Guest Commentary

Eric Koch

The Sacred Mission

In 1955 the CBC broadcast a two-hour teleplay of Hamlet in prime time. It was the biggest production of its kind. We’d put the operetta Die Fledermaus on the air the year before but Hamlet cost $30,000, twice the budget of typical TV productions. It was enough to raise the ire of MPs.

Any kind of transgression was picked up by MPs. CBC issues came up constantly in the House of Commons in those years. The network’s chairman was summoned to a Commons committee to explain the Hamlet budget. “We’re in TV,” he said, “and TV costs money.”

We thought of ourselves as having a kind of sacred mission to educate and uplift the audience. In broadcasting Swan Lake on television, we introduced millions of viewers to ballet. Of course a portion of the audience would be irritated by dancers in underwear, but in my arrogance I did not care if they appreciated it or not. When CBC Winnipeg broadcast The Marriage Of Figaro for two and a half hours on prime time in 1956, the station received hundreds of complaints.

Was the CBC elitist? Only in the sense we were unashamed to put Shakespeare on the air. We did not take a Gallup poll on Yonge Street or Portage Avenue to ask, “Do you want to watch Hamlet on television?” Had we asked, I suppose an overwhelming majority would have replied in the negative.

CBC-TV from 1952 to 1960 was a monopoly. They were happy days. CBC operated the only television network, and issued TV licenses. It was a hierarchy built like a church: the president was Pope, the vice-presidents were cardinals; and there was a gospel, the Broadcasting Act.

The Act said the CBC was to educate, enlighten, inform and entertain. This was taken seriously and enforced. The first day CBC Toronto went on the air in 1952 the programming featured a puppet show; Glenn Gould; a documentary film; an aria from Don Giovani by baritone Jan Rubes; a football commentary; and Percy Saltzman with the national weather forecast.

The CBC was the only institution with a mandate of nation-building. It’s a word commonly used now, but it was new then. Its mandate was to create a cultural community. We never thought of competition: their god was mammon! Profit! That was seen as diabolical work.

When Jack Kent Cooke appeared at a 1959 license renewal hearing for his radio station CKEY Toronto, he described their musical programming as a daily diet of rump steak and oyster sauce. “Do you intend to lower the proportion of popular music in your programs?” they asked. “Not unless this board insists on it,” Kent replied; “What about the people who don’t like rump steak and oyster sauce?” “I can’t think of any don’t.”

There was a sense of us versus them. We thought we were serving not just the country but a standard of knowledge, taste and principle that was above money.

In 1956 in the heyday of the CBC monopoly pollsters at Gallup asked Canadians what they liked about television. Most respondents said it was “educational”; that it “keeps the family together at home”; that it was “entertaining and interesting”.

We did the best we could.

(Editor’s note: Mr. Koch is a prize-winning author and novelist, a pioneering CBC producer from 1953 and former chief of the network’s arts programming division)

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