The term "Canadianization" is used by some Europeans as a metonym for their fear of the audience fragmentation new satellite technologies would bring to their orderly systems of state supported public service broadcasting. But if the presence of alternative programming choices is this powerful, how did distinctive Canadian programming survive alongside the largest and most enclosed media giant in the world? Decades before cable and satellite, when the country was only 75 years old, the majority of Canadians could flick a dial and find ABC, NBC and CBS, plus dozens of local American stations. In the 1970s and 1980s Canadians had a cornucopia of specialty channels on cable, albeit the mix was controlled by the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Television Commission). By the mid-1970s, parts of Southern Ontario rivaled New York City for television choices. Yet here stands Canada--its electronic frontier as permeable as the world's longest unguarded border, still a separate nation-state. Canada's response to and appropriation of other sources of television may serve more as a success story for other national contexts than a model of dire consequences.

In 1952, when the CBC first went to air, thousands of Canadians along the border from coast to distant coast had already set their aerials to receive signals from the many American stations within range. And it is true that even in those early days, American television genres shaped the expectations of Canadian viewers about the conventions of television. At the same time, these types of programmes were beginning to differ significantly from the radio prototypes--variety shows, soaps, quiz and game shows--which had also been familiar beyond the northern border. Viewers were also enjoying the more televisual treatment of sports, documentaries and dramas.

On American television, these programme genres were usually clearly separated. However, the multi-talented first CBC head of programming Mavor Moore and his producer/directors (who were drawn from the National Film Board, the theatre, radio and off the street) were interested in experimenting with the forms of television. For example, on series like Horizon and anthologies like Robert Allen's Scope/Folio/Festival, Daryl Duke's Q for Quest and Mario Prizek's Eyeopener they combined dramatization with panel discussions or documentaries or interviews.

But after the early years of experimentation the genres for the most part settled back into their self-defined places and thus the history of Canadian broadcasting can be summarised in terms of separate compartments, reflecting not only the sharpened distinctions made for the viewers but also the developing administrative empires .

In the first 15 years of CBC TV arts and drama producers broadcast the first full-length opera, programmed evenings of jazz, poetry and avant-garde drama (the outlawed American play The Brig, scripts by Pinter, Albee, Beckett, Arrabal Anouilh). They adapted Shaw and Chekov. They broadcast live the family serial The Family Plouffe in both French and English, wrote and broadcast musicals for television (Anne of Green Gables is still performed on stage) and trained writers new to television on half hour adaptations of Stephen Leacock's Sketches of a Sunshine Town. They produced ballet, Gilbert and Sullivan, regular classical music, folk and jazz concerts and made a quite successful Hamlet under severe limitations imposed by a tiny drama studio. Until 1967 almost all of the output was in black and white--colour came late to Canada--and live or live to tape until the late 1960's. They stirred up a major controversy (duplicated in the United Kingdom when the BBC bought the film) with Ron Kelly's direct cinema experimental drama, The Open Grave. Kelly had the nerve to treat the Resurrection as a breaking news story, full of interruptions and improvisations, using familiar reporters from CBC news and the following scenario: the previous Friday, Joshua Corbett had been hanged for alleged terrorism, though in fact he has disrupted the war industries with his pacifist ideas. Now his grave is empty and neither Mary Morrison, a ravaged, rather vague middle-aged prostitute nor any of his other friends know where he is. The film, intended for broadcast on Easter Sunday made the headlines for weeks.

Although in the United States, series from radio (soaps, westerns, cop shows and situation comedies) were transferred to television, for many years series were not made by the CBC. On American television viewers saw 1950s television anthologies like Playhouse 90 and Studio One fade to black in the 1960s under the tide of strippable series filmed by major studios or independent producers in Hollywood.. In the 1960's the CBC did introduce RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Seaway, two moderately successful independent productions for an adult audience. These were followed in 1966 by Ron Weyman's hugely successful and innovative in-house CBC series about a coroner, Wojeck. However the CBC also kept anthology drama alive for another three decades. With neither the inclination nor the resources to succumb to the "disease of the week" nor "murder of the week" staples of the popular American Movies of the Week the CBC preferred to put a significant portion of its revenue into drama specials and the long running topical drama anthology, For the Record. This program was followed in the late 1980s and 1990s by explorations of the country's regions with The Way We Are, and ethnic communities with Inside Stories. Anthology disappeared, at least for to this date, in 1993.


Hockey Night in Canada was a staple of Saturday night radio in the 1930s and 1940s with the well-loved voice of Foster Hewitt shouting "He shoots . . .He Scores ! ! !" from the gondola in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. When hockey came to television it continued to be a consistent ratings winner right up to the mid-1990s. What began as the "hot stove league" (commentary occurring between playing periods), latterly became weekly tirades by the much-loved-or-hated Don Cherry. Initially, the expert camera work and the on--air commentary spoiled Canadians for coverage from the expansion teams but the gaps have closed--although Canadian viewers are bemused by the electronic pucks, cartoons and other "explanations" of the game by the U.S. FOX network.

Coverage of the short season of then immensely popular Canadian Football League (CFL) contests, including the Grey Cup Championship Game, also began in 1952. CFL survival, now tied to television revenues as well as an ill-advised expansion is in doubt in the 1990s. The national curling bonspiels were another regular sports feature. A much loved drama by W. O. Mitchell called The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacRimmon, first seen CBC in 1955, is still produced in theatres around the country 40 years later, reflecting the Canadian affection for this purely amateur winter sport.

Baseball came late to national Canadian television first with the Montreal Expos and then the Toronto Blue Jays--who, though in two different leagues, still echo the traditional winter hockey rivalry of the two cities--and languages. As the Olympic coverage has expanded, other sports receive more regular coverage: from skiing and gymnastics, which are a natural for television, to track and field, swimming and rowing. There are also annual events such as the rodeo competitions at the Calgary Stampede and the Queen's Plate, the oldest horse race on the continent. Women are used as colour commentators in many of these sports--but they are also authoritative voices in both gendered sports and horse racing, dressage and show jumping where both sexes appear in one field of competitors.

In recent years with the introduction of hemi-demi-semi finals which create a Hockey season extending into June, many Canadians viewers have complained that sports is dominating not only Saturday afternoons and nights and Sunday afternoons, but too much week night CBC prime time as well. Private broadcasters repeatedly urge the CRTC and the government to force the CBC out of this lucrative field. The CBC reply is direct. Government revenues have been cut in constant dollars from 1982 onwards. Professional Sports programming, particularly hockey gets ratings, makes money--and subsidises the coverage of amateur sports which CTV and Global/Canwest will not cover. The policy of displacing all other programming for 10 weeks when the Hockey "finals" get under way in April continues. The 1995 Juneau report on the mandate of the CBC recommends that the CBC scrap the early rounds and get out of sports broadcasting except, of course, hockey coverage.

A cross-over between Sports and Entertainment has been the very successful skating specials pioneered by Toller Cranston in the early 1980s with Strawberry Ice. Brian Orser, Elizabeth Manley, Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko, and pairs champions Eisler and Brasseur, have followed with specials which offer a little narrative, a lot of music and spectacle, other international medal-winning skaters and non-skating stars and superb special effects to complement the skating.

Religion From the mid 1930s to 1995, both the CBC and the private networks were explicitly forbidden to sell time to radio and television evangelists. The result was that the CBC offers weekly a church service drawn from a variety of denominations and that individual stations program local church services or sell time to a few evangelists on late night or early-morning television. In 1995, the CRTC did license a small evangelical station in Lethbridge Alberta.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the CBC broadcast specific words and music or drama programming keyed to Christmas and Easter, notably the innovative drama The Hill and The Open Grave. In these more ecumenical and culturally diverse times, such specific observances outside of the church or synagogue have disappeared. Surviving for many years however has been the popular, cheaply produced and musically impeccable Hymn Sing. Man Alive the 25 year old programme on ethical and moral issues continues and is widely sold abroad.

A broadcasting initiative unique to Canada is Vision, a network run by a consortium of several faiths. It is financed by sales of weekend time to all kinds of groups from Jimmy Swaggart to Ba'hai. This "Mosaic" programming, so identified, must conform to Canadian laws regarding defamation, and a few programs have been pulled from the air. Vision's weekday and primetime programming offers a mix of documentaries, news, commentary, controversy, films and series from other countries, and programmes made by the marginalised, most of which offer an ethical perspective on the issues of the day as well as addressing more permanent issues raised by the human condition. These programmes usually present more questions than answers. The network is provided on basic cable and also depends on viewer donations.

News and Current Affairs

Unlike their American cousins who spare only a half hour (including commercials) for the national and, too seldom, international news, Canadians take their news, news analysis, current affairs and documentaries very seriously. They demand the best and they often get it. Since 1980 significant numbers have been willing to watch an hour of CBC news analysis and documentaries from 10-1l:00 P.M. then switch to CTV at 11:00 P.M. for another half hour. CTV depends more on American and British feed that the CBC and too often neglects the regions outside of central Canada but on national stories they often do as well or better, finding fresh information or a different angle. Both newscasts attract significant numbers. However, when a national crisis such as the 1995 referendum looms, the CBC and CBC Newsworld, a separate all-news and features network, combine forces to bring Canadians detailed and comprehensive coverage and analysis. In those circumstances, as the ratings indicate, the CBC is the first choice.

If someone from another country asks who are the Canadian TV "stars" the candidates are likely to appear among the following lists of reporters and anchors rather than from the leads of a sitcom or cop show. They are also likely to be told how Knowlton Nash resigned as anchor of The National so that Peter Mansbridge would stay home to replace him rather than taking up a far more lucrative offer in the United States. And yet no one, anchor or reporter, could ever be said to have influenced a country's opinion on a national issue as Walter Cronkite is said to have done with the Vietnam war. Canadians accord no individual in broadcasting that kind of influence or impact, not even the late and much lamented anchor of The Journal, Barbara Frum.

Throughout its history, Canadian television, particularly the CBC, as part of its mandate, has emphasised News and Current Affairs. The nightly newscasts began in the early 1950s--with film clips rapidly gaining prominence. Anchors, many of whom were also reporters have included Earl Cameron, Larry Henderson, Stanley Burke, Knowlton Nash, Peter Mansbridge, Lloyd Robertson at both CBC and then CTV, Sandie Renaldo, Hana Gartner, Alison Smith, Pamela Wallin and Sheldon Turcotte.

In the 1970s the CBC and latterly CTV have used men and women in all the hot spots and on most beats. Well-known reporters include Peter Kent reporting from Cambodia, Anne Medina, an American who became an incisive Canadian voice from Lebanon, Brian Stewart from Ethiopia and Rwanda, Joe Schlosinger from all over the world, Bill Cameron, Anna-Maria Tremonti from Russia and Bosnia, senior Ottawa correspondents Jason Moscowitch and David Halton, Terry Malewski, Mary-Lou Finlay, Ian Hanomansing, Eve Savory on social policy and Der Ho Yen on economic policy.

Well known CBC current affairs and features series have included Close-up, Telescope Quarterly Report and the much admired and feared 1960s "gotcha" journalism of This Hour Has Seven Days whose cancellation lead to debate in Cabinet, a crisis in confidence between management and producers and a chilling effect on current affairs. After a hiatus in the late 1960s the news and current affairs department came back strongly with the fifth estate. CTV answered with W5 (with Eric Mallins was added in the 1980s). Among the widely acclaimed 1960s documentaries were Beryl Fox's cinema verite treatment of Vietnam The Mills of the Gods, and Larry Gosnell's Air of Death on air pollution. For over 25 years the CBC has also offered a variety of analytical as well as descriptive programming about science and the natural world on the weekly series The Nature of Things.

Morning, Noon and Night Shows

Until quite recently CTV has had the only national "morning show" with Canada A.M..--where lighter fare, news and national weather was the backdrop for incisive questioning of national and international figures. Norm Perry, Pamela Wallin, Valerie Pringle and Keith Morrison gave a jump-start to sluggish viewers heading out for work or into the day's work at home. In the 1980s Citytv (Toronto) and some other local stations offered a lighter version of "breakfast television". Newsworld offers full news and analysis to the country, updated hourly.

The CBC, again unlike the American networks, did not leave the afternoons completely to the soap opera and the rerun. From the early 1960s Take 30 used the considerable journalistic talents of hosts like Adrienne Clarkson and Paul Soles to provide women at home with a daily half hour of news, current affairs, personalities, reviews, interviews and regular features, including by far the most thorough coverage at the time of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The program was replaced in 1994 by Midday, an hour at noon for the same audience, updated to include regular gardening features, analysis of popular culture and mini-documentaries. It is even more likely than its predecessor to examine the topical serious issues of the day from Quebec separation to the collapse of the fishing stock on both coasts.

Tabloid was an early (1953-63) national supper hour show which featured personalities from politics and entertainment. With a chalk-tossing weatherman, Percy Saltzman, the show was hosted by the genial Dick MacDougal and hostess Elaine Grand, and later Joyce Davidson. For the most part, however, supper hour shows of news, weather sports and features have been the territory of local stations. Under severe financial constraints and in some haste, the CBC closed some local stations in the late 1980s and ordered the stations which survived to cover a wider market with their supper hour shows--a decision which devastated morale and resulted in much lower ratings in some areas. The policy has since been reversed.

Basically all stations in Canada, independently or publicly owned or part of a network provide supper hour shows and news, weather and sports at 11:00 P.M. The quality varies enormously but Toronto stations (with a potential market of 3 million) will cover transit policy, policing in the suburbs and "what's on" in the nightclubs while CKNX Wingham (pop. 10,000 with a market of 50,000) will cover the day's prices for cattle, the problems of the Saugeen Valley water authority and the "snowfest" in Durham.

Children's Programming

Programming for children is specifically mentioned in the existing CBC mandate. The CBC has offered very creative commercial-free, non-violent programming on week-day mornings since its inception. Ed McCurdy, Raffi, Sharon Lois and Bram, Fred Penner brought all kinds of music to kids. Puppets like Uncle Chichimus and his friend Hollyhock were followed by somewhat more sophisticated, much loved and very long lived series such as Mister Dress-up with his puppet friend Casey and The Friendly Giant with Rusty and his silent pal, the giraffe Jerome. Romper Room on CTV and Polka Dot Door on TVO (the Ontario educational network) were other popular programmes for young children. Special segments in both French and English were made in Canada as inserts for Sesame Street. Since its inception in 1970 TVO has devised all kinds of award winning children's series.

For older children viewing in prime-time there were 1960s adventure series on CBC like Adventures in Rainbow Country and The Forest Rangers. Both series were set in Canada's wilderness and structured around the usual gaggle of boys--and a girl or two--who get in and out of trouble, very little of it violent, with the help of parents or adult friends. Both are still in reruns.

The 1970s and 1980s belonged to The Edison Twins who used science to solve domestic puzzles, CTV's well-written family series The Campbells, set just before the Rebellion of 1837, and the three CBC Degrassi series which followed basically the same group of young actors through three series as they grew up. Using workshops and improvisational exercises, the series developed characters and plots reflecting their own lives until the "kids" graduated from high school This success lead to the more gritty Northwood and Global's Madison as well as the excellent "tween" show Ready or Not.

A much more complex concept for the 1990s is the CBC's The Odyssey which takes its viewer from the regular "Upworld" of school and work where Jay, the protagonist lies in a coma into the "Downworld," inhabited entirely by children. Downworld is full of great adventures (and wildly imaginative designs) which mirror and sometimes parody, as a dream might, the world of consciousness. The basic quest narrative (Jay seeks his absent father) has evolved over the seasons into more interaction between the worlds.


In the 1950s and 1960s Variety shows combined singers, dancers, puppet shows, acrobats, animal acts and comedy sketches--including recurring favourites on The Ed Sullivan Show like Wayne and Shuster. In Canada there were copies of American programs such as Cross-Canada Hit Parade, and Show-time, country and Western shows like Holiday Ranch and then for twenty-five years The Tommy Hunter Show. Light music shows starred home-grown favourites like everyone's "pet Juliette" who sang pop favourites and ballads and always said good night to her mom. CTV responded to Canadian content regulations requiring cultural diversity with an imitation English pub The Pig and Whistle and the home-grown Ian Tyson Show.

A special case was the much loved down East fiddle music of Don Messer's Jubilee. With Marg Osborne and Charlie Cahmberlain, Don Messer and his Islanders flourished for years on radio and then on television--until the late 1960s music "revolution" persuaded the executives in Toronto to cancel it for a limp imitation of similar American shows called Hullabaloo. Re-edited for the 1990s Don Messer's Jubilee was surprise hit.

The CBC also discovered that in the 1990s an eclectic mix of every style of Canadian music from grunge rock to Buffy Ste. Marie, hosted by Cape Bretoner, Rita MacNeil is a major ratings winner. Running against an American trend to narrowcasting, musical variety at least has returned to Canadian prime-time.

Talk Shows and Game Shows

The nearly forty-year run of Front Page Challenge reflected the Canadian preference for hybrid form and an emphasis on current affairs. Part quiz, part-current affairs show, its guests included domestic and foreign prime ministers, sports and entertainment celebrities and ordinary citizens who had made the headlines. Most other Canadian quiz shows have been "Canadian Content fillers," (produced to meet requirements for Canadian content), and were merely less expensive imitations of American game shows. On CTV Shirley, Dini Petty, and in a more serious vein Jane Hawtin Live are successful day-time talk shows. Pamela Wallin Live on Newsworld is a 1990s prime-time success story with a very wide range of guests and subjects and a few callers. Other cross-country call-in shows on Newsworld are oriented toward public affairs. Neither public nor private television has been successful with late night talk shows

Comedy Shows

For 50 years Canadians have excelled in developing small companies who perform satirical, usually topical revue comedy on radio and television. The grandfather of them all was Wayne And Shuster. The grandmother was the annual theatrical revue Spring Thaw. The proud children were SCTV in the 1970s and The Royal Canadian AirFarce still going strong on radio and television. The grandchildren are CODCO (and its stepchild This Hour Has 22 Minutes) and Kids In The Hall. With their gentle, literate yet often slapstick parodies of both high and popular culture edited reruns of Wayne and Shuster were popular in many countries. SCTV (also in reruns) was so self-reflexive that it became a cult favourite with a younger media literate generation as did Kids whose executive producer, Canadian Lorne Michaels was so closely connected to Saturday Night Live. In contrast to Kids in the Hall, CODCO's much harder hitting satire and complex, sustained characterisations were informed by the eloquence of Newfoundland speech and a more distinctly Canadian sense of values. Some of CODCO's original members now turn their biting wit on the week's news in This Hour Has 22 Minutes.


For the first twenty years of CBC TV drama, in the absence of any strong professional theatre, the general policy was that it should entertain, inform, and reflect national and regional concerns (intermittently and with significant gaps). It should experiment with television as a medium, show Canadians what classical and contemporary world theatre looked like and explore the relationship of the documentary and the fictional. In the 1960s, the drama department was also expected to inflect some forms of American popular culture (cop shows, mysteries, sitcoms) and ignore others like soaps; and until 1992 continue with anthology drama. Finally, in very occasional mini-series or films, the "single" play, whether a light comedy, a theatre adaptation, a docudrama or an intensely personal vision, would find a home.


Throughout its history the CBC has explored various dramatic forms to produce biographies. A mixture of voice/over commentary, selections from the works of fiction or the paintings etc., sustained satire, even musical numbers have been used to produce a non-standard series of biographies: the mix of drama, documentary and commentators in The Baron of Brewery Bay with John Drainie playing Stephen Leacock; the lives of artists Tom Thompson and Emily Carr; Kate Reid as suffragette Nellie McLung; three versions of the life of feminist Emily Murphy; Prime Ministers John A. Macdonald (several times) and William Lyon MacKenzie King (once as a satire, Rexy, once as a miniseries by Donald Brittain). Others less well known included Brittain's Canada's Sweetheart the Saga of Hal Banks (the imported thug who ran the waterfronts of Canada), colourful newspaper editors and columnists like Bob Barker and "Ma" Murray. The CBC also presented the trials of the assassin of D'Arcy McGee twice and rebel/martyr Louis Riel three times: first as a two part drama, then as an opera and finally as a lavish, revisionist miniseries, shot in both languages in 1979.

The lives of explorers, politicians, financiers and engineers were treated in the hugely successful five part adaptation of Pierre Berton's trilogy The National Dream. The miniseries combined contemporary narrative, shot by Berton on locations across the country, with dramatizations of the men who made it happen. In the 1980s Some Honourable Gentlemen also depicted a wide variety of historical figures--not all of them heroes.

Two successful experiments on the private networks include The Life and Times of Edwin Alonzo Lloyd (with veteran actor Gordon Pinsent) and Pierre Berton's inexpensive and fascinating half-hour vignettes on Heritage Theatre.

Soap Opera

Some of the most popular U.S. genres have never appeared on Canadian television. Unlike every other developed country and despite successful efforts in 1940s and 1950s radio, until the 1990s, there were no soap operas, no teleromans (a francophone long serial form at which SRC excels) on English Canadian television. There was only one brief though seminal fling in the 1960s at short serials on film. There is a very straight-forward reason for this. In the early days the CBC had no interest. When CTV arrived in the early 1960s, soaps were "too expensive" since they involved a sustained commitment to TV drama. In the 1970s CBC TV tried the longer serial form using Mazo de la Roche's widely popular Whiteoaks novels. Jalna was shot using experimental techniques, multiple story and time lines--and failed. In the same decade, the CBC also tried a twice weekly night soap called House of Pride. Reflecting the CBC mandate to show Canadians the five "Regions"--a largely fictional but still potent set of geopolitical myths consisting of "the Atlantic provinces", Quebec, Ontario, "The West" and British Columbia--House of Pride was set and taped in five cities across the country. Although ahead of its time (Dallas was five years away) logistics and problems with the story lines killed it.

After a hiatus of more than ten years two half hour daytime soaps appeared on the private networks. Whether Global's early 1990s A Foreign Affair or CTV's Family Passions, both co-produced with several other countries, will survive long enough to be the training ground and cash cow that Canadian television, both public and private, needs remains to be seen. Perhaps because they are international co-productions they seem to be more hodgepodge than tasty puddings.

Canada's Exports: People

Canadians take rueful pride in the export of talent that has happened throughout our broadcast history: host Bernard Braden, many producers including Sydney Newman to the United Kingdom; actors Raymond Massey, Leslie Nielson, Lorne Green, William Shatner, John Colicos, Martin Short and John Candy, producer Lorne Michaels, writers Bernard Slade, Arthur Hailey, Anna Sandor and Bill Gough and literally dozens of others to the United States. In the 1980s the independently made satire The Canadian Connection, using several expatriates explored the theory that Canadians were involved in a conspiracy to take over Hollywood--and thus all of American culture. It has been rerun several times.


Why didn't Canada simply export some of its entertainment programming to the United States instead of its talent? The answers are many. First, there was no star system in English Canadian TV until the mid 1970s and then only fitfully--no actor was bankable. Since its beginning, Canadian television could not retain some of its major talent because it paid much less than competitors in other countries. When talented individuals stay--and many do--it is because of the life in Canada and the opportunities to do a very different kind of work. Still, Canadian television has been shaped from the beginning by a steady exodus. An American network bought the concept, writer, star and much of the technical team of Wojeck which, after being run through the network blender came as the barely recognisable Quincy.

Nearly 20 years later a summer prime-time run of the fairly gritty and not overtly Canadian CTV cop show Sidestreet (which had been scheduled by CBS at midnight, though run in Canada at 10:00 P.M.) meant American stars had to appear as guests. More to the point, the scripts had to be more straightforward with less allusion and ambiguity. In the case of Danger Bay, in the 1980s a popular family/adventure series set in part at the Vancouver aquarium, the CBC and their independent partner had to struggle with co-producers from Disney to allow a scene and a story line featuring the live birth of a whale. One of the CBC's most successful exports, Road To Avonlea has featured at least one American or British star for an episode or two because Disney was co-producer.


The perception that current events are raw material for the by now thoroughly debased U.S. "docudrama", permeates U.S. society. In the North American context of the 1990s it may be one of the most distinctive things about Canadian culture that front page events are not yet seen as fodder for the movie-of-the-week mill, nor Canadians, as they live their lives, as featured players for next week's video releases.

In fact Canadians still care very much about the differences between evidence, argument, reenactment and the "make it up or leave it out, whichever makes a more entertaining television movie" approach. Canadian audiences can still distinguish between docudrama (real people are characters), topical drama (foregrounding a contemporary issue) or historical drama (a mixture of real and fictional characters set in a time when most viewers will not have first-hand knowledge of the "history" portrayed). The example of the very controversial co-production with the National Film Board (NFB), The Valour and the Horror, illustrates the difference. It is unimaginable that Americans in the United States would argue strenuously for months on end about the verisimilitude of both the documentary and dramatized segments of three programs about World War II. Jeanine Locke, a writer-producer of period and topical dramas made many distinctive drama specials like Chautauqua Girl (which looked at both 1930s prairie populism and the Chautauqua circuit), You've Come a Long Way Katie (about alcoholism--Katie dies) and The Greening of Ian Elliot (which combined the debate about the ordination of homosexual ministers in the Unified Church and the fight against the Aleimeda-Rafferty Dam).

From 1976-85 the CBC presented an anthology of what R.L. Thomas, the first executive producer called "journalistic dramas". Searching, topical, often controversial, innovative in subject matter and not usually too didactic, For the Record attracted the best talent in the country, in front of and behind the cameras. Some of the most notable productions were A Far Cry From Home, Ready for Slaughter, Blind Faith, Every Person is Guilty, I Love a Man in Uniform, Maria, One of Our Own, and The Winnings of Frankie Walls. Subjects included unemployment, the economic troubles of family farms, euthanasia, aboriginal injustice, televangelism, wife abuse, and a Francophone/Anglophone marriage at the time of the 1980 referendum.

When the CBC made The Scales of Justice a series of drama specials about well -known, (sometimes sensational, sometimes only half-remembered) legal cases, they hired a well-known criminal lawyer to advise on the scripts and serve as an on-camera/voice-over guide through the intricacies of the law. The parts of the script based on testimony and those based on speculation as well as the contradictions are explicitly pointed out. The Scales of Justice appears two or three times a year, presenting Canadian judicial and social history without losing track of the ethical questions involved in docudrama.

In the late 1980s and 1990s miniseries the voice is also distinctive, however dissonant to the English Canadian culture under scrutiny: producer Bernie Zukerman's Love and Hate, explored the personalities involved and also the cultural context of the terrorising and murder of the wife of a well known Saskatchewan political family. His Conspiracy of Silence: The Story of Helen Betty Osborne is a searching account of the racism in a northern community. Liar, Liar looked at the possibility that a child may lie about child abuse and Life with Billy examined once again wife and child abuse. Butter Box Babies recreated a period tale of neglect in an orphanage and Adam Egoyan's Gross Misconduct was an unsparing (and experimental) look at the destruction of a hockey star. Many of these have been ratings hits on American prime-time.

Of them all, John Smith's The Boys of St Vincent, a 1993 CBC/NFB collaboration is the best example of the survival of a distinctive English Canadian television voice. It is also worth noting that, like The Valour and the Horror, The Boys of St Vincent eluded efforts at censorship through a court injunction in Ontario and parts of Quebec because the NFB (partnered with an independent company with a broadcast window and input from the CBC) had the conviction and the resources to put these programs on cassette for sale or loan. The miniseries had a Canada-wide airing a few months later. No such "State" institutions exist in the United States. More important is the fact that the commercial constraints on the independent television film-makers and the American networks would have ensured that such programs are not made. When shown on A and E in 1994, some of the scenes from The Boys of St Vincent, scenes which made the viewer a potentially complicit spectator--a point vital to the moral challenge of the work--were simply cut. Unfortunately this masterwork was not shown on the CBC without commercials on the "publicly owned broadcasting system". The effect was very damaging to the integrity of the work.


Most Canadian series are produced by the CBC and are inflections or sometimes hybrids of American genres. Yet they show a different legal or medical system, different urban landscapes (no mean streets), very different ethnic mixes and attitudes, and are less violent. They are also often less confrontational, although not always, as illustrated by Streetlegal and its mid-1980s rival, CTV's only high quality series E.N.G. In most of these series we see actors who are comfortable working in ensemble, usually performing in less extroverted ways than their U.S. cousins. The writers, producers and executives have always been more comfortable with ambiguity in characterisation, literate dialogue, sometimes open endings and often complex subtext.

The fact is, that if Canadians created many clones of an U.S. genre like CTV's action adventure series Counterstrike they could not compete with the production values or the stars and would not be worth watching when the originals are a channel changers' zap away. But it is also true that Canadians are utterly delighted that the huge neighbour to the South broadcast in primetime 1994- and then renewed mid-season 1995-96 CTV's Due South, the "odd couple" comedy/cop show which features a Mountie from the far North displaced to the streets of Chicago and Ray, his cynical side-kick. Both cultures are satirised, but Canadians, saturated in U.S. popular culture get all the jokes. Americans may well miss many of them.

It is true that Canadian popular drama has always been competitive with "theirs" when time and money is spent on it. Note the success of Wojeck, The Manipulators, the much loved period series A Gift to Last, The Great Detective and sitcoms like King of Kensington, Hangin' In, Max Glick, and the wonderful hybrid mystery show Seeing Things. Co-producers David Barlow and Louis DelGrande inflected the cop show to produce a protagonist, Louie Ciccone, a shortsighted newspaper reporter with glasses who has visions of murders he would much rather ignore, doesn't drive or know which end of a gun is which, is rescued by a flying puck, a cake and often by his wife Marge. Yet the series had a strong moral centre, a lot of culturally specific topical satire and also worked as a good whodunnit.

Francophone and First Nations

The French fact in Quebec, the million francophones outside Quebec and the aboriginal nations, who are scattered throughout Canada and dominant in the North, have all been visible intermittently in English Canada's television drama. La Famille Plouffe (1953-59 on CBC, 1952-59 on Radio Canada) was broadcast live, sequentially, in both languages. There were also a few efforts to reflect each culture to the other in the arts. Festival presented in English a handful of Quebec playwrights including Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs. But For the Record produced just one contemporary drama, Don't forget: Je me souviens in 1980. There has been no other drama on this subject on the CBC in the last 16 years. Yet television fiction is the site where the conflicting discourses of society are made concrete, sometimes mediated and sometimes exposed as unresolved.

As the CBC itself admitted in its submission to the CRTC in 1978 "the perception of the need to reflect the two linguistic communities to one another emerged in the CBC at about the same time as it emerged in the country--gradually over the last half of the 1960s and then early 1970s and then abruptly in the mid 1970s". Yes, the CBC presented our fractious politics at length in the 1980s on The Nation and The Journal in all kinds of specials during recurrent crises--but not in fiction.

On the other hand, Radio-Canada created its own mythology by de-contextualizing and repeating months later, over and over, the "red-necks stomp on the Quebec flag episode" during the Meech Lake Accord fiasco. Radio-Canada also regularly ignores the Arts in the rest of Canada as well as most anglophone popular culture, with a nationalist fervour that also creates a deafening silence.

There were a few "cross-cultural" dramas during and after the first Quebec referendum in 1980. Miniseries such as the French Duplessis, the very successful English Empire Inc. and the less successful Chasing Rainbows (all set in Montreal, all lavish period pieces) were dubbed into the other language. However, Lance et Compte (He shoots! He Scores!) (1987) which was shot in both languages, turned into a litmus test of both cultures. Lance et Compte started on SRC with a million viewers and soon nearly tripled to 2.7 out of a total viewing population of 6 million. There were T-shirts, mugs, a fan magazine, a book, even sweat suits over its three year run. Yet the same scripts in English using the same actors, directors, producer and crew drew, at its peak in a hockey obsessed culture, only 750,000 viewers.

It is safe to say that at no time in its history did CBC English Television depend on a soupcon of French for a distinctive flavour to its stew. Although efforts in news and current affairs continue, if Quebec leaves Canada the opportunities for shared music, drama, news reporting, sports-casts and documentaries on a daily basis which have been wasted over the previous four decades may be one of the clearest discernible reasons for the divorce.

A more consistently distinctive motif in Canadian television has been the representation of aboriginal peoples. The subject was first fully explored by Philip Keately (producer/director) and Paul St.Pierre (writer) who created a 1960s anthology with recurring characters Cariboo Country, a contemporary television "western" which was as far away as it could get from the U.S. TV Westerns so popular at the time. The motif reappeared sporadically in other places throughout the 1970s and 1980s: Claude Jutra's Dreamspeaker, Where the Heart Is, A Thousand Moons, many episodes of Beachcombers, a few episodes of Danger Bay, all of the short series for children Spirit Bay, and most notably and controversially in 1989 Where the Spirit Lives, a historical drama about residential schools which was sold to PBS and around the world and rebroadcast in Canada four times.

Since 1992 the CBC presented four full seasons of North of 60, set on a reservation in the North West Territories. Unlike Northern Exposure, the U.S. cult hit to which it is sometimes so inappropriately compared, North of 60 does not use aboriginal people as an exotic back-drop. In its third and fourth seasons all but one of the leading characters have been native. The series has presented complex and sustained examinations of alcoholism, the effect of residential schools and forced acculturation on individuals and families, internal feuds and band politics, interference from government, anthropologists and ill-informed animal rights activists, the ongoing friendships and resentments between white band manager, store-keeper and nurse and the chief, treatment centre staff, visiting artists etc. There were also the drama specials Spirit Rider and Medicine River, based on a novel by aboriginal writer Thomas King. However stereotypes can still be found in reruns of the late 1980s Bordertown, the CTV "western" about a Mountie, a U.S. marshal and a woman doctor from France (the series is a co-production with France), or Global's steamy Destiny Ridge, and in the CBC's 1994 Trial at Fortitude Bay. Nevertheless, since the OKA crisis of 1990 and in the midst of an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation, Canadians have changed what they watch and how they watch it. Meanwhile, the long-running and evolving aboriginal motif has now been claimed by those whose lives it reflects. Slowly the fresh perceptions which can arise from First Nations writers, directors and producers are making their way into the main stream of CBC drama. The future of the CBC as it is now constituted is as uncertain as the composition of the country as it is now constituted. Yet despite its proximity to the biggest media giants in world, its "mixed" structure and its inevitable ups and downs Canadian television and the CBC in particular has retained a distinctive voice supporting, amplifying and sometimes defining a distinctive national culture.

-Mary Jane Miller


Collins, Richard. Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Miller, Mary Jane. Turn Up The Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987.

Miller, Mary Jane. Rewind and Search: Makers and Decisionmakers of CBC Television Drama. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press, 1996.

Nash, Knowlton. The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1994.

Peers, Frank W. The Public Eye: Television and the Politics of Canadian Broadcasting, 1952-68. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Raboy, Marc. Missed Opportunities: The Story of Canada's Broadcasting Policy. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press, 1990.

Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.


See also Canadian Programming in French; Canadian Production Companies, CODCO; Beachcombers; Boys of St. Vincent,The; Cariboo Country; Degrassi; E.N.G.; Family Plouffe, The; Fifth Estate, The; For the Record; Front Page Challenge; Hockey Night in Canada; Kids in the Hall; Man Alive; Market Place; Nature of Things, The; National, The; North of 60; Quentin Durgens, M.P.; Road to Avonlea; SCTV Network 90 (and Second City TV); Street Legal; This Hour Has Seven Days; Tommy Hunter Show, The; Valor and the Horror, The; Wayne and Shuster; Wojeck