Fifty years ago, TVO signed on

It was a grand experiment in educational television. And the man who founded it considers it one of his greatest achievements in public life
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 28, 2020
Former premier Bill Davis and his wife, Kathy, visiting TVO, the station he created as education minister. (TVO)

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Fifty years ago yesterday, the Ontario Educational Communications Authority experienced a moment of profound achievement. It kicked off its brand-new foray into educational television — and signed on for the first time.

It has been on the air, and now online as well, ever since.

Today, you know that channel by its more familiar, less bureaucratic-sounding name: TVO.

TVOntario (as it was then called) was conceived in the 1960s as one part of a three-legged educational stool. The first leg was the establishment of the province’s college system — a spectacularly successful effort to create a new post-secondary educational option.

The second leg focused on ensuring that teachers could get more education, should they want to. That resulted in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, which you probably know better as OISE.

And the third leg imagined exploiting a still relatively new technology called television — but for educational, rather than entertainment, purposes (although, to be sure, the founders wanted their educational efforts to be entertaining).

The common element in all three of these developments was a young education minister in Premier John Robarts’s government. His name was Bill Davis.

Davis had the good fortune to come along at a wonderful moment in Ontario history. When he was appointed education minister in 1962 at the tender age of 33, he had a simple philosophy: “If you get education right, everything else falls into place.”

In the 1960s, Ontario was booming. Revenues were cascading into the provincial treasury. And the federal government had its own cost-sharing programs that the province piggybacked onto and parlayed into even more funding. As a result, the Robarts government built new institutions that have stood the test of time.

Five decades later, TVO seems firmly ensconced in the broadcasting landscape. For those who grew up on Polkaroo and Elwy Yost, it feels as if TVO has always been there.

But, back in the day, there was plenty of opposition to Davis’s plan to launch an educational television channel. Liberal MPPs in opposition thought it would be cheaper and just as good to have teachers record their lessons on videotape, then mail those tapes around the province.

Fortunately, Davis and his TVO partner, Ran Ide (the broadcaster’s founding chair and CEO), were a little more imaginative. They wanted an educational broadcasting service, so they dealt with the concerns of teachers who feared it might render them obsolete and got OECA on the air — at first just for those with “rabbit ears” antennae — on the Ultra High Frequency channel 19 in Toronto.

Yes, Davis and Ide wanted a broadcaster that would define education broadly. But they also saw the potential of a service that could serve the pedagogical needs of teachers. I well remember seeing a picture of a classroom teacher setting up one of the early videotape recording machines (reel-to-reel in those days; no videocassettes yet) and preparing to tape TVO’s overnight programs, which she would then use in her classroom the next day. It was revolutionary for the times.

A little over two decades into TVO’s existence, the station lured over the anchor of the CBC-TV’s 6 o’clock Toronto newscast to beef up its current-affairs offerings. That guy was me. And, strangely enough, 28 years later — more than half of TVO’s existence — I’m still here, having hosted five different programs, interviewed tens of thousands of guests, written thousands of the kinds of columns you’re reading right now, and, as of yesterday, hosting a second podcast.

TVO at 50 dropped September 27: twice a week over the next few months, I’ll march down memory lane, talking to some of the people who created half a century’s worth of magic moments. You can subscribe to the podcast here (or wherever you get your podcasts).

I wish Ran Ide were still around so I could ask him a hundred questions about those early days at TVO. Alas, he died 24 years ago of leukemia at age 77. But I was able to speak to the man who gave the eulogy at his memorial service.

In fact, that man may be one of the few people still around from those heady days five decades ago. I wanted to thank him for being the father of educational television in Ontario. So I called the man who was then the youngest education minister in the province’s history: Davis.

“I’m calling you, on behalf of the people who work at TVO today and the thousands who’ve worked there over the years, to thank you for your foresight in creating the place that seems to have given a lot of people a lot of joy over the years,” I said. “So thank you, Premier.” (Yes, I still call him “Premier,” even though it isn’t the Canadian tradition to continue to refer to politicians by their titles after they leave office. But, seriously: What else would you call Bill Davis?)

“You’re very thoughtful to call,” said Davis, whose son, Neil, had only just informed him a few minutes earlier of the significance of the day.  Davis sounded genuinely touched to get the call. It’s an emotion he rarely reveals during our conversations, which tend to be funny and filled with banter. “It’s wonderful,” he added.  

Then, even at age 91, the longest-living Ontario premier ever couldn’t resist indulging in some schtick.

“You deserve all the credit,” he said to me. “I’m sure you won’t accept that credit, but I’m sending it your way anyway.”

Ontario’s 18th premier finished our call in good spirits, his voice bouncing with energy, feeling “not 100 per cent, but not badly.”

Happy 50th birthday, TVO. And how great is it that the guy who created you is still alive to celebrate this milestone.

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