Lights: check. Cameras: check. Action: not so much. It was still the House of Commons, after all.
On Oct. 17, 1977, parliamentary proceedings in Canada were broadcast live on television for the first time.
Crews had spent the summer stripping the chamber almost bare to incorporate the lights, colour cameras and microphones necessary to bring Question Period to the public watching at home.
“It’s a technical triumph for the crew who created the broadcast system in half the time the experts considered minimum,” said reporter John Warren in a CBC News special that aired to mark the occasion.
On a motion introduced by House leader Allan MacEachen, who argued that if Canadians were to stay interested in Parliament, they must be able to see what happened there, the $5-million renovation was approved by Parliament in January of 1977.
The job was projected to take two years, but less than nine months later the chamber was ready for prime time.
One of the more obvious changes was new, TV-friendly lights. They were hot, and they were bright.
(After the first day, some MPs could be seen wearing sunglasses in the chamber, according to the Toronto Star. Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark’s office sent out a memo telling his MPs to stop the practice because it looked “thug-like.”)
“The four automatic cameras are inconspicuous, and even the four that are manned for the time being are almost hidden behind curtains,” said Warren.
Behind the scenes was another story.
‘Like your neighbour’s garage’
“The setup looks like your neighbour’s garage,” he said. “Right now the hands that run the system are in cramped and temporary quarters.”
A day before broadcast, the system was tested with stand-ins to incorporate the rules regarding what could be shown — and what couldn’t.
That’s where it became clear that Commons proceedings weren’t going to be must-see TV.
“There will be carefully controlled close-ups of the members speaking. Other members — dozing, or heckling, or chatting, or absent — just won’t be shown,” explained Warren.
It took a staff of about 30 to run the recording system, half of which were in a separate building where TV stations had access to the footage they wanted for broadcast.
“Some think it will change the very way that Parliament works, making performers out of members, and TV drama out of serious debate,” said Warren.
“Likely not,” he added. “But, at the very least, it will drastically change what Canadians see and know of the system that governs them inside these doors.”
Later in the special, CBC reporter John Drewery brought viewers some of the highlights of the first Question Period to make it to air.
Wearing a brown suit and tie, Clark, the Leader of the Opposition, wasted no time acknowledging there were more eyes on the proceedings than usual.
“On this day when television is first reflecting the debates of the House of Commons, among the Canadians who are watching us here today are a large number of the army of Canadian unemployed who, because of the policies of this government, have nothing else that they can do with their time today,” he began.
MPs from his party thumped their desks in approval.
“Since the prime minister and the government’s forecasts in its last two budgets have been dead wrong concerning economic growth and job creation,” he continued, “will the prime minister tell the House right now what specific programs his government will introduce this month to bring jobs to the more than a million Canadians who are out of work today because of the policies of this government?”
Thumping and heckling
Clad in a white suit and the signature rose in his lapel, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau stood to answer the question in an even tone after more prolonged thumping on all sides and heckling from the opposite bench.
“Mr. Speaker, it is the government’s intention to address this question of high unemployment which has given us great concern,” said Trudeau. “We want to address that question immediately, and we will be doing it tomorrow on the first day of the new session. We will do it in a speech from the throne, and it will be followed up by some more specific recommendations made by my colleague, the Minister of Finance, who will participate very early in the debate.”
Trudeau couldn’t resist issuing a sarcastic invitation at the end of his reply.
“Of course, we will also be anxious to hear from the Opposition, who always has such constructive measures to propose,” he added.
With the start of House broadcasting, the CBC introduced the weekly program This Week in Parliament to show viewers highlights of debate in the Commons. The first week, ratings showed 125,000 people watched the program; by the following June 600,000 viewers were tuning in regularly.