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CBC-TV's early years: 'A sense of adventure'

On a summer's day in 1927, Canadians coast to coast sat enthralled before their radio sets as Prime Minister Mackenzie King spoke to them from Parliament Hill. Through the 1930s radio kept them entertained, and in wartime radio kept them informed. Then, Canadians were captivated all over again by television. In 1952 a bald puppet named Uncle Chichimus ushered them into the TV age, and in 1966 an animated butterfly made Canadian TV a more colourful pace.

Some might have said Canadian TV never had a chance. When CBC Television went on the air in 1952, Canadians with TVs had already been glued to American stations for months, if not years. How could Canadians build a service to fulfill the expectations created by commercial American networks? An inventive young staff for a young medium was one answer, so CBC Television had an unofficial policy against hiring anyone over age 30. CBC Radio's Ideas profiles the heady early years of CBC Television.

Because it was competing with American networks from day one, CBC was forever playing a game of catch-up. Another problem was generational conflict: the new staff, hired solely for their facility with TV and its technology, didn't share a reverence for the CBC as a national institution. But there were pluses to working with such a new medium. "Whatever you wanted to put on the air would get on, if it had quality," remembers observer Robert Fulford. 
• According to the Knowlton Nash book The Microphone Wars, radio staff regarded television as an "engineering toy" that would never replace the more serious radio service. The radio news head, Dan McArthur, saw TV as vehicle for entertainment only.
• Some newspapers and magazines of the time warned against "televidiots" created by too much TV watching. "Television is the opium of home life…[its] hypnotic eye can mesmerize your family all night," said columnist Jack Scott.

• When CBC Television went on the air there were 146,000 TV sets in Canada. Just 26 per cent of the population could receive the CBC signal.
• More TV sets sold quickly in the first half of 1953 so Canadians could watch two key events: the Stanley Cup playoffs between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens (Montreal won 4-1) and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.

• The CBC was the first broadcaster to air the coronation in North America. Before the days of satellites, the only way to get the images across the ocean was by airplane. After filming the coronation on kinescope, the CBC crew boarded a plane to cross the Atlantic. Despite some tense moments while refuelling at the American airfield in Gander, Nfld., the crew returned to Montreal in time to beat the American networks by several hours. NBC and ABC ended up buying the CBC feed.

• A kinescope is a large camera used for recording television in the days before videotape. The camera was placed directly in front of a live TV monitor and recorded onto film.
• A film recorded on kinescope is called a "kine."
• The CBC added stations in Vancouver and Ottawa in 1953, followed by Winnipeg and Halifax in 1954.

• In 1953, CKSO in Sudbury was the first private station licensed in Canada. It was a CBC affiliate, meaning it was not owned by the CBC but aired some of its programming.
• By March 1954 there were over 700,000 TV sets in the country.
• In 1952, when the average weekly wage for a typical worker was about $55, TV sets sold for between $240 and $430. That's about $1750 to $3,200 in 2005 dollars.
Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: Nov. 17, 1986
Guest(s): Robert Fulford, J. Alphonse Ouimet
Host: Lister Sinclair
Reporter: David Cayley
Duration: 8:20

Last updated: March 22, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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