Instead of following the model of the federally-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which shows commercials, TVO is instead, like fellow provincial counterpart in Knowledge in British Columbia, funded by donations from the public through various avenues including online contributions and on-air pledge drives. Despite viewer donations, the majority of TVO's funding is provided by the Government of Ontario through the Ministry of Education, which provides $30 million annually.
As well, TVO is also responsible for over-the-air broadcasts of the Ontario Legislative Assembly in some remote Northern Ontario communities that don't receive cable television access to the Ontario Parliament Network.
TVO also formerly operated TFO, a separate similar network for Franco-Ontarian audiences. Before the launch of TFO, TVO aired French-language programming on Sundays. Even after TFO's launch, TVO and TFO swapped programming on Sundays well into the 1990s. TFO was separated from TVO and incorporated as an independent agency in 2007.
All TVO rebroadcast transmitters have the call letters CICA, CICO or CICE, followed by a number to denote their status as rebroadcasters.
All TVO transmitters are in Ontario, with one exception — its Ottawa transmitter, CICO-TV-24, is based at the Ryan Tower at Camp Fortune in Gatineau, Quebec, where it shares its site with its Quebec counterpart, Télé-Québec, as well as almost all of the region's television and FM radio signals.
The CBC, acting on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Education's TV branch, eventually applied for and won a licence for the ministry's television station in Toronto, Ontario. CICA, with the mandate of "[using] electronic and associated media to provide educational opportunities for all people in Ontario". The 'CA' in the CICA callsign was derived from the last two letters in the OECA acronym. CBC initially operated the CICA transmitter while the OECA was in charge of programming. OECA assumed all operations of the station, independent of the CBC, when the provincial government declared the Authority an independent corporation in a 1973 Order-in-Council.
CICA Channel 19 began broadcasting on September 27, 1970 with 423,000 watts video and 84,600 watts audio. Its studios were located at 1670 Bayview Avenue and its transmitter was located at 354 Jarvis Street on the CBC tower; the height of its antenna was 550 feet. In 1972, the station moved to its permanent studios at 2180 Yonge Street where it remains today. The station's broadcast name was OECA, sharing the name of its parent organization. In 1974, however, the station started to become unofficially known as TVOntario, a name change that was made official in 1981. The OECA name is still used for official purposes, such as legal notices and copyrights.
In the latter half of the 1970s, the network began adding rebroadcast transmitters in other Ontario communities. Its very first rebroadcast transmitter was added in Ottawa on October 25, 1975, under the callsign CICO.
Moreover, programming changes were announced later that day: thirteen hours of new weekly children's educational programming was added, Studio 2 was replaced by The Agenda, and More to Life and Vox were cancelled. The move to digitize services represents a transition; The Globe and Mail quoted TVOntario CEO Lisa de Wilde saying “While television will remain an important medium for TVO, the days of defining ourselves as only a broadcaster are past.”
In 2002 the Independent Learning Centre, which is responsible for distance education at the elementary and secondary school level as well as GED testing, was transferred from the Ministry of Education to TVOntario.
TVO shows a mixture of original shows, children's programming, British imports, and movies from around the world. TVO's daytime schedule is mostly children's programming. One of the network's most famous children's series is Polka Dot Door. In the evenings, TVO runs a mixture of documentary, drama and public affairs programming for adult audiences, including the popular Saturday Night at the Movies, which presents classic films with commentary and interview segments. Late at night, TVO shows educational programming that is designed for teachers to tape and show in school. Much of TVO's instructional programming also airs on public television stations in the United States.
Initially, all dramatic programming was required to have some educational content. Actors, journalists or writers were hired to provide commentary on shows that would place them within an educational context. For instance Tom Gratton's War was bookmarked by segments that would use scenes from the series to discuss film making techniques. Episodes of The Prisoner were hosted by journalist Warner Troyer whose segments included interviews with the actors and a discussion of various psychyological, philosophical or sociological themes regarding the series. Similarly Doctor Who was hosted by science fiction author Judith Merril who would use discuss each week's episode to explore various themes in science and science fiction. Saturday Night at the Movies continued to follow this format long after the requirement was dropped because of the popularity of its host, Elwy Yost.
Although French language programs were shown on TVO since its inception and gradually increased in number since then, they eventually moved to the French arm of TVOntario, TFO (originally known as La Chaîne française). When TFO started, TVO would run its English language shows on that channel on Sundays after noon, while the English TVO channel presented La Chaîne française programming at that time. This was done to give francophones without cable some French service, and discontinued in the 1990s after TFO began launching broadcast transmitters in some Franco-Ontarian communities.