Watching TV

Television in Canada - The Early Years

Although invented in a rudimentary form in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1950s that television came into its own. In Canada, the CBC introduced its service on September 6, 1952, although several hundred thousand Canadians who lived within range of the American signals south of the border already owned television sets. The CBC's debut was somewhat inauspicious. The flickering test pattern of an Indian surrounded by a geometric design was broadcast upside-down. The test pattern was followed by an urgent new item, flashing the pictures of two men who had just robbed a bank. Next came the puppet show, Uncle Chichimus. Then, at last, the first moving, talking Canadian face appeared: meteorologist Percy Saltzman, telling us about the weather.

In 1952, there were stations only in Toronto and Montreal; by the following year, Ottawa and Vancouver were also on air. In 1954, Montreal got its French-language station, and Winnipeg and Halifax began broadcasting. Fifteen private stations had also opened by this time, each of them required to carry at least 10-1/2 hours of CBC programming a week.

Television caught on faster than anyone could have predicted. By 1954, the millionth television set had been purchased in Canada. At first, most people thought of television as radio with pictures. It soon became clear, however, that television sets presented certain problems. First of all, they were difficult to stay away from. Secondly, people without television sets tended to drop in unexpectedly. Most alarming of all, there was no programming for the many children who had become instant television addicts.

Before the end of the decade, television had revolutionized Canadian life. Living-room furniture was rearranged to accommodate the television set; TV-tables were invented; TV-dinners were invented, and many former family activities and chores were tossed aside in favour of watching television instead. Family life, eating habits, house design, jokes and politics all became influenced by television.

Television also caused something of a mini-boom in culture and education in Canada. Canadian programming, at least in the early days, tended to be quite different from American programming. Canadian programming was more serious and intellectual, and included Shakespearean dramas, panel discussions on Canadian literature, science series, public affairs debates, and folk-singing shows. Most Canadian programmes were shunned, however, because what Canadian audiences wanted was American programming. Canadian networks were not allowed to broadcast these, however, until early 1953.

When, in its own programming, the CBC tried to imitate American successes, the results were often abysmal. When the CBC was not trying to imitate, however, the results were often extremely rewarding. Canadians were particularly good at creating documentaries and news programmes; music shows like Don Messer's Jubilee and Holiday Ranch; sports programming like Hockey Night in Canada; and fine Canadian dramas like Les Plouffe.

By 1958, a coast-to-coast microwave broadcast link had been established, making the CBC a truly national network. The installation of video machines also made it possible for the same programme to be seen in the same time zone across the country, binding the country together even tighter than the railway had several decades earlier.

Since the 1950s, television in Canada has grown exponentially. This growth was spurred in part by the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) in 1967, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 1968. Funding support from Telefilm Canada has enabled the production of many outstanding Canadian-themed programmes, including the world-renowned Anne of Green Gables. The CRTC has acted as a supervisory and regulatory body, ensuring that Canadians receive the finest in Canadian and international television programming at a reasonable cost.

These factors, coupled with proximity to the United States, have made Canadians among the world's greatest per capita consumers of television. 78% of Canadian households now subscribe to cable television services, a figure surpassed only by Belgium, a tiny nation with only one-third of Canada's population and 0.3% its physical size.

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