When TVOntario, then known as the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, took to the airwaves in September 1970, a press release declared that it was “Canada’s first television station devoted to entertaining education.” Since then the network has done its best to live up to that goal for viewers of all ages, whether by inciting children to utter “Polkaroo! Polkaroo!,” keeping adults informed about public affairs, or inspiring budding film historians via Elwy Yost’s movie shows. Those curious to find old TVOntario programs by digging through school board video vaults and surfing YouTube now have another option for rediscovering old shows thanks to the broadcaster’s new public online archive.
The site went live yesterday with over 325 clips from programs like Imprint, Prisoners of Gravity, Realities, Studio 2, and Talking Film. Sifting through the station’s archives over the past year has been a visual feast for producer Craig Desson, who admits that he “spent the first two months here hiding out in TVO’s media library.” The project rose out of TVOntario’s transferral of its back catalogue from tapes in a warehouse to digital media, as well as the broadcaster’s fortieth anniversary celebration. The archive’s goal is to provide a curated look at TVOntario’s past with material that continues to inform long after it first aired. “What I find most interesting about the content is that TVOntario is always trying to answer the question of how to educate people with television,” says Desson. ”And over forty years there have been lots of creative answers to that question.”
As far as most requested shows go, it’s not surprising that beloved kids shows like Today’s Special and Polka Dot Door are near the top. “There is a huge emotional reaction when you see a piece of TV you remember from being twelve,” says Desson. One complicating factor in fulfilling requests for any type of program is the task of wading through the rights minefield, especially since copyright regulations for programs from TVOntario’s first two decades didn’t foresee the digital world. The quest to sort out rights has required detective work (though not in kangaroo suits) mostly in finding former program hosts to get their permission to post their shows. “We were really pleased to work out an agreement with ACTRA whereby we get approval from their members before posting it online,” notes Desson. “We’ve found that Facebook and Google have been invaluable resources in finding where people are today. In contacting former actors you really get a sense of their emotional connection to the wonderful work they did with TVO. I’ve heard lots of stories from former hosts about the fun they had putting their show together.”
Of the programs posted so far, one of Desson’s favourites is Toronto: Four Faces, which views the city through the eyes of figures like historian William Kilbourn and writer Scott Symons. He enjoys the program for reasons that the broadcaster’s early PR people would have proud of—it’s both “intellectually dense” and entertaining (“you are looking at 1980’s Toronto and you can’t help but notice how the cars, hair styles and architecture have changed, which is worth watching for that alone”).
Additional material from the September 28, 1970 edition of the Telegram.