December 1997




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Television That Matters

But does it matter to teachers anymore?


By Theresa McGrory

Since TVOntario’s inception as the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, with limited airtime and a mainly southern Ontario audience, programming has changed and it seems its focus has shifted.

TVO’s annual report was recently broadcast for the benefit of viewers who send in their tax-deductible dollars to become members. In addition to the many gifts offered as an enticement to pledge – cookbooks, mugs, T-shirts and special videos – members receive a copy of Signal, TVO’s magazine that details all of the public broadcaster’s programs.

TVOntario’s Future Up in the Air

TVO has become a well-oiled publicity machine with increasingly frequent and sophisticated presentations asking the public for money to help offset the cost of new and better programming. Meanwhile, government is reducing its grants and plans are afoot to privatize the network.

Valuable Resource Losing Direction

It seems many now share the government’s view that the network should no longer qualify for government subsidy. But not everyone believes this is the way to go. Many teachers in northern Ontario, for example, feel that TVO has simply lost its direction. Threats of TVO’s demise have seen petitions presented to Queen’s Park politicians, angry editorials in the press, and cries of "shame" from the media.

During TVO’s infancy, teachers relied on technicians to capture programs that were broadcast at inconvenient hours. With the advent of the videocassette recorder and all its conveniences, a new comfort level was possible.

Teachers, glad to dispense with the complicated process involving one inch reel-to-reel tape, took the time to become familiar with what TVO had to offer. Programs could now be recorded and used with greater ease. And with copyright clearance given by TVO, television in the classroom became a useful resource.

The value of TVO was evident to many teachers in the north who are denied the museums, galleries, concert halls, science centres and other resources readily available to their colleagues in the south. TVO met teachers’ needs.

There have always been film rental agencies and services like the National Film Board with its excellent documentaries, but problems with booking times, delays and costs for postage and rental made these alternatives less viable. TVO was, to a large extent, free. Any costs that did exist were moderate and absorbed by the school board. This low cost factor was seen as one of the great advantages.

As the partnership between schools and TVO progressed, very reasonably priced classroom sets of student texts were made available to augment the video programs. Teacher guides with comprehensive suggestions for ways to expand the topic, and related activities and lesson plans were provided. Every teacher had a list of the upcoming programs and information on new series being developed to help with lesson plans.

TVO’s Golden Age

TVO visited the schools and gave workshops on how to use the programs effectively. Teachers were co-opted and trained to become in-school facilitators, working with other staff to get the best use of the resource. Federations provided funding for professional development activities centred around TVO and many teachers used sabbatical study time to produce course outlines and lesson plans around series such as "The Prince and the Pauper", "Planet of Man", "Mythology" and "The Shakespeare Series."

It was TVO’s golden age in the classroom – the period of in-service and promotion of television that mattered to teachers.

At some point, however, TVO decided to change focus. The rights to all four of these programs, and to many more excellent series, were not renewed.

The outcome was devastating. The image of TVO was damaged – in many cases beyond repair. Teachers stopped sending their pledges. They felt betrayed. Teachers had spent countless hours developing teaching units and incorporating programs into their course of study. They were now left without access to those programs on which much of their work depended.

Return to Roots: Supporters

So what is the situation today? There are still good programs being produced that can be incorporated into classroom instruction by a teacher. The programs, however, don’t always reflect teachers’ needs. Teachers in the north still want current resources, but resources that are based on the curriculum, not produced willy nilly, forcing teachers to find time to connect programs with courses of study.

There are some classroom-style programs with complementary texts still available, but these shows are for general or adult interest, rather than the classroom. If the dollars being spent on this type of programming were reinvested in the classroom programs of old, perhaps the government funding bodies would look more kindly on continued grants to TVO.

Teachers today no longer feel TVO provides support. They desperately want it to return to its roots. There is a strong feeling that TVO is attempting to compete with major networks like PBS, the American public broadcaster. TVO does offer many excellent programs, such as "Studio 2" and "The Parent Connection", shows that are popular and offer viewers the opportunity for interaction.

Has TVO lost its mandate? Has the network changed to the point of no return? In the rush to compete for viewers, are TVO dollars being earmarked for programming designed for high ratings, rather than creating new programs for the classroom?

We need a clearer picture of what drives TVO if we are to evaluate it effectively. On whether TVO ought to be privatized, in northern Ontario at least, the jury is still out.

Theresa McGrory retired this year as vice-principal of TimiskamingDistrict Secondary School in New Liskeard. She currently conducts in-service training for teachers on behalf of the Northern Centre for Instructional Leadership.

TVOntario’s Future Up in the Air

TVOntario’s days as a public broadcaster may be numbered. At the very least, the network is at a crossroads as the government holds public consultations on its future across the province throughout November and early December.

"Times have changed since TVOntario was first established 27 years ago. More channels and choice are now available and new technologies exist," said Rob Sampson, Minister without portfolio with responsibility for privatization. "The main goal of the TVOntario privatization review process is to determine the role of government in educational broadcasting and to find the best way to improve service and value for taxpayers. "

Sampson will consider a range of options for TVOntario, such as maintaining government ownership while improving efficiency, not-for-profit enterprises, joint ventures and partial or full divestiture. He will also examine a proposal by TVOntario’s board that the network become a non-profit corporation with private sector partnerships.

TVOntario has focused in recent years on increasing revenues and relying less on government funding. As a result, TVOntario’s prized education programs are now sold around the world – in Europe, Japan, and the United States, among others – and the network produces more shows in partnership with school boards, universities and colleges, professional associations, and various profit and non-profit organizations.

The report on the public consultations is expected by mid-December.