When Television Was Young:
Primetime Canada 1952-1967

by Paul Rutherford,
638 pages,
ISBN: 0802058302

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Reading Tv
by Morris Wolfe

PAUL RUTHERFORD has produced a lengthy, sometimes fascinating, sometimes irritating history of the first 15 years of TV in Canada. He argues correctly but patronizingly that Canadians expected too much of public television. Not only did they believe CBC TV was going to offer quality programming that would satisfy all tastes, but that it would keep popular American culture at bay. Canadians, of course, weren`t alone in expecting too much of television. Early in the book Rutherford sets up Marshall McLuhan as a kind of scapegoat for the technological optimism that led many people to romanticize TVs possibilities. Certainly McLuhan can be viewed that way. But Rutherford Obviously hadn`t read Philip Marchand`s 1989 biography of McLuhan before his own book went to press. McLuhan, Marchand tells us, concerned about a grandchild`s viewing habits, wrote his son, Eric, "in language he permitted himself only in private [that television was a] `vile drug which permeates the nervous system, especially in the young. Rutherford touches only briefly on his own tastes and viewing habits. We learn that, like many of the rest of us, he gave LIP watching hockey on TV after the Canada-Soviet Union series in 1972; NHL hockey seemed a travesty by comparison. Rutherford has no axes to grind for or against television, the glories of the good old days, or cultural nationalism. He`s a historian at the University of Toronto who, along with research assistants, has used the science of semiotics to "read" Canadian TV. Intercut throughout the book are detailed analyses of individual episodes of such programs as "Wojeck." But I`m not sure that a New Critic unfamilar with semiotics woudn`t have come up with similar readings. By 1967 Canadian viewing habits were largely established. (Cable simply made things a bit "worse.") English Canadians spent just over 70 per cent of their viewing time watching American TV, almost all of it entertainment programming. Ninety per cent of the information programming they watched, however, was home-grown. By contrast, French Canadians spent just over 40 per cent of their viewing time looking at American TV. They were watching almost as much French-Canadian entertainment programming as American. The irony, says Rutherford, is that Canada, particularly English Canada, wasn`t undone by popular American TV culture as many cultural nationalists predicted would happen. He reminds us that during these years artistic life in Canada flourished as never before. Rutherford`s discussion of EnglishCanadian TV tells a largely familiar story. It was homely variety shows like "Don Messer`s Jubilee" that worked, not programs that tried to imitate the slick American model. The CBC couldn`t bring itself to accept rock `n` roll. "Quentin Durgens, MT" and "Wojeck" appeared after a long string of failed attempts at creating a Canadian series. Much of the talent that produced those series was then lured to the United States. "Seven Days" may have caused a stir in the mid 1960s but it doesn`t really hold up today. Rutherford is too dismissive, I think, of the effect of the CBC`s attempts at providing "high" culture. For some of us who were Young then and couldn`t afford to attend live theatre and concerts, the CBC opened LIP whole worlds of experience otherwise unavailable. Although Rutherford`s book doesn`t work as a whole for me, individual sections stand Out: a lovely little essay on hockey; an excellent piece on French Canada`s teleromans, especially "La Famille Plouffe"; a celebration of the comedy of Wayne and Shuster at its height; an affectionate look at the world of "capitalist realism" -- TV commercials. There are anecdotes I hadn`t heard before. Louis St. Laurent hated television, which he regarded as a medium Of illusion. He once threatened to tell a TV audience that he was using a TelePrompter and make- up in order to avoid the possibility of creating a false impression. I have reservations about the organization of When Television was Young. I would have preferred, for instance, to have all the discussion of French-Canadian programming in one chapter. As it is, it`s buried under the weight of EnglishCanadian shows. Some of Rutherford`s arguments get lost in the welter of examples he gives. His rambling discussion of what TV is doing to LIS is spread over two chapters. On the one hand, hes somewhat contemptuous of those who worry about the effects of TV. On the other hand, he trots out both some positive -- and some extremely worrisome -- findings. TV does have an effect, for good and ill. When Television was Young, unfortunately, is designed more for the specialist than the general reader. Bits and pieces of the CBC`s story have now been told in A number of books. No one has yet put it all together in a comprehensive and readable way for the general reader. Thats an enormous task. I can think of no one better than Pierre Berton to take it on. The story needs to be told even if neither Canada nor the CBC survives. How about it, Pierre

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