My wife and I recently installed a satellite dish at our cottage after almost a decade of not having television at the lake. After scrolling through the channels provided I am staggered by how little there is to watch in the way of commercial programming that isn’t entitled Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, sports or cable news.
I realize my childhood memories of television are tinged with nostalgia for a bygone era of programming, but I would argue that there was more good quality programming on the CBC of fifty years ago than any one commercial network today.
For those of you younger than 45, you likely cannot imagine a choice of CBC, CBC or CBC, but growing up in Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon in the 1960s that was your option.
We had a fourteen inch black and white television with rabbit ears that sat on top of the television. They were absolutely necessary to get the local CBC station. Reception in poor weather was sketchy at best, and if it was snowing you just turned the set off because the atmospheric disturbances rendered the picture unwatchable. I remember listening to a Saskatchewan Roughrider-Calgary Stampeder playoff game in 1970 on the radio when an early November snowstorm turned the television picture into a sea of static.
CBC Calgary signed on at 8 AM every morning and signed off at 11:30 every evening with the politically incorrect “Indian head” test pattern acting as a placeholder till the next morning. My mornings as a child were filled with Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, Chez Helene and Rocket Robin Hood. Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant were gentle and intellectual children’s programming that encouraged imagination and literacy. I am sure that my love of drawing came from endless episodes of watching Mr. Dressup work miracles with his felt pen collection. Canada was not an officially bilingual country till 1969, but Chez Helene and her mouse Suzie did exceptional service trying to introduce the French language and culture to places like Calgary where the language was barely heard.
The television in our home was seldom on after lunch as there were naps and chores to do around the house, and my mother would then bundle us all up, weather permitting, for our time outside with the neighbourhood kids. My one piece snowmobile suit got a workout all those prairie winters as it was seldom “too cold” to go outside. School also made it difficult to watch most of the afternoon programming that was being offered, so I will withhold comment regarding the quality of what was on while I tried to better myself at Norquay Drive Elementary School.
Once my father was home from work and supper was done the television came back on. My parents loved variety shows, and CBC offered up the most incredible buffet of Canadian song, dance and comedy found anywhere. Whether it was Don Messer’s Jubilee, Wayne and Shuster who my Dad thought were comedic geniuses, Pig and Whistle, Sing Along Jubilee or Tommy Hunter anyone who was anyone in Canadian culture was featured on these programs.
My Dad was a “news junkie” long before the advent of CNN. He watched the National every evening, and also thoroughly enjoyed watching Reach for the Top and Front Page Challenge. Front Page Challenge with its all-star cast featuring Betty Davis, Gordon Sinclair and Pierre Burton gave Canadians access to newsmakers from across the globe.
CBC was limited by legislation the number of American programs they could offer, particularly in prime time. I was very thankful that two they chose to broadcast were amongst my favorites, Bonanza and The Wonderful World of Disney. Bonanza was the show that my older brother and Dad seldom missed, and if Mom allowed it, I could stay up and watch it too. The only time we ever ate at television tables was on Sunday nights so we could watch The Wonderful World of Disney which was broadcast between 6 and 7 PM.
Weekends were the time for sports with my beloved Montreal Canadiens seldom if ever appearing on Hockey Night In Canada, because Calgary was a Leaf town. By the time I could truly appreciate the nuances of hockey the glory days of the Leafs were over, and they were terrible to watch. CBC has a symbiotic relationship with the Canadian Football League, and broadcast homegrown gridiron action with all the pomp and circumstance that was available. I never missed a game when my Green Riders played, but was careful with whom I shared my football allegiance with as we lived in Stampeder country.
When my two widowed grandmothers visited us, their very different tastes in television certainly influenced what we watched. My diminutive Scottish Grandma was a died in the wool Stampede Wrestling fan and many a happy Saturday afternoon was spent on the couch with her while she knitted and revelled in the exploits of Killer Kowalski and Gene Kiniski. Host Ed Whalen whipped the crowd into frenzy, and I wonder how much recreation room furniture was destroyed in Alberta as young fans tried to emulate their heroes of the mats. To this day I am not sure if Grandma Moreland knew it was all a choreographed spectacle, but it didn’t matter, and if Grandma was watching it I could watch too. When my devout Norwegian Grandma was visiting, sports on Sunday afternoon were sacrificed to the altar of Hymn Sing, a rebroadcast of a Billy Graham revival from some exotic locale around the world, or watching the evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong. All I remember of any of those shows is the choir on Hymn Sing was much better than the one at my local United Church who I remember as having the average age of over a hundred.
I never remember being disappointed with what was on, and spent many enjoyable hours sitting in front of that wooden box that filled our living room like a colossus. I wouldn’t have traded those hours spent with my family for anything the world. One channel was truly enough when what was on was worth watching.