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Manitoba History: Review: Paul Rutherford, When Television was Young: Primetime Canada, 1952-1967

by Fred McGuinness
Editor Emeritus, Brandon Sun

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Paul Rutherford, When Television was Young: Primetime Canada, 1952-1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, 638 pp., xvi, ill. ISBN 0-8020-6147-X.

If you are a TV addict who wants a nostalgic experience, read Primetime Canada. However, there is a catch. You’ll have to work at it. This book is not designed for the casual reader. While author Paul Rutherford has an easy writing style, this story is told in extraordinary detail. The index runs to 3600 entries.

On Dominion Day, July 1, 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation scored a remarkable technological first with a live network television transmission which went coast-to-coast. The feature attraction was “Memo to Champlain.” This was the first microwave transmission on the world’s longest electronic network. Much of what Rutherford tells us leads up to this event.

It is a rarity when an academic historian can write a lengthy manuscript based in part upon his own experiences. Professor Paul Rutherford has done this in Primetime Canada. He explains that he labored on this book for five years, full-time for one of them; that he had nine research assistants: that it took funds from half-a-dozen sources just to meet the research payroll.

Canadian television arrived when the nation was enjoying the post-war boom. The 1951 census revealed that Canadians’ standard of living was improving rapidly. The percentage of homes with electric stoves, refrigerators, vacuums and telephones all showed dramatic increase in a period of only ten years. Almost all of these homes would soon have one more electrical appliance—a TV set in a dominant location in the living room.

This was not an easy birth. The news that Canadian TV would be commercial in nature set off howls of outrage from some prominent academics. Professor A. R. M. Lower, at that time at United College, Winnipeg, wrote what Rutherford calls a diatribe entitled “The Question of Private TV,” in which he said that if he, Lower, owned a station, he “would obviously go in for sex, liquor advertisements, the soul-stirring battle cries of perfervid religious groups denouncing their opponents, undertakers’ advertisements and all that sort of thing.” Columnists in the popular journals quoted no less an authority than T. S. Eliot, who said in effect that watching TV was in itself a threat to the mental, moral, and physical health of people, especially the young.

When television arrived, its bearers were CBC personages whose names became household fixtures: A. Davidson Dunton, J. Alphonse Ouimet, E. J. Bushnell, and Mayor Moore, chief producer. In the preparatory period of 1949-50 the CBC’s TV budget was $55,571, and working full-time in the new medium were 19 of the network’s 1454 employees.

The first TV programs were received in homes served by CBFT-TV Montreal on September 6, 1952; CBLT-TV, Toronto, was on the air two nights later. An indicator of how some persons saw the potential of the new medium may be gained from the comment of Nathan Cohen, who wrote in Saturday Night, “TV will creep in on soft-soled shoes.”

The Liberal government of that period denied the Dunton-Ouiment request for immediate construction of new stations in all the major cities. Instead they were authorized to begin new facilities only in Winnipeg and Halifax, and in other cities they were to license private stations to carry the “basic national service”

Cohen’s forecast was prophetic. Within a year the medium that had crept in so quietly and served only two cities, was serving a quarter of the population, and at the end of six years this fraction rose to 94 per cent. The first CBC shows were distributed to private stations by kinescope recordings, and were generally unsatisfactory, but the “kine” system was replaced in 1956 by a microwave system provided by Trans-Canada Telephones.

Professor Rutherford is at his best when he outlines in detail the anguish the CBC went through in selecting the programs for its single network. The desire was to serve all elements of society. In the words of Alphonse Ouiment, “If everybody pays, everybody should get something back.” Pierre Berton described the resulting bill-of-fare as a “curious brew of corn, culture, and Canadianism.” In developing some programs of its own, and borrowing heavily from both the U.S and the U.K., the CBC came up with a strange mixture, from wrestling one night to a symphony the next. Included in the borrowings were such popular numbers as “Gunsmoke,” the “Untouchables,” Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town,” and “The Saint.” Rutherford’s comments on corporation-based censorship will raise some eyebrows. He cites instances in which “the editing of filmed or taped discussions to ensure “good television” resulted in “distortion and superficiality.” In fact, editing “could fabricate reality.”

As Canadians became accustomed to that illuminated square eye in their living rooms, they had mixed feelings about its influence. At the outset three-quarters of all Canadians were inclined to view TV as “a good influence on family life;’ but subsequent surveys showed that the ratio of Canadians who approved of television dropped steadily. Rutherford talks about the “roots of fear” of the hot new medium. In his opinion, television failed to realize its potential because it had been captured by the “merchants of vulgarity.”

Professor Rutherford’s conclusions will evoke debate among television’s more serious observers. He believes that the images of life presented in this medium have done much to raise expectations, to enhance resentment among the disadvantaged, “and to bring about dissolution of a past order.” Of all the agents of social change, no medium is more persuasive than TV. Whether the change it brings is beneficial is something not even Primetime Canada can explain, although this book certainly provides the foundation for the discussion.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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