street Cents though. In 2019, original host Jonathan Torrens started a reboot of the show on YouTube called Your Two Cents. This reboot would earn Torrens two Canadian Screen Award nominations in 2020 and 2021.

Based on the success of the YouTube show, CBC announced that a revival of Street Cents would begin in 2022 on its TikTok account.

Information from CBC, Vice, Macleans, Wikipedia, Calgary Herald, Owen Sound Sun Times, The Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, National Post, Regina Leader-Post, Ottawa Citizen,

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