(Editor’s note: TV pioneer Murray Chercover died in 2010, at 80. He had worked as a producer at CBC when the Crown broadcaster debuted in 1952, and later served as president and CEO of CTV till his retirement in 1990. Weeks before his death, Chercover gave his last interview to Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan on April 22, 2010. Following is a transcription of his remarks)
Canadians talk about the golden age of television in the 1950s. It wasn’t that golden. It was elitist and very political. It’s a terrible thing if you become pontifical about broadcasting. To me it’s everyman’s service, and should have programming available for everyone.
I remember the official sign-on of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1952. It was not auspicious. There was a countdown: three, two one, cue the music – and the CBC logo appeared, upside down and backwards. This was the first sign-on of the national network.
People in the ivory towers in Ottawa had no particular compelling interest in developing television. I think there was a perception it had to be controlled. When you have this kind of centralized bureaucratic thinking in political leadership, there’s an element of both caution and possessiveness.
The idea was to keep TV small, and keep it only CBC. If we keep it small we can control it! If you start awarding licenses and allowing competition, we can regulate it but we can’t control it. Then it’s not ours; it belongs to the public.
In those days the U.S. already had five networks on the air. Canada had one. There were border stations in Buffalo and Detroit and Seattle that had Canadian viewers. It was unbelievable; we were watching this explosive growth in the United States, yet Canada still couldn’t get our heads straight about what this medium was all about.
There was no independent regulator in those days, no Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission. The CBC was the regulator. It owned the network, ran the programs and awarded the licenses. If the CBC didn’t want a TV station in Red Deer, there was no TV station in Red Deer. They had no concept of what television could do for the country.
Till 1960 private broadcasters were panting to get licenses and couldn’t get them. CBC was the controlling entity and had carefully picked the best markets. And CBC would decide what people would watch. They’d broadcast the Marriage of Figaro for two hours in prime time. There’s nothing wrong with the Marriage of Figaro; the problem was viewers had only the Marriage of Figaro. They weren’t allowed to watch anything else, and they didn’t want to watch this. God forbid the public should be able to say, “I want that channel, not this one.”
Did the people who invested in private television have anything else on their minds besides generating money? The probability is, no. But the minute you impose an elitist perception on TV programming, you’ve lost a large segment of the country. Canadians wanted more.
It was elitist. I don’t think elitism is golden. When you have a broad, general audience composed of lots of elements and choice, you have to serve them all. That’s golden. TV has a constituency out there of 34 million souls. You have to serve them all somehow.