Exactly a half-century ago tomorrow, London got its own version of the struggling, young medium of television in the form of CFPL-TV. To celebrate that golden anniversary, the station will unwrap a birthday present to itself tomorrow night labelled Rewind: 50 Years of Local Television on the New PL.
Chris Doty's highly detailed documentary chronicles the history of the broadcasting outlet that began life as "the brainchild of an undynamic businessman named Walter J. Blackburn." The owner of the London Free Press and CFPL Radio recognized the potential of television, which was the subject of a demonstration at the 1949 Western Fair.
Brute Force and Ignorance, Rewind's initial segment, profiles how Blackburn was awarded a broadcast licence on the eve of April Fool's Day in 1953 and, nine months later, opened Canada's second privately owned TV station, Channel 10, built on a former farming lot in Westminster Township for the formidable cost of $110,000.
The new-born station employed former radio announcers and technicians with no TV experience.
"The nice part was we were learning and the audience did too," says Paul Soles, whose prominent acting/broadcasting career was launched at CFPL.
In its infant days, the station also instructed viewers on how to watch TV: "You should look around the room rather than stare, fixedly, at the set all the time."
TV was such a novelty that "People would watch anything," notes one of the many CFPL employees, past and present, interviewed in the documentary. Programming in the unsophisticated 1950s included a chicken wearing eyeglasses, an IQ test for hamsters, a woman watering a cactus with tea, "boring talking shows" and newscasts that were so pressed for expenses, film camera crews were told to "just shoot the goals at hockey games."
Later, the game show Act Fast, At Home with Hope Garber, mother of actor Victor Garber, and Romper Room became popular staples on the viewing schedule.
Narrated by London actor Virginia Pratten, Rewind recalls CFPL celebrities such as Soles, announcer Ward Cornell, comedian Jenny Jones, farming show host Roy Jewell, the station's first female news anchor, Kate Young, meteorologist Jay Campbell and Morley Safer, the Free Press reporter who would become famous for the American newsmagazine series, 60 Minutes.
The documentary, dedicated to Jack Burghardt, "the most recogizable face in the station's history," pays special tribute to the news anchor who died last year.
CFPL's acomplishments are duly noted. It was the first station to use videotape, the first to fully convert to colour (1966) and the first to air an hour-long, 6 p.m. newscast (1973).
Also profiled are the trials and tibulations facing the station under the ownership of Blackburn and his successor, daughter Martha; its uneasy affiliation with CBC; the 1992 sale of CFPL to Baton Broadcasting and its purchase by Chum Television in November, 1997.
While previous management eras are reviewed with objectivity, Rewind's final portion is largely uncritical of the current CHUM regime, whose innovations included renaming the station the New PL.
The film impresses as a video record of how Londoners reacted to historic developments: the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy ("It doesn't say much for our civilization" one resident tells the station's on-the-street interviewer); the Forest City's celebration of Canada's centennial year; the anti-Vietnam War sentiments expressed by local poet Roy McDonald and newsman George Clark's uneasy 1972 interview with actors McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers, then promoting their new TV series, M*A*S*H.
Commissioned by the New PL to produce the film history two years ago, Doty said his documentary was designed to establish one lasting impression.
"I hope it's a realization that CFPL-TV has thrived for half a century because it has reached out to its community. From man-on-the-street interviews with Paul Soles to the Speakers Corner booth at the new Central Library, this station has reflected its viewers and offered them the best possible coverage of their communities. That local bond is why CFPL has been so lasting."
Rewind is far from a perfect viewing vehicle. It's occasionally too dry, a bit dull and at 96-minutes running time, too long.
Sharper editing is required and candidates for the cutting room floor are sequences in which "talking heads" offer trivial recollections.
That said, the film scores as a meaningful biography of the London TV station that began as "Blackburn's gamble" and became an important fixture on the media scene of Southwestern Ontario.
IF YOU WATCH
What: Rewind: 50 Years of Local Television on the New PL, a documentary by Chris Doty profiling the history of the London TV station
When: 9 p.m., tomorrow
Where: The New PL, New NX, Wingham and New WI, Windsor