Articles

They all throw rocks at Davey Dunton

ALAN PHILLIPS April 2 1955
Articles

They all throw rocks at Davey Dunton

ALAN PHILLIPS April 2 1955

They all throw rocks at Davey Dunton

Crank and crackpot, professor and politician — they all know more about running the CBC than Davidson Dunton does. And they never stop telling him — and anyone else who will listen. Here’s what it’s like to he boss of Canada’s controversial TV and radio system

ALAN PHILLIPS

TEN YEARS AGO Mackenzie King plucked young Davidson Dunton from an editor’s desk in Montreal and set him down in Ottawa in the hottest seat in Canada. He made Dunton at thirtythree the first full-time chairman of the board that controls the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation— the most controversial job in Canada.

Right after that the Tory-inclined Toronto Telegram called Dunton “a gilded fifth wheel.” At the same time a Conservative MP, Tommy Church, got up in the House of Commons and demanded to know ‘‘this man Dunton’s qualifications.” At an Ottawa cocktail party a high-ranking CBC official was asked his opinion of the appointment. ‘‘I don’t know Dunton,” he said, ‘‘but I do know this—the noose is right here waiting for him to put his head in it.”

The CBC official was right. For a decade Dunton has carried on under a constant cross fire of criticism. Labor leaders berate him for supporting hig business. Business leaders reproach him for pandering to labor. The Printed Word, a paper put out by a Toronto public relations firm, frequently accuses

the CBC of “left-wing tendencies” while the Canadian Congress of Lahor, in its last brief to the government, states: “Insofar as CBC television programs are concerned, the balance is heavily weighted against labor.”

Each political party thinks it is hard done by. In one House of Commons debate, Social Créditer E. G. Hansell declared that the corporation favored the CCb while CCF leader M. J. Coldwell complained that the CBC had discriminated against his party. Backbench Liberals have argued in private caucus that the publicly owned system ignores their existence, while Conservative leader George Drew has called it a “government mouthpiece,” which was dutifully reported over the CBC.

Just about every group in the country raises irreconcilable Cain over the way Dunton runs Canada s chief source of entertainment. Intellectuals rap him for broadcasting soap opera. Sport fans lambaste him for too much symphony. Symphony lovers squawk about too much swing.

Bores buttonhole Dunton at parties. Irate listeners call him at his office and his home. Late

one recent night an Ottawa housewife realized she was seeing a film for the second time on TV. She dialed Dunton at his Rockcliffe Park home and gave him a piece of her mind. Dunton, though roused from sleep, took time to soothe her.

He was still composed next morning when a call came from an angry hockey fan. “That commentator on last night’s game was biased!” the man exploded, “Why don’t you people get yourselves a commentator who’s fair?”

Dunton listened awhile, then mildly interposed, “He’s a very experienced man.”

“He’s completely pro-Toronto!” the man exclaimed hotly.

“Well, we get a lot of letters about him,” said Dunton patiently. “A lot of people like him. Most of them think he is fair.” Amiably but (irmly, he ended the conversation. Even his secretary has never seen him give way to anger.

It is claimed his policies foster a namby-pamby attitude on the part of political commentators. But, asks Dunton, “Why don’t Canadians argue? How do you get sharp lively discussion when Canadians don’t talk that way in public? Over a cup of coffee, sure, they talk strong as the devil. But on the air they’re mild as toast.”

He’s been chided for not getting more humor into the CBC schedule. But when a west coast humorist, David Brock, kidded newsboys in a five-minute CBC broadcast (“a twelve-year-old sublets his route to an eight-year-old who sublets to a fouryear-old . . . the last vestige of child labor”) sixteen papers called it a slanderous attack. One circulation manager wrote to Dunton demanding that he put on another program praising newsboys. (He didn’t.)

In every fracas Dunton is the man in the middle. Three years ago the Trans-Canada network carried a series of talks called The Nature of the Universe. The speaker, Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle, declared, “There is no place for God in this view.” Immediately the CBC was flayed by the Catholic paper, The Ensign, for affronting Canadians with atheistic talks. Though two speakers were quickly given air time to tear Hoyle’s views apart, Dunton was deluged —first by angry missives insisting that the CBC had no right to air such opinions, then by ten times as many letters, including some from clergymen, telling him to stick by his guns and let every side of a question be heard.

Dunton takes it all with extraordinary calm. “It’s a challenge,” he reflects. “You’re never really on top of it. You never know when it’s going to explode. Somet imes I think I’d like a safer job, but I never do anyt hing about it.”

The criticism is actually a measure of his importance. Radio, which to Dunton includes sound broadcasting and television, is the newest, fastest, most miraculous method of feeding millions of minds at once. Seven days a week the big production centres of Toronto and Montreal, and the regional centres of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Halifax manufacture a steady stream of sound and imagery—music, stories, plays, sports, poetry, facts and ideas. Linked to privately owned stations across the country, they form an electronic pipeline for a stream of intangible values. One end funnels to TV screens and radio speakers in ninety-nine out of a hundred Canadian homes. At the other end of the pipeline is Dunton, a boyish-looking, mildmannered man of medium height who sits with self-possessed coolness on his hot seat.

The seat is hotter today than it has ever been. The first two and a half years of television have turned many critics into catcalling cynics and most set owners into critics. “Everyone feels strongly about it,” says Dunton. “It has all the assault on the mind of a moving picture and the whole family can watch it at the flick of a switch.”

What they see on that screen depends a great deal on the policies of Davidson Dunton. As boss of Canada’s TV network he is in a position of influence beyond the wildest imaginings of the pre-electronics age. But right from the start the development of TV brought censure and more censure upon him.

As far back as 1948 Dunton was pressing the government for a go-ahead on TV. His brilliant chief engineer, Alphonse

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Dunton’s Never Out of Range of Radio or TV

They Throw Rocks At Davey Dunton

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25

Ouimet, was ready with everything but the money. But Dunton could not get a green light till late in 1950. By then the Korean War was holding up steel and electronic equipment and Dunton was raked over the coals in dozens of newspaper columns for dragging his feet on television.

Dunton was banking heavily on American programs to keep viewers happy till he built up Canadian production. All through 1952 he tried to make a deal with the four U. S. networks. He offered them fifteen percent of the gross revenue from the programs, the same price he pays for U. S. radio programs under a contract signed in the Thirties, when the U. S. networks didn’t think the Canadian market was worth fussing about.

The networks have a different view of Canada today. They insisted on selling each Canadian TV station separately, just as if they were U. S. stations. Dunton was equally adamant. “No,” he told them, “you’re going to deal with the CBC as a network.”

As the curtain was due to rise on the opening act of Canadian TV (September 1952) the U. S. networks came around. But when they named their price it was a whopping seventy percent. Dunton, desperate for programs, was left holding the bag and the CBC debut with TV was a scramble to fill the gap left by the holdout U. S. programs.

A Frantic Call For Filtns

Phone and letter haggling continued until Christmas. Then the CBC and the U. S. networks compromised at fifty percent. But in those four months Dunton was the main target for criticism because he didn’t have the big IJ. S. shows. In those four months too the CBC faced a real crisis. At showtime the studios were a madhouse. Several producers collapsed after shows from the strain of keeping up with so much detail.

Dunton and his executives talked seriously about whether they should hire TV personnel over thirty. They finally deciden! that much of the strain on staff was due to inexperience; they still hold to that belief. Meanwhile there was no letup in the pressure of work.

The public, fascinated, called for more and more programs. The pressure forced Dunton to push up production from eighteen to thirty-one hours a week in the first three months (and then to its present sixty hours).

The electronic monster gobbled up talent with an insatiable appetite. A desperate call went out to the films, the stage, and TV on both sides of the Atlantic; the U. S. networks, in turn, tried to lure top CBC talent. Producers Mavor Moore and Esse Ljungh turned down tempting U. S. offers, but actor Lome Greene, pop singer Shirley Harmer and others were lost to CBC-TV for a time, and Gisele MacKenzie and Ed McCurdy have so far not returned.

There was little time for training. Green producers directed green technicians and green performers. As they learned, they erred — amusingly, weirdly, startlingly. When a negative instead of a positive film was shown on Tabloid one night, the headwaiter at the Chateau Laurier was shown serving dinner on a black cloth in a white suit with a black face. Unscheduled programs appeared unexpectedly, then the r|ght. program with the wrong sound. Commentators turned around to intro-

duce a film—no film, or the wrong one. Viewers were disconcerted, embarrassed, irritated. And the columnists who had said that Dunton was holding up TV nowasked what in the world he was up to.

Dunton had been counting on advertising to help finance the feverish expansion. But the advertisers weren’t at ail sure television was worth the expense. Most of all. they balked at Dunton’s advertising policy. He wouldn’t let them just buy talent and air time and stage their own shows. They had to buy a package: air time plus an existing CBC program. On those terms, some of the biggest advertisers, like Procter and Gamble and Lever Brothers, refused to come in.

Dunton was determined to keep control of programs. He wanted to ensure that a balanced evening’s entertainment would be available—a difficult job at best. The showing times are set for the imported U. S. programs. So are the so-called strip shows—news and children’s programs. Dunton and the heads of the U. S. TV networks felt that if they lost control, as U. S. radio networks did, it could mean, for example, three variety shows in a row. More important, some tastes might get a rich week’s fare, others nothing at all. “They were used to paying the money and calling the piper,” says Dunton, mixing his metaphor neatly. “We said, you pay the money and we’ll call the piper.”

The advertisers sat tight. At the end of a year’s broadcasting only sixteen percent of CBC-TV’s programs were sponsored, of a possible sixty percent. Dunton didn’t budge from his position. The U. S. networks had already fought and won their battle for control. That put Dunton, with his responsibility to the public, in a strong position.

Verbal broadsides from the business fraternity broke around him. Last autumn Richard Lewis, editor and publisher of Canadian Broadcaster and Telescreen, called the CBC a “powerdrunk tribunal.” Said he: “As long as the advertisers, agencies and broadcasting stations are willing to submit to the arbitrary treatment of the CBC this dictator will continue to dictate.”

The upshot of this tussle was that Dunton had to face the demand for more and more programs with an undernourished bankroll. The Canadian theatre industry, luckily, has had some experience in staging top-flight drama on a shoestring. CBC-TV put on shows like General Motors Theatre with three production people, shows that take a staff of fifteen in the States.

As usual, opinion differed on their success. On the same day that a viewer in Toronto wrote in: “Fire the whole bunch of amateurs you have on your staff and let us watch Buffalo in peace,” the Buffalo Courier-Express ran an article saying, “Observers in eastern New York say they are amazed at the professional skill demonstrated by CBLT.”

By last summer Dunton had won his battle. The advertisers still grumbled at times, but they clamored for more shows. And now, ironically, sixty percent of the programs were sponsored. The balance—news, religion, sports— were shows Dunton didn’t think should be sponsored.

In less than two years Toronto’s brand-new studios were obsolete and frustrated TV producers were blaming Dunton and his aides for not correctly gauging the speed of TV’s growth. For the first time Dunton felt the sting of fire from behind. “We knew the studios were too small,” he admitted. “We didn’t have the money to build them bigger.”

By last fall, Dunton’s two-year-old TV infant was as big as radio and

Is the CBC spending too much on TV? “It’s cheaper to pipe in American shows than make them in Canada,” says Dunton

getting a great deal more attention. Radio producers with enviable reputations felt that they were being left to stagnate in a backwater, while “young punks still wet, behind the ears” walked off with TV fame and budget.

Dunton had no intention of keeping Ins trusted radio hands in a backwater. But he couldn’t let radio go downhill. Too many homes didn’t yet have television. He and Alphonse Ouimet, now general manager, decided to keep their radio people out of TV t ill Toronto and Montreal were on the air.

When the emphasis then shifted to building a coast-to-coast network, TV producers were left in charge of production Ín their areas, but top radio producers, experienced in network problems, took command of network programing in both mediums. The endless Donnybrook has moved onto new ground.

Editorial writers are now blasting Dunton for spending too much money. The Ottawa Journal suggests that parliament take a sharp look at whether or not the CBC “is spending beyond our needs as well as beyond its income . . . May it not lx; that TV is being expanded too ambitiously?”

On the other hand, some columnists have been condemning the fact that Canadian TV is fifty-one percent American, and (on the English network for the first week of February) fiftynine percent commercial. “Most evenings,” writes Vancouver columnist Jack Scott, “the schedule is top-heavy with American programs ... a choice obviously made in many cases not by a discriminating taste but because a sponsor is willing to pay the shot in Canada.”

“In radio,” says columnist Eric Nicol, “the CBC has done a good job of providing worthwhile fare for the minority of listeners. In television . . . the effort has failed, and the clutter of commercials, American programs and exhumed movies mocks Mr. Dunton’s words.”

These two views buffet Dunton from opposite sides. TV is enormously expensive. Programs cost five to ten times as much as radio. To put on more Canadian programs, Dunton must spend more money, much more.

He has been meeting the bulk of TV’s cost from a fifteen-percent tax on the wholesale price of a set. Sets are selling briskly now, about eighty thousand a month. But this red-hot pace is likely to slow down sometime next year, and then the CBC’s income will fall off. Costs, meanwhile, continue to rise as the national network pushes farther into the thinly peopled spaces.

Dunton’s problem is aggravated by Canadian geography. The CBC’s expensive east-west TV network is being set up to help tie the nation together. Dunton must produce programs, not only in two languages, not only in Montreal and Toronto, but in regional studios at Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax and Ottawa. No network in the world draws production from so many different points. It’s too hard to administrate. It piles up extra expense.

“Commercially it’s silly,” says Dunton. “But then, producing programs in Canada at all isn't sound. It’s much cheaper to pipe them in from the States. When you think of it, that’s the hard core of the pressure on us—just the economics of that east-west line— the basic reason for having a national network at all.”

Dunton describes his job as keeping

the different pressures in balance. It is largely a public-relations job and he knows it. A year ago last spring, he stopped a parliamentary committee of about twenty-five members in CBC’s Toronto studios to answer a cub reporter’s questions. The new radio program In Reply, which answers queries from the CBC mailbag, came on the air last fall as a result of Dunton’s needling.

Even Dunton’s archfoe, Jim Allard, manager of the commercial broadcasters’ association, unhesitatingly concedes, “Davie’s the best public-relations man in a quiet way I know. He can honestly be labeled brilliant, and he’s smart enough not to show it at the wrong time.”

Dunton doesn’t feel he has all the answers. He is not by nature a crusader, standing or falling on every issue. His talent is for compromise.

Like every compromiser, he is sometimes suspected of weakness. The pressures on him now are enormous and

Point of Departure

Some remarkable stories I overhear On the rush-hour bus each night; But just as the climax begins to appear

Either I or the gossips alight.

JOAN WEATHERSEED

some acquaintances are wondering aloud if he’s strong enough to resist them. Even his friends don’t seem to know him well. His mildness causes many to think he’s only a figurehead, and the speculation about who really bosses the CBC runs the gamut from St. Laurent to the Pope.

The CBC, it is said, is composed of two types: the bright young boys and the old song-and-dance men. Dunton is one of the bright young boys. He was only fifteen when he graduated from Lower Canada College, much too young for university.

Among his college chums was John McConnell, son of the sugar magnate, J. W. McConnell. The elder McConnell had also been a friend of Dunton’s father, a Montreal notary who died in 1914. McConnell sent Dunton abroad as companion to John.

Dunton studied at universities in Paris, Munich and Cambridge. He played for the Cambridge hockey team that toured Europe in 1931-32. He spent a year as a private tutor in Mexico. He came home after four years in foreign parts speaking four languages fluently, enrolled for economics, history and football at McGill, and talked his way into a summer reporting job on the Montreal Star.

In 1935 he joined the Star full time as a legman under tough able city editor Alec Dewar. Dewar sent him out seven nights and six days a week chasing fires, reporting murders, dog shows, speeches, luncheons. Sports writer Andy O’Brien recalls that Dunton’s battered roadster stood out as a steaming landmark among the St. James Street limousines.

Dunton, an ardent competitor in Laurentian ski meets and Montreal squash tournaments, started the Star’s first ski column. While still a cub he scooped every sports reporter in Montreal when a ski team arrived from

Bavaria; the Bavarians couldn’t speak English and only Dunton spoke German. In three years he had a private office with Associate Editor on the door. He was twenty-five and looked five years younger.

Now the elder McConnell again took a hand in his career. In 1938 McConnell bought four Montreal newspapers from Lord Atholstan (they were the Star, Herald, Family Herald and Standard). Among these the Standard was sliding toward bankruptcy. It had once been the biggest week-end paper in Canada; but its circulation had dropped from 200,000 to 60,000. McConnell felt he had nothing to lose by giving the paper to his son John and Dunton to play with.

In their first two days they tore the moribund paper to tatters and raised a new Standard from its ruins. Dunton moved quickly from office to office, talking quietly but rapid-fire: “Make those layouts larger. Give that newsstory more space.” An editor showed him some copy that an advertiser had written. “Look at this. This isn’t news. But we’ve got to run it or lose the account.”

“Don’t run it,” Dunton decided.

They lost one big advertiser and two smaller accounts. But they soon won them back with picture features and hard-hitting stories. Dunton’s desk was a litter of layouts, photos and circulation charts. Finally, their Irish charwoman complained to the building manager. “That Mr. McConnell,” she said, “is quite the gentleman. But that young boy working for him makes an unholy mess.” Under Dunton’s editorship, the Standard’s circulation tripled.

On trips to London and Washington, Dunton found that our allies knew little of Canada’s war effort. In a series of editorials he criticized the government for thus jeopardizing Canadian prestige. The head of the Wartime Information Board, Charles Vining, promptly asked him to Ottawa to see if he could do better.

Dunton had been turned down by the army because of a mastoid operation. He jumped at this chance to be of service. In Ottawa he successfully pried stories of wartime achievements from security-conscious government departments. When a New York paper panned the Canadian war effort, Dunton flew south for a long chat with the editor. The paper did an about-face. In early 1944, with Vining ill, Dunton was made head of the information centre and its staff of two hundred and fifty.

That was the year Churchill and Roosevelt met at Quebec. The conference was top-secret and Dunton had the unenviable job of keeping some two hundred big-name newsmen at bay for a week. Their tart-tongued, twice-a-day grillings left him unruffled. He was frank, knowledgeable and direct. At the 1945 conference of the allies at San Francisco, he caught the eye of Prime Minister King.

Six weeks after Dunton returned to the Montreal Standard (now Weekend Magazine), Acting Prime Minister Ilsley telephoned to offer him the CBC’s top post J. W. McConnell tried to dissuade him. He offered a prospect that dwarfed the CBC salary of fifteen thousand a year, and he never quite forgave Dunton for deserting his publishing empire—hut the rumor that they have never spoken to each other since is untrue.

Dunton, the year before, had mar-

ried Katnieen (Doff) Bingay, a clearthinking lawyer and linguist, daughter of the vice-president of Consolidated Mining and Smelting. “You know if you take that job you’ll take a beating,” she warned.

Dunton takes a beating just about every day. He gets up about seven o’clock, starts breakfast for his two adopted children, aged two and a half and five, then prepares himself with a hearty meal of porridge, ham and eggs. He reads the Montreal Gazette and, while he dresses, listens to one of his four radios. He hears something he doesn’t like and makes a mental note to mention it to general manager Alphonse Ouimet. He doesn’t like programs to be too esoteric (“The writers think they’re Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders”). And he doesn’t like swearing, which he has just made taboo (“The writer’s showing he’s independent. He’s rough. He’s a big boy”).

If his wife is using the car, a Mercury convertible, Dunton hitches a ride downtown with one of his neighbors. “Did you hear Rawhide last night?” he asks. “Boy, did he do a job on us.” His laugh is almost a snort. He is quick to see a joke, but seldom tells one without getting it backward.

In his red-carpeted office which faces the Parliament Buildings, he raises his feet to his desk and reads the Toronto Globe and Mail, a ritual surviving from his newspaper days. He still thinks of himself as a newspaperman. His suits are usually a little rumpled. At the funeral of Mackenzie King, where morning coats and top hats were the order of the day, Dunton turned up in a casual jacket and no hat at all.

Caught with the Network Down

If no visitors are waiting—radio bigwigs from all over the world drop in —Dunton starts his mail, scribbling atrociously written replies to memos on money, buildings, programs, labor strategy. There is usually some impolite missive to test his control, such as the recent wire from a new mayor who hotly demanded to know when his city would get TV. Dunton explained that the CBC was building TV studios in six cities. In twenty-four smaller cities, private companies were building. If and when somebody built in the mayor’s city, said Dunton, CBC-TV would be glad to serve them.

Dunton’s door is always open. He will be in the midst of dictation when hard-driving Ernie Bushnell, the assistant general manager, comes bursting in from next door. “Davie, we’re caught with our pants down. The eight o’clock network (Bob Hope) show has just canceled. I phoned Buffalo. They didn’t know what was wrong. I called NBC—they’d just decided to cancel and didn’t bother to tell us. I thought you’d better know—you’ll probably have the press boys on your neck.” Dunton makes a note, then without asking a question he picks up his dictation exactly where he left off.

He gets back to his modern hillside home in Rockcliffe Park about seven o’clock and roughhouses on the homespun rugs with the children. In his bath he may get the germ of a new TV program. It was Dunton’s idea to televise the opening of parliament. He suggested the new Sunday night TV program Scope, which has a long-hair appeal. He’d like to see the TV show Living — an evening how-to-do-it — boiled down to an afternoon program for housewives. A few years ago he dropped in to a Toronto program meeting and gave form to a nebulous scheme that became the controversial CBC Wednesday Night.

A couple of times a week he and his wife take in an exhibition of painting or a party, where somebody always argues with him. “You can’t get away from this job,” Dunton says, “but at least you find out what people are thinking.”

The one thing that will strain his self-command is the suggestion that the CBC is government-controlled. “I can tell you flatly,” he says, “the government doesn’t interfere with our day-by-day operation. I feel very strongly about that.”

Gordon Robertson, the scholarly young Deputy Minister for the Department of Northern Affairs, says, “You can only push Davie so far, and then, if it’s a question of principle, he won’t budge.” Dunton didn’t budge last winter when a cabinet minister tried to kill a radio report on unemployment.

The only time Dunton has heen known to retreat in the face of criticism was after the Republican victory in the last presidential election. Ottawa Citizen editor Charlie Woodsworth had remarked on the CBC that he didn’t see any swing to the right. After all, the Republicans had Eisenhower, he said, and George Drew was no Eisenhower. Though the CBC takes no responsibility for its commentators, who are all political stripes, Dunton was moved to write Drew a personal note saying, in effect, that he thought the remark was a bit too rough.

Dunton occasionally has to face a parliamentary investigation on the way he runs the CBC, and it leaves him unruffled as usual. Dunton repeats over and over the principle involved — that the CBC has the duty to let different viewpoints be heard. If an MP questions that principle Dunton refers him to parliament, which had written it into the Broadcasting Act.

His major problem today is what kind of TV the country should have. Compared with this bedrock issue all his other crises are simply sound and fury, mere tempests in a teapot.

“Frankly,” says Dunton, dropping his customary optimism, “1 can’t see where the money’s coming from to build a good Canadian system. And if we don’t build a good Canadian system —well, when I think of that, I don’t go to sleep nights.” A good TV system, he thinks, could do far more than radio to develop Canadian individuality. A poor one could destroy it.

To keep our Canadian identity, he feels, sixty-five to seventy percent of our TV programs must be Canadian. And to keep the country growing intellectually he thinks there must be some programs slightly in advance of popular taste.

In the last parliamentary probe, in 1953, Dunton gave MBs his views in an unprepared speech. “We don’t understand that it’s our job to cram culture down people’s throats,” he told the hard-boiled committee members, “but we don’t think it’s our job to operate a station and let any sort of cheap stuff go out endlessly . . . We think we should try to maintain a wide balance of different types of programs, that while they are entertaining will also convey information 1o the people about their country, and the life around them . . . that bring new insights and new glimpses of beauty and a new appreciation and a wide variety of ideas, that cover a wide range of human values and interests.”

He halted the flow of his off-the-cuff oratory to puff on his pipe—a selfpossessed, slightly rumpled, boyishlooking man. Then, with massive understatement, he went to the heart of his predicament: “Following this policy is a good deal harder than trying to express it. You run into all sorts of clashes of taste.” ★