“Bits and Bytes”: The 80s Canadian TV show that showed people at home how computers worked

By on September 12, 2015

Although it seems pretty dated now,“Bits and Bytes” is a kind of fascinating look at just one way the basic principles of computers were being taught back in the 1980s, through practical demonstrations of various hardware and software, interviews of computer professionals and with animated sequences explaining the more abstract concepts.

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Bits and Bytes” was a Canadian television series, produced by TVOntario in 1983. It starred Luba Goy as the instructor, and Billy Van as the neophyte computer student who apparently doesn’t know anything about computers. Goy — who was seated in an office, with a projection screen in front of her — would address Billy Van through a remote video link, and she would instruct Van as to what Van he needed to do and then sit back and allow him to learn for himself.

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Each episode also included short animated vignettes to explain key concepts, as well as videotaped segments on various developments in computing. In this episode, the third in the first season, Billy gets to learn what a computer program is, what its basic elements are, and we also get to look at the basic elements of the computer itself.

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Each episode covered a unique topic — such as computer generated music, graphics and animations, programming in AppleSoft BASIC, reading/writing files using floppy disks, games, graphics tablets, etc. — and Billy had various computers at his disposal, including Atari 800, Commodore PET, Tandy TRS-80, and Apple II, to name just a few. He also had access to datasettes, printers, disk drivers, modems and many other items.

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The intro sequence featured a montage of common computer terms such as “ERROR,” “LOGO” and “ROM,” as well as various snippets of simple computer graphics and video effects, accompanied by a theme song — composed by Harry Forbes and George Axon — that reminds us of “Neon Lights” by Kraftwerk, from 1978.

Patterns of light on the video screen
Images bright flow in an endless stream
Bits of Information, Logic black & white
Bits and Bytes of information turn darkness to light

The series was sponsored, in part, by grants from Radio Shack, a division of Tandy Electronics Limited, Digital Equipment of Canada Limited, and NABU Manufacturing Corporation, whose logo appears at the beginning and end of every episode. NABU shut down in 1988, yet the station never removed the logo from the show.

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In the second series, “Bits and Bytes 2,” produced almost a decade later in 1991, Billy Van assumed the role of instructor and taught a new female student, played by Victoria Stokle. The new series (1991-1993) focused primarily on IBM PC compatibles (i.e. Intel-based 286 or 386 computers) running DOS and early versions of Windows, as well as the newer and updated technologies of that era.

Another similar show — accompanying “Bits and Bytes” — was “The Academy,” hosted by Jack Livesley. Viewers could register with TVOntario, get several workbooks that contained extra information including programs. The legendary Jim Butterfield provided all the computer expertise on this program. At the end of the show, Butterfield would respond to viewer mail sent in from those watching at home.

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Billy Van was born in Toronto, Canada in 1934, and entered show business at the age of twelve, when he and his four brothers formed a singing group that toured Canada and Europe. Van eventually segued into acting, becoming a manic comic actor who starred in CBC-TV’s “Nightcap” in the 1960s and the “Hilarious House of Frightenstein,” in the ’70s, which starred Vincent Price, with Van as host and a variety of characters, including The Count, a vampire who preferred pizza to blood, and who wore tennis shoes as well as a cape. The hour-long episodes were taped at Hamilton’s CHCH-TV and are still seen in syndication around the world.

While a familiar fixture on Canadian TV for decades, he also worked in the United States on variety shows such as “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” “The Ray Stevens Show,” and “The Bobby Vinton Show.” He even gained fame for the Colt .45 beer commercials he made for 15 years and for which he won a Clio Award. Eventually Billy Van returned to Toronto to work in shows like “Party Game,” “Bizarre,” with John Byner, the “Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show” and, curiously, this little computer show you’re reading about right now.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.