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CBC in living colour

The Story

When a rainbow-hued butterfly flutters onto Canadian TV screens, it's a sensation. Colour broadcasting had finally come to Canada in September 1966, with a documentary about the bucking broncos of the Calgary Stampede. But, as CBC Ottawa explains on the 25th anniversary of colour TV, not many viewers saw the vivid reds, greens and blues on their screens. With a starting price of $850 (over $6,000 in 2015 dollars), colour TV sets were too eye-popping for most consumers. 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: Sept. 5, 1991
Duration: 1:42

Did You know?

• On July 14, 1966, both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail reported on the Canadian government's announcement that colour TV would be introduced in Canada on Sept. 1, 1966. Canada was the third country in the world to get colour TV, after the United States in 1953 and Japan in the early '60s.

• The CBC wasn't the only Canadian network with colour. The rival private CTV network began colour broadcasts on the same day.

• CTV was a string of eight private television stations from Vancouver to Halifax that joined forces on Oct. 1, 1961, to form the Canadian Television Network. The private stations had informally traded programs since July 1960. By 1962 CTV carried 14 hours weekly of network programming. A schedule of game shows, sports and American dramas was rounded out by a newscast and a public-affairs program.

• According to Knowlton Nash's The Microphone Wars, the entry of CTV into the Canadian TV market "encouraged the CBC to chase audiences more vigorously, which led to more mass-appeal programming."

• A few years later, Canadian Radio League founder Graham Spry remarked: "I profoundly regret that the CBC prime time is now primarily devoted to selling American goods, financed by American advertisers, and very largely with American programs."

• Upon the announcement that colour TV was coming, Toronto Star TV columnist Roy Shields reported that CTV would have more colour shows to put on the air than the CBC. CTV had been producing and stockpiling colour shows since March 1966.

• CTV was also ahead with technical facilities for producing colour programs. Several stations in its network had colour production capabilities, but only one CBC studio in Toronto was outfitted for colour before Sept. 1.

• CTV planned to show 70 per cent of its programs in colour, but fewer than one per cent of Canadian TV homes had colour sets in 1966.

• Production costs were 30 per cent greater for colour programs than for black and white.

• The CBC was cautioned to move more slowly. A government report said colour TV was a lower priority than other improvements. Bud Sherman, an MP from Winnipeg, said the CBC should also focus on bringing TV to unserviced regions, especially the North.

• CBC colour test transmissions were carried out after midnight. Upon visiting TV master control late one night during the testing phase, Toronto Star TV columnist Roy Shields got his first eyeful of colour TV. Two monitors showed the same nature program, "but the colour picture kept the eye transfixed," wrote Shields. "Below, on the black and white monitor, the same picture looked like a relic of the past."

• Colour TVs were twice as costly in Canada as in the United States. Manufacturers blamed an excise tax on all TV sets.

• Those who did buy colour TVs also had to invest in a new antenna to ensure getting a good colour picture. Antennas cost up to $200.

• The CBC's colour symbol, an animated butterfly, was created by CBC animator Hubert Tison. Many observers felt it was a rip-off of NBC's famous peacock.

• The day after colour's debut in Canada, Shields turned in his assessment. He called the CBC broadcast "low-keyed" but of "very high calibre." The second colour program, McClure in India, was vivid: "In a scene of an Indian woman being operated on, black-and-white viewers may have shuddered a bit. Colour viewers probably turned green."

• Shields noted that the local CTV station's colour "was equal to colour from Buffalo." This was because proximity to a transmitter improved colour reception.


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