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1977: Question Period goes live

The Story

Lights, camera, action! It's showtime in the House of Commons as parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live on television for the first time. In this TV special, the CBC asks parliamentarians whether the cameras will change the substance or the style of debate in the Commons. Then it's on to the main attraction: Question Period. Though he's a little uncomfortable under the glare of the TV lights, Opposition leader Joe Clark plays to the audience across Canada. Fellow Tory MPs thump their desks with gusto as Clark stands to preface a question to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on unemployment. "On this day when television is first reflecting the debates in the House of Commons, among the Canadians who are watching us here today are a large number of the army of Canadian unemployed who, because of the policies of this government, have nothing else to do with their time today," says Clark. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: Oct. 17, 1977
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker, Stanley Knowles
Host: Peter Kent, John Drewery
Reporter: John Warren
Duration: 21:40

Did You know?

• Parliament agreed to allow cameras into the chamber in January 1977 after a two-day debate on a motion by House leader Allan MacEachen. His argument was that if Canadians were to stay interested in Parliament, they must be able to see what happened there.

• During summer recess that year, bright TV lights, eight colour cameras and a control room were installed at a cost of $5 million (almost $19 million in 2015 dollars).

• Nobody pretended the Commons broadcasts would make compelling TV. Rules stated that the cameras would show only the Member who had the floor -- not gestures or words as others reacted, not heckling, and no shots of members sleeping, reading newspapers or leaving the House.

• Soon after the broadcasts began, MPs realized how empty the House could look on TV. They shuffled accordingly to fill up seats around the member who was speaking.

• Three weeks later, MPs reported that the novelty of TV cameras in the Commons was wearing off. Members stopped shuffling to move in front of the cameras. "Things are getting back to normal," Edmonton MP Steve Paproski told the Globe and Mail.

• In the first few weeks several MPs wore sunglasses to avoid the glare of the bright TV lights in the chamber, but a memo from Joe Clark's office brought an end to the practice.

• With the start of House broadcasting, the CBC introduced the weekly program This Week in Parliament to show viewers highlights of debate in the Commons. The first week, ratings showed 125,000 people watched the program; by the following June 600,000 viewers were tuning in regularly.

• In February 1978 TV Guide -- perhaps not altogether seriously -- called the Commons broadcast "the best show on TV."


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