Victoria’s CHEK-TV has long been a trailblazer in the television industry, setting records as the first independently owned TV station in B.C., the first station in Canada to introduce colour telecasting, and — as of 2009 — the first employee-owned TV station in North America. In the excerpt below, Victoria writer Diane Dakers captures the excitement of CHEK’s first years and profiles some of its early programs and personalities.
‘At 11:25 Thursday night, the great moment came. Engineers flipped the switch and the Channel 6 test pattern was witnessed by Victorians who had sat up late to witness the historic event. After years of planning, disappointments and reverses, CHEK-TV was on the air.” — Daily Colonist, Nov. 30, 1956
In 1950, Victoria radio broadcaster David Armstrong launched CKDA-AM radio (with the “DA” in the call letters standing for David Armstrong). Four years later, he was awarded British Columbia’s first FM radio licence. In 1956, he made history again, when he was awarded British Columbia’s first independent television licence.
On March 29, 1956, the Victoria Daily Times announced: “Armstrong Gets City TV Station: CKDA Gets Licence for Channel 6.” The article reported that the 36-year-old had won the licence over another applicant, International Television Corp. Ltd., a New Westminster company owned by Armstrong’s mentor (and CKNW radio founder), William Rea.
The licence application promised that Armstrong’s new Victoria TV station would air a mix of feature films, network and syndicated shows, and local programming from 4 p.m. to midnight every day. Local productions would include “live programs covering the news, weather, amateur talent, panel discussions, cooking and homemaking, children’s shows, medical and legal forums, fishing, hunting and hobby shows,” reported the Times.
Armstrong’s partners in his new TV venture were vice-president and station manager Charlie White, a TV executive from Portland, Oregon, who held 21 per cent of the Victoria station’s shares, and Martin Mathison, a dentist from New Westminster, who also owned 21 per cent of the company and served as secretary-treasurer. As majority shareholder, Armstrong, with a 58 per cent stake, was president.
The original name of the television outlet was to be CKTV, but in the summer of 1956, Armstrong announced its new identity — CHEK-TV. Broadcast standards of the day required six-character call letters, starting with CH, CJ or CK. Armstrong said they chose CHEK “because it lends itself to promotional ideas — for instance: ‘Check Channel 6 tonight.’”
In the mid-1950s, more than 20,000 Greater Victoria households had TV sets, and viewers could choose from seven different television channels. One of the greatest challenges Armstrong and his colleagues faced in launching CHEK was convincing those viewers that the signal from this new local station would not block programming from the existing Vancouver and U.S. broadcasters. As it turned out, in some parts of the city, the CHEK-TV signal did, in fact, interfere with a local favourite, KING 5 from Seattle. Viewers affected by this interference had to buy costly adapters to fix the problem until cable television arrived in 1960.
Another challenge faced by Armstrong’s group in launching the new TV station was building a home for it. Before construction had even started, it was postponed by a change in location. Facing boiling opposition from neighbours, Armstrong and company abandoned the site they’d originally chosen in Saanich in favour of a different Saanich location, about one kilometre to the north, on Epsom Drive.
There, they also met with disapproval from local residents, 138 of whom signed a petition stating that “the station would have a detrimental effect on values of residential properties nearby, and secondly [that] a commercial zone as proposed is neither required nor acceptable to the taxpayers in the area.” Despite these objections, Saanich council unanimously approved the required rezoning for the Epsom Drive site, thus welcoming the new TV station to the community.
CHEK-TV finally went to air as a privately owned CBC affiliate at 5 p.m. on Dec. 1, 1956. After playing O Canada and three half-hour episodes of established TV series (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Oh, Susanna), CHEK aired 30 minutes of opening ceremonies. Joining Armstrong and White in the studio for the occasion were more than 200 local business and government officials.
At 10 p.m., CHEK aired its first newscast, a 15-minute segment hosted by anchor Graham Thompson. The top story of the day was the launch of the new television station. Within months, CHEK-TV’s broadcast schedule included its first locally produced show, TV House Party, hosted by longtime radio DJ Norm Pringle.
“The station had just opened its doors, but ‘they didn’t have anybody to program it,’ ” said Pringle in a 2002 Times Colonist article. “So I came up with an idea for House Party, where we could get various people from high schools to lip sync to the records. Some of them were so good at it, you’d think it was [the real thing].”
Over the next few years, CHEK’s list of local programming expanded to include live morning and midday talk shows (Daybreak and The Ida Clarkson Show, respectively) and a dance party show for teenagers titled Club 6.
Ida Clarkson, who came to be known as “Victoria’s First Lady of Television,” started as a copywriter at CHEK in 1961 — and accidentally became a talk-show host a year later. When one of the station’s Noon Show co-hosts quit in February 1962, producers asked Clarkson, who had a background in radio, to fill in while they searched for someone to sit in the co-host chair full-time.
“Then they just never bothered to get anybody else,” said Clarkson in TV Guide in 1981.
So began the Victoria native’s 30-year run as host of a daily talk show on CHEK. The Noon Show eventually became the Ida Clarkson Show. In 1981, it was renamed At 11, but was commonly known as Ida Clarkson at 11. It started an hour earlier to accommodate a new noon newscast. In 1984, the year the B.C. Association of Broadcasters named Clarkson Broadcaster of the Year, her time slot shifted to 3 p.m. to make room for daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless at 11 a.m.
Over the years, Clarkson occasionally had a co-host, but it was always seen as her show. And for the first 15 years or so, it aired live, something that occasionally led to unusual television viewing.
“For instance, I started the show one day and I was sitting on my microphone,” said Clarkson, as quoted in TV Guide. “So I had to stand up, take the microphone out from underneath me, put it around my neck and go through the whole business of apologizing on the air.
“Another time I got a bad case of the giggles and couldn’t stop. Our sewing lady had brought a pattern for a glove. And it looked rather like a cow’s udder. Every time she held this thing up, I started to laugh.”
Speaking of cows, Clarkson’s production crew once brought a bovine guest into the studio. Her co-host at the time, Bob Willett, offered to milk the cow, something he had never done before. He succeeded in coaxing some milk from the udders, but only after “sweet-talking” the cow live on air for several minutes.
Then there was the time the SPCA brought in a reindeer that skewered one of Clarkson’s scripts with its antler and an owl that flew into the rafters and refused to come down. For Clarkson, the highlight was a 1962 episode on which Victor Borge appeared, unannounced, in the middle of a live broadcast. The legendary musical comedian, who was in town to perform at a local arena, had been invited to be a guest on Clarkson’s show — but had declined. On a whim, he showed up anyway, disrupting the show in the best way possible.
In 1981, TV Guide writer Paul Grescoe described Clarkson’s show: She wears sensible dresses and round glasses and sits with her legs crossed, a clipboard of notes perched on her lap. The set looks like a suburban living-room: flowers on a coffee table and books and bric-a-brac artistically arranged on wicker shelves.
“The show is not controversial,” Clarkson said. “I don’t think people should be disturbed during their lunch hour.”
Clarkson retired from CHEK in 1991, and died in 2012 at age 85. In a Times Colonist article, longtime CHEK reporter Bruce Kirkpatrick remembered her as a woman who “started in broadcast journalism when it was a man’s domain.” At Clarkson’s memorial, Kirkpatrick again honoured his pioneering colleague: “She meant a lot for women in broadcasting in Victoria.”
CHEK Republic: A Revolution in Local Television,© Diane Dakers, 2014, Heritage House. heritagehouse.ca