Before he was known as the Education Premier, Bill Davis helped create TVO

During his time as education minister, Davis modernized the province’s learning infrastructure — and introduced a new station to the airwaves
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Aug 09, 2021
Ontario minister of education Bill Davis sits at his desk in the legislature at Queen's Park on April 5, 1966. ( John McNeill/Globe and Mail)



“A large, and possibly the largest, advantage of educational television is that it can transfer an educational experience that cannot be, or isn’t now, within the capacity of the normal classroom situation. To the younger age group, television is an obvious, acceptable, and respected means of communication for ideas, information, and instruction.” — Bill Davis announcing the introduction of provincial educational-television programming on June 2, 1965

During his tenure as Ontario’s minister of education, from 1962 to 1971, Bill Davis modernized the province’s learning infrastructure. Under his guidance, the community-college system was created, school boards were consolidated, buildings were expanded and improved, and teaching credentials were upgraded. 

And he championed the creation of the educational-television service that became TVO.

During the 1960s, provinces grew interested in the possibilities of educational television (usually referred to at the time as ETV), having observed its performance in Europe and the United States. Davis was among the leaders who believed ETV was a powerful tool that could provide greater public access to learning, be it in a classroom, in a public space — or from the comfort of home. 

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Steve Paikin in conversation with former premier Bill Davis on June 12, 2009.

During a 90-minute speech on June 2, 1965, Davis outlined his vision for ETV in Ontario. Provincially produced programs would debut in January 1966 on Toronto’s CBLT and CFTO, which were already airing locally made material. If all went well, Davis hoped that, by September 1966, the province would launch an educational network whose first programs would cover math and science. The province intended to secure channel 19 in Toronto, at a time when few homes had television sets capable of receiving ultra-high frequency stations.

While the plan was well-received, critics such as the Toronto Star and Liberal education critic Robert Nixon worried that, without a provision for an advisory council, the ETV service could be used for government propaganda. Davis felt that centralizing control through his ministry would be the best way to get ETV up and rolling. 

An application was sent to the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG, the predecessor to the CRTC) in March 1966, but Davis’s plan then hit a major snag. Since the end of the Second World War, it had been federal policy to keep provinces out of broadcasting, a tradition that BBG officials saw no reason to change. The victory of the Union Nationale in the June 1966 Quebec provincial election added to the federal government’s anxiety, as new premier Daniel Johnson promised to create a provincial cultural and educational broadcaster. Davis forged ahead and set up an ETV department within the ministry in July 1966, appointing Ran Ide as its director.

The federal attitude changed slowly. A federal white paper issued in July 1966 suggested that provinces could establish ETV, but under the watch of a federal agency that would provide production and transmission facilities and dictate when programs would air. This vision rejected previous recommendations that would have forced VHF stations to air educational material in the morning, in favour of using only UHF channels. Davis indicated that he was prepared to discuss any suggestions, as long as space was provided for education channels and facilities. 

black and white photo of children watching TV
Photo from the January 25, 1969, edition of the Globe and Mail.

Progress remained slow, and it wasn’t until early 1968 that a parliamentary committee held hearings about ETV. A representative from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters urged the federal government to move slowly, lest any valuable taxpayer dollars be wasted on programming and technology that might soon become obsolete. Among its suggestions: keep running educational shows on the CBC and private broadcasters as long as those stations received a nice service fee for sacrificing their airtime. 

In a preview of what he would tell the committee, Davis issued a statement to the Ontario legislature on February 26, 1968, refining his plans for ETV. He envisioned a network of five stations boosted by 28 rebroadcasters. The service would be overseen by a quasi-independent authority consisting of representatives from educational areas ranging from parent-teacher associations to universities; members would be appointed by the provincial cabinet and report to the minister of education. He believed this authority was necessary because television was “a powerful medium which engenders apprehension about its fair use and control,” and educational broadcasters had a range of responsibilities that extended beyond school settings.

The next day, Davis spoke to the committee in Ottawa. He didn’t disguise his displeasure with the federal government’s glacial pace in approving educational television; his team had completed more than 400 programs but had limited airtime to show them. Over two hours of questioning, he asserted the province’s right to control educational television, citing the general provincial responsibility for education outlined in Section 93 of the British North America Act. He also felt that the federal vision of ETV as strictly an instructional tool was too narrow, arguing that it should go beyond teaching and cover cultural programming, without having to compete with the CBC or private broadcasters. He wanted to provide “television programming for those citizens who wish to improve themselves in knowledge and skills, from the pre-school children to adults who seek to develop themselves as individuals.”

At first, the federal government stuck by its plan to control ETV transmission through a federal body, tentatively called the Canadian Educational Broadcasting Agency. But the battle over jurisdictional control — especially with Quebec, which had revived a Second World War era law to create Radio- Québec, in 1968 — intensified, leading to frustration over the bureaucratic circus. Davis rejected a suggestion to share transmitter time with CBC’s Radio-Canada network, as that would have limited the station’s audience to daytime classrooms, leaving out the home adult audience he hoped to reach. When told he could take programming hours away from the French broadcaster as ETV’s schedule expanded, Davis countered that the move would insult the province’s francophones. 

smiling man in a suit standing in front of a sign reading "TVO"
Bill Davis helped celebrate TVO's 50th anniversary in 2020. (Twitter/TVO)

In November 1969, the federal government gave in and scrapped its plan, claiming such technological developments as closed-circuit broadcast systems and videotape delivery made its idea of a governing agency obsolete. Instead, cable operators would be required to set aside at least one channel for provincially produced ETV.

After this, the regulatory approvals required to launch Ontario’s ETV service fell into place. The CRTC granted a licence for channel 19 in January 1970, and the CBC helped get the station going. The bill officially creating the Ontario Educational Communications Authority passed in the legislature by a vote of 59 to 19 in April 1970. The Liberals objected on the grounds that they felt Davis still had too much control and that there hadn’t been enough input from teachers. The NDP supported the bill; education critic Walter Pitman observed that the OECA brought order to the chaotic world of ETV. By September, the station was on the air.

When Davis became premier in March 1971, he wrote to Ide, assuring him, “I shall certainly retain my overall interest in the field and my specific interest in the progress and advancement of the Authority.” Davis’s continuing support for TVO helped it grow into what it is today.

Sources: The Transparent Blackboard by Ran Ide (Toronto: Lugus, 1994); the July 8, 1965, and March 14, 1968, editions of Canadian Broadcaster; the June 3, 1965, June 4, 1965, March 12, 1966, July 5, 1966, November 22, 1966, February 27, 1968, February 28, 1968, October 25, 1968, January 25, 1969, November 6, 1969, November 26, 1969, and April 9, 1970, editions of the Globe and Mail; and the June 14, 1965, and February 27, 1968, editions of the Toronto Star.

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