Historicist: Television Comes to Toronto
Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Advertisement for CBLT’s first night on the air. The Toronto Star, September 8, 1952
Once upon a time, Toronto television viewers had to rely on transmissions from south of the border to watch regular programming. While there had been homegrown demonstrations of the technology at venues like the Canadian National Exhibition from the late 1930s onwards, local daily broadcasting did not become a reality until the CBC launched CBLT on September 8, 1952. Until then, Torontonians who spent hundreds of dollars on new sets viewed the emergence of the American networks and the latest fires in Cheektowaga.
Buffalo provided Toronto viewers with their first regular dose of television. WBEN (now WVIZ) began test broadcasting in the winter of 1947 and launched a regular programming schedule in May 1948. Toronto retailers quickly erected antennas to pick up WBEN and entice customers to check out the new technology. The early sets were a hefty investment, with the average price of a 10″ or 12″ screen General Electric model running around $745 (which, using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, works out to just over $7,100 today). By 1952, the average cost had dropped by $500 and the number of sets had grown to the point where Toronto newspapers printed the daily schedules of four American stations alongside the radio listings: WBEN, WHAM (Rochester, NY, now WROC), WSYR (Syracuse, NY, now WSTM), and WICU (Erie, PA).
Eaton’s advertisement, The Toronto Star, January 13, 1949
The federal government gave approval for a CBC-operated television network as early as 1948 but bureaucracy delayed the official launch for four years. One problem was establishing where the service’s base would be. In Stephen Cole’s book Here’s Looking At Us, Mavor Moore, the network’s first executive producer, noted that “Toronto and Montreal wouldn’t allow each other to have CBC headquarters. So it ended up in Ottawa, hundreds of miles from our production centres and well beyond the signal of American networks. Border cities knew all about TV. But not Ottawa. Which may explain why government was years behind the public on TV.” It didn’t help that some cultural elites displayed a dismissive attitude towards the new medium, as Moore discovered when chatting with one of his university professors. When Moore described his new job, the professor asked, “Oh Moore, when are you going to quit screwing around?”
Auditions at the Jarvis Street studios for performers in variety shows started in July 1952, providing the local press with an excuse to print scores of pictures of attractive starlets. Closed-circuit test broadcasts were undertaken to work out technical bugs. The launch dates were announced later that month, with programming commencing in Montreal on September 6 and Toronto following two days later.
Private broadcasters argued that the CBC’s legislated monopoly on television programming was a bad deal for taxpayers due to the network’s slow rollout plan. Canadian Association of Broadcasters chairman D. Malcolm Neill asked, “When will the people living in the rest of Canada have television? Not until millions of dollars of their money have been spent for the entertainment and advancement of the citizens of Montreal and Toronto.” CBC’s monopoly would not last long, as Sudbury’s CKSO was launched as Canada’s first privately-owned station in October 1953.
Transmissions began earlier than expected on launch day when news broke that four members of the Boyd Gang had escaped from the Don Jail. Pictures and descriptions of the escapees were telecast every half-hour during the afternoon. These also ran on screens in the background of a pre-launch press conference. When the picture of fugitive Steve Suchan was shown, CBC chairman A. Davidson Dunton referred to him as “Canadian talent.”
The evening’s three-hour programming slate began at 7:15 p.m. with a technical snafu. The test pattern came across screens fine, but the station ID card was first shown upside-down, then in reverse before appearing in its correct position. Floor director Norman Jewison later joked, “I can’t remember what we did, or if we shot the poor guy responsible. It was live, remember, and all we were concerned about was what happened next.” Intentional humour followed with Let’s See, a 15-minute preview of the night’s fare introduced by puppets Uncle Chichimus and Holly Hock. Weatherman Percy Saltzman was the first human to step in front of the camera, punctuating his forecast with his signature chalk toss. Lorne Greene hosted the news roundup and narrated a feature on the construction of the new studio.
Greetings from domestic and international talking heads followed, though Dunton and other federal officials nearly missed their appearance due to a leisurely dinner. When Moore told the delegation they would have to wait for a commercial break before being allowed in the studio, Minister of National Revenue J.J. McCann erupted. “Do you know who we are, Moore? We’re your bahhsses!” Moore held his ground and was later told that he shot back at the minister, “This broadcast is going out live to a million Canadians, Dr. McCann, and at this moment they’re even more important than you are.”
The main attraction was Opening Night, described as a “sample menu” of the programming to come on CBLT. A wide array of local performers were crammed into 45 minutes, including pianist Glenn Gould, bass baritone Jan Rubes, comedy sketches from the “Spring Thaw” review, and a sports roundtable including Telegram columnist Ted Reeve. The Leslie Bell Singers sang for half-an-hour, followed by a variety program filmed in Montreal. The night ended with a repeat of the news.
The estimated viewing audience for launch night was 110,000. Three of those viewers wrote mixed reviews for the following day’s newspapers. The Star’s Gordon Sinclair summed up the evening as “good pictures and dull programs…there was little worth sitting through and nothing you’d want to endure a second time.” Alex Barris of The Globe and Mail felt the pacing was too hectic, comparing the experience to “thumbing through an attractive periodical—you want to go back and look at it more carefully.” The Telegram’s Ron Poulton noted that the most favourable audience reaction came during the Montreal segment, where viewers “didn’t mind that the dialogue was in French. They couldn’t understand it, but they couldn’t understand the Toronto offerings either…[F]ortunately for the folk who broke the bank for a TV set, a lot of assurances have gone out that culture with a capital cultch will not form the be all and end all of CBC-TV.”
CBLT broadcast on channel 9 through 1956, when it switched to channel 6. The station settled into its current home on channel 5 in 1972.
Additional material from the March 25, 1952 and September 9, 1952 editions of The Globe and Mail, the September 9, 1952 edition of The Telegram and the September 9, 1952 edition of The Toronto Star.