CBC’S First Seventy-Five Years
Reproduced courtesy of Broadcast Dialogue
Some things have seemingly been the same for 75 years, e.g automobiles still have four wheels on the ground, brakes and a steering wheel; airplanes still have the same visual aerodynamic designs; boats; streetcars; office buildings; plus a long list of other things don’t appear to have moved too far from their basic design. The truth of the matter, of course, is that all of these products have technologically evolved and been adapted to suit consumer demands and competitive situations. And radio and television are no exceptions. Far and away the absolute Canadian leader in technological advances in broadcasting is CBC/Radio-Canada (“the CBC”). It has been an enormous contributor to broadcast innovation. For most of CBC’s 75 years—radio first and then television—it was all about appointment listening and viewing. But that’s all changed.
Fred Mattocks, the general manager, production media operation and technology, English services at CBC, told Broadcast Dialogue: “We think about ourselves—in terms of technology and the citizen—very,very differently than the way we used to. The world of broadcast technology, he explained, was a specialized place where industrial machines were necessary for doing the things that had to be done to make radio and television work. That kind of technology wasn’t available to the average joe. Further, its availability was based on having skilled people to operate the equipment, skills that were too high for people who had a life. More to the point, it cost way too much. But then, along came the video cassette recorder (VCR). It was relatively inexpensive and even your granny could work it. The VCR, however, began taking its leave around the time DVDs (Digital Versatile/Video Disc) began coming out.
The first VTR (video tape recorder) showed up in the ’50s. “It was about nine feet long, cost $150,000 back then and it required a technician full-time to operate it,” said Mattocks. “And I’m not talking about pushing buttons. I’m talking about actively adjusting the machine so that pictures came out. Most highly-skilled technicians, in terms of technology as opposed to the aesthetic, were necessary for many, many years because these machines were so complicated.” Instead of a little cassette that you could put in your pocket, a reel of tape for this monster cost $900 and weighed about 45 pounds. VTRs originated as individual tape reels, serving as a replacement for motion picture film stock and making recording for television applications cheaper and quicker. Earlier versions were produced primarily for the professional market.
“When we bought that video tape recorder in the ’50s, we bought it planning on having it around for 15 years. Technology didn’t shift that much. If you asked me 20 years ago what the standard camera was at CBC, I would have had two descriptions—manufacturer’s name and model number. One was for news and one wasn’t. That would have been true that day. It would have been true five years before and I would have expected it to be true five years after. One of the things that happened is that the pace of technological innovation became such that we don’t talk about standards in that sense anymore.” Today, video recording devices are everywhere. “I’ve got an iPhone that actually produces better quality than the cameras even up to about 10 years ago but, more to the point, I don’t have to be a highly skilled technician to operate it. All I need to do is push a button,” he said.
“We do have very expensive professional news cameras that are one-tenth the price of news cameras 20 years ago. But they are still $15,000. Across the CBC there are about 400 of these cameras.” He noted, however, that the video capability of iPhones, Flip cameras or Blackberrys all have good quality, the “magic of digital”. For the news application, he said, there’s high value in the “news now” element and that the content can be sent back home in the blink of an eye. Another huge shift in how things are done is the frequency of innovation and the relatively inexpensive product pricing. No longer does anyone sweat the investment nor worry if it will last 15 years. If you don’t like the $150 Flip camera, you can give it away and buy another, newer piece of technology.
But how about civilians with consumer cameras as news gatherers and story tellers? Maybe, but there are some wrinkles. Said Mattocks: “… all kinds of different things can play a role and contribute to the overall well-being of the system” . . . “if I can simply provide the connections to get that content into the system so that we can tell Canadian stories to Canadian from a range of vantage points, then maybe I don’t have to worry about it. But what I do have to worry about is how do those devices fit in the eco system. If you shot a video on your cell phone that you think would be great for CBC news, how do you actually get it back to us? How do we process it? How do we get it in the system because, as easy as it is to tap in the content everywhere, that’s a concept value. Making powerful bits do what they need to do is a sophisticated and difficult problem.”
As Mattocks explains it, there are compatibility issues. When there’s talk about the series of steps that it takes to get a digital file from the camera and move it all the way through to an everyday process, and then to the transmission and distribution phase, that’s where the grief arises: The work flows are often incompatible for different manufacturers.
In so many ways, CBC’s story is as much about the application of technology as it is about the technology itself. One of the biggest was the use of satellite distribution for television. Canada was the first country to do that. “CBC was very much a partner with the satellite company,” said Mattocks, “and with the Canadian Research Council.” There was a time when broadcast companies had engineering divisions that figured out new kinds of technologies, new ways to use things. “From there, another kind of higher technical expert in the operational world figured out how to take what the engineers had set up and actually deploy it in a way that made sense.” The CBC engineering division, he said, created “some marvellous things in terms of our ability to produce content for Canadians”.
The Corporation’s Toronto broadcast centre, which opened in 1992, was ahead of the technological period on virtually every front. At the time, in digital technology, it was the first major serial digital installation in the world. Everything else was analog. CBC stepped forward into the digital world because it was well aware of the major investment it was making—$300 to $400 million—and geared itself toward making the new facility futureproof. Had it gone ahead with analog, it would have been the last such plant anywhere.
Mattocks says CBC continues to innovate along mature technology lines. As an example, he points to CBC having figured out how to squeeze more digital signals onto satellite space. “We are pioneers in digital compression; one of the first methods in the world that was digital compression to make better use of satellite space. Satellite space is obviously very, very expensive and the more signals you can pass through it the better off you are, for a given standard of quality. We were able to say that the quality needs to be here and then squeeze the signal in innovative ways to help that happen.”
Audio Out of Whack
In his 30 years as a broadcaster, Mattocks says the number one grievance by viewers has been loud commercials. In the analog period, he said, commercials often seemed a lot louder than the programs. “People, depending on the TV set they had and depending on a variety of different things and depending on their own sensitivity, were wrong,” he said. “And telling them that drives people batty. It’s all in the way your brain processes and it’s not very useful to sit there and say to somebody that they may think it’s louder but it’s not. That’s never a win/win conversation.”
Too, since many Canadians get their TV signals through cable via various distribution drop points covering different neighbourhoods, each place has set-ups that can be complicated. Sometimes you get aberrations, e.g. when only one channel seems weird. That all changed with digital broadcasting. Now it’s about a set of numbers that are a very powerful processing capability, and little microcomputers can actually sit there and figure out, for example, if the Brand A TV set would be perceived as louder. Nobody perceives at the same level, said Mattocks, and it can actually do the math and change the outcome if you want it changed. The move into CBC’s fully digital network should see signals pass through the entire cable and satellite systems unchanged.
The Next Generation
In the old world, CBC sent and received content between stations. It was all point-to- point and there were telephone lines, microwaves and satellite channels. The satellite scheduling was always hairy and the time was expensive. You had to get on the phone and say to somebody in Vancouver, “I heard you did a news item. I’d like to have a look at it. Somebody at that end would have to physically carry a tape and go give it to somebody to feed it into a satellite link. Somebody at this end would actually have to sit there and receive it. That’s the way we’ve operated since we began—point to point,” he said. Mattocks pointed to the fact that it was a time when technology was expensive and people were cheap.” Now, you need to make the best use of people’s time. The best use of somebody’s time, often a highly skilled technician, is not sitting around waiting for something to come out. It’s like sitting around your door waiting for the mail to end up in the mail box. Why would you do that?”
CBC now has big digital pipes which connect all CBC stations but the big difference is that it’s drag and drop. “If I’m interested in what somebody’s doing out in Vancouver, I can sit at my desktop and browse the Vancouver news server to see what content they’re working on. If I see something I like I can actually grab it, drag it and drop it into my work space. “There are no geographical barriers. There are no technological barriers . . . In the new world, everybody has access to everything.”
Did we mention that the world has changed?
In the old CBC world, there would have been eight VTRs in Halifax and probably two control rooms. Multiply that by 10 for CBC Toronto. They were expensive and highly specialized spaces where only people who had years of training could actually function. Creative people would come in, tell the operators what they wanted, then sit and wait while those highly skilled people worked the specialized technology to make it happen.
Today it’s the opposite. Production spaces are everywhere. Where Mattocks once saw laptops he now sees screens: “They have the capability to use the production tools. And it’s not just them, it’s in audiences too. Your kids have access to production tools that have the same capabilities that five years ago you would have found only inside a major television broadcaster.”
On the occasion of the public broadcaster’s 75th anniversary, Mattocks underlined that CBC is “… the only media company in the country, electronically, that exists in the interest of the citizen” .”CBC’s shareholders”, he said, are each and every Canadian resident. “There has never been a time in broadcasting history where the technological environment was such that there were so many different ways for all media companies, not just us, to reach citizens and consumers. It’s a great time to be a media company because you’ve got so many options and so many opportunities to react with people around your product and around your services. “For us it is particularly important because that’s why we exist. The test of our existence, the test of our relevance, is ultimately how much we can interact, how much we can provide value for the citizens in this country.”
Of the important things that have happened at CBC in the last five years, said Mattocks, one is “… drag and drop content. There are no barriers. Anybody who wants to work with content in CBC has no geographical or technological barriers to accessing that content and doing something with it. The second thing is production tools—everywhere! Every screen is a production tool. We couldn’t have done that ten years ago because we couldn’t afford it. Now we can do it, in fact it is imperative. So what you end up with is a very, very different world where everybody’s able to do everything.”
Trajectory from the Old to the New
Mattocks’ career, he said, has been a study not so much in technology but in how it helps people’s lives. Do they use it to better understand the world they live in? he wonders. “What are those technologies? How do we at the CBC engage with them and use them?” Social media, he said, is a great example. “We learn every day how Canadians go about their lives from what they talk about in social media. If I was to try to draw a trajectory from the old to the new, the old would be technology defined who we were and what we did, by and large. “In the new world, technology enables who we are and what we do. Ultimately, there are just so many potentials, so many opportunities. The thing we’ve got to be is relevant to the lives of Canadians. We have to make the right choices.”
Written by Howard Christensen
1939: CBC began “farm broadcasts”. Regular broadcasting began of the Montréal Canadians’ hockey games from the Montréal Forum. With the declaration of World War II, CBC/Radio-Canada sent a team of announcers and technicians to accompany the Canadian Armed Forces’ First Division to England, and so began special wartime broadcasts.
1940: Residents of remote communities benefit from radio service as low power relay transmitters were installed for their benefit.
1941: Opening of CBC News Service.
1944: The Dominion Network was formed, linking CJBC Toronto with 34 private stations to offer an alternative lighter service.
1946: The first CBC FM stations are established in Montreal and Toronto. One year later, an experimental stereo broadcast is made. CBC completes a detailed plan for development of TV in Canada.
1952: The first CBC and Radio-Canada television stations, CBLT-Toronto and CBFT-Montréal, began broadcasting.
1953: Television microwave network linking Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal is completed in May.
1955: CBC/Radio-Canada’s television services were available to 66% of the Canadian population.
1958: Opening of CBC Calgary Relay Centre, with videotape recording facilities to enable western viewers to see network programs at more convenient viewing times. First coast-to-coast live television broadcast with completion of the microwave network from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
1959: Microwave network extended to Newfoundland. Already longest TV network in the world increased to 4,200 miles.
1960: CBC Northern Service starts shortwave broadcasting to the High Arctic.
1966: First regular colour TV programming.
1967: International CBC telecast by satellite of Expo ’67 official opening.
1973: Official start of CBC network television transmissions to the North by Anik communications satellite.
1974: Opening of French FM stereo network.
1975: CBC Stereo Network opens, with stations in St. John’s, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.
1976: CBC television and FM radio starts transmission from the CN Tower in Toronto.
1977/78: The first stereo mobile unit designed and constructed by the CBC was assigned to Vancouver to provide for quality on-site recording and mixdown of concerts in public auditoriums, using sixteen-track facilities.
1985: The first of CBC’s two new state-of-the-art mobile units was delivered to the English television network centre in Toronto.
1988: The 14-hour Chasing Rainbows, a co-production starring Paul Gross, Michael Riley and Julie A. Stewart, was the first TV miniseries in the world to be produced in highdefinition TV.
1992: Occupancy of the new Broadcasting Centre in Toronto begins. By March 31, 1993 2,800 employees, or 90% of CBC Toronto’s workforce, had moved in.
2002: First Canadian deployment of automated control room technology for live News production—CBC Windsor’s use of Parker-Vision—this kind of technology is ubiquitous in news control rooms today around the world.
2003: CBC uses Desktop Television for the first time at the Paris IAAF World Championships.
2004/2005: CBC’s first HD studio launched in Montreal.
2005: Podcasts of CBC Radio programs launched in June and of Radio de Radio-Canada in September. Radio-Canada brought together radio, television and digital platforms, keeping pace with audience desires to consume their content when and how they want.
2007/2008: All English and French News production converted to widescreen format.
2010: The first Canadian 3D images on a national television network, a public test of CBC’s 3D