‘A whole new world of television’: How TVO’s launch avoided disaster and won over critics

Fifty years ago, viewers were introduced to “Education television, Ontario-style,” after channel 19 went live. Here’s what happened — and what almost didn’t happen — on it first big day
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 26, 2020
Channel 19’s preview program, Day One, was hosted by veteran CBC personality Max Ferguson. (TVO)

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Launching a television station is a risky venture. Even if you can survive financial and regulatory obstacles and come up with a programming plan that excites the public, there’s always the chance that technical difficulties will crash your opening-day party. These could be as minor as the upside-down station-ID card that graced CBC’s Toronto debut in 1952 or as disastrous as the mass power outage that sank BBC2’s launch in 1964.

TVO’s birth as Toronto’s channel 19 on September 27, 1970, nearly fell into the disastrous category.

To send out its signal, Canada’s first full-time educational-television station had made adjustments to the CBC’s downtown Toronto transmitter. A few days before the station’s debut, Ran Ide, the chairman of the Ontario Education Communications Authority, received a phone call from chief engineer Peter Bowers. “We’ve got a problem,” Bowers told Ide. “The transmitter is sparking, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to go on.”

Ide, worried that, after five years of development, a botched launch would make station staff look like amateurs, instructed Bowers to fix the problem. Workers reinstalled equipment, but station officials weren’t sure until an hour before airtime that the first broadcast would be able to run. For its first two days, the station transmitted its signal at half-strength.

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Prior to channel 19’s debut, educational programming had appeared in several ways. CBC and CTV ran shows during the morning under such titles as University of the Air. School boards and local educational-television authorities tested closed-circuit systems in classrooms and scheduled time on community cable channels. Viewers near the American border could watch stations affiliated with the NET network, which was officially replaced by PBS in the fall of 1970.

Ads for the new channel promised “entertaining education” that you could enjoy “with your feet up.” The station boasted that it was programmed by “more than 200 educators, producers, writers, and technicians whose specialty is to make learning a rewarding and enjoyable experience.” The original broadcast area was bordered by Hamilton, Oshawa, Newmarket, and St. Catharines.

Channel 19 did not face stiff competition when it debuted at 2 p.m. that Sunday afternoon. On the rest of the dial, viewers could watch the Minnesota Vikings smash the New Orleans Saints 26-0 on the CBC, the fourth part of an international symposium on drugs on CHCH, or something called Family Finder on CFTO.  

The preview, Day One, was hosted by veteran CBC personality Max Ferguson, who would go on to appear in various TVO programs (doing voice work for Readalong, for example). He stood on a set that featured several raised platforms with items ranging from wig stands to a drum. Photos lined the back of the studio. “Join us here for the next few hours on Day One and find out for yourself,” Ferguson told viewers. “You could discover a whole new world of television — something that’s different and exciting. Education television, Ontario-style.”

ad from the Globe and Mail
Detail that appeared in an ad in the Globe and Mail on September 17, 1970.

Over the next two and a half hours, Ferguson curated a mix of greetings from government and station officials and clips from upcoming programs, such as the station’s first original drama series, Castle Zaremba, which taught English against the backdrop of a multicultural Toronto boarding house. Viewers were shown how steel drums were built and played, and Ferguson participated in a skit in which characters from Stephen Leacock stories examined his application for a Leacock humour award. The preview was repeated later that night, at 7 p.m.

Critics were impressed. “There was a surprising willingness to obscure the compulsory but dull political speeches with some real programs,” the Globe and Mail’s Blaik Kirby observed. He was amused by a station technician who played a television critic in a skit poking fun at academic pomposity and nonsensical language: “That sort of thing gives strong hope that the OECA’s programs will have enough showbiz life to tickle and lure potential viewers, not merely to present them with stodgily uplifting fare.” According to the Toronto Star’s Patrick Scott, the preview was “a thoroughly professional, highly polished production that took viewers on a tantalizing tour through a treasure house of program riches to come”; despite all the transmitter problems, he wrote, the station “provided an astonishingly good picture.” The Telegram’s Roy Shields suggested that Ferguson looked less embarrassed presenting the show than he had while hosting a similar season preview for the CBC a few weeks earlier. “There seems to be a fresh new attitude in channel 19’s approach,” he observed.

The full programming schedule began the next morning at 8 a.m. with You and Eye, described in Star Week as “an introduction to the human form as used by artists in an expressive, rather than a purely representational sense.” During its first week on the air, channel 19 ran a mix of programs it had purchased from a variety of sources from both sides of the Atlantic. There were two imports from NET: Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood and Julia Child’s The French Chef. Viewers would have to wait for the station’s most-hyped acquisition, Sesame Street. CBC had acquired national Canadian rights, so an agreement was reached that saw channel 19 air episodes two weeks later. The BBC series Playschool filled the gap.

Questions remained over the size of the station’s audience. Channel 19 was the first UHF TV station based in Toronto and only the second available in the region — the other was Buffalo’s public-television station, WNED. While federal legislation passed in 1969 mandated that all new television sets be equipped to receive UHF, there were still plenty of VHF-only sets out there. At launch time, it was estimated that only 20 per cent of homes in Metropolitan Toronto were equipped for UHF. Station ads suggested that viewers could buy adaptors — which cost up to $50, or roughly $334 today — for their sets and antennas. And there were complaints, echoed loudly for several weeks by Scott in the Star, that its signal interfered with WNED.

Another issue was cable carriage. At the time, cable providers had a maximum of 10 slots to fill. At first, it looked as if the station wouldn’t be carried in time for its launch, as CRTC hearings on station placements were scheduled for October 6. In mid-September, the CRTC ordered that channel 19 be carried on cable in the Toronto area starting September 28, leaving carriers to figure out which channels would be eliminated or aired in channel 19’s slot overnight when it was off the air. The stations most affected were Kitchener’s CKCO and Peterborough’s CHEX.

The Ontario Education Communications Authority developed a two-phased plan to increase viewership. First, information would be provided about how to convert old sets so they could pick up the new station. Second, community viewing would be encouraged in schools and public libraries. “It’s going to be a struggle for two or three years,” Ide admitted in an interview with the Star. Within a few years, programming was shown via cable in other parts of the province, and, by 1975, over-the-air transmitters serviced Chatham, Kitchener, London, Ottawa, and Windsor.

Wrapping up his review of the first full day of programming, Blaik Kirby wrote that he suspected the older material the station had bought wouldn’t stick around for long — and predicted that the future would hold plenty of promise for TVO, if it made the right calls. “I’m a firm believer in candy-coating the educational pill, since I presume the vast bulk of the TV audience longs for entertainment rather than elucidation. Obviously channel 19 knows all this; but alluring educational shows take time, talent, and money.”

Sources: the September 17, 1970, September 28, 1970, and September 29, 1970, editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 1, 1970, September 26, 1970, and September 28, 1970, editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 28, 1970, edition of the Telegram.

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