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Canadian Television Embracing Irrelevance?

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Since covering the Banff World Television Festival and hearing the town hall there on the future of Canadian television, and since starting the TV, Eh? What's Up in Canadian Television website, I've taken more of a personal interest in the state of Canadian television today. But now that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is undertaking a review of the industry that could profoundly affect the quality and quantity of Canadian programming, I find myself incapable of writing anything intelligent about it. Because I don't get it.

I don't understand what the CRTC is for if not to protect the public interest in the use of our airwaves. And I don't understand how allowing Canadian broadcasters to make money duplicating the content we get on American channels and burying Canadian series is in our best interests.

If I can watch House on FOX, why should I care if Global's got it? You know what I can't see on my American stations? The Jane Show. Falcon Beach. How sad is it that those are the only two Canadian series I can think of on Global, our #2 Canadian network? And neither are currently airing.

The broadcasters want to increase our cable bill so the formerly free channels like CTV and Global get a piece of it. They want to get rid of the 12 minutes per hour limit on advertising, a proposal even advertisers don't support. None of this will improve the quality or quantity of programming for the public.

Creative groups want networks to increase the amount they spend on Canadian drama to a "whopping" 7% of their advertising revenues, an increase that will help get more and better homegrown programming on the air without adding to the taxpayer or cable bill burden.

One member of the CRTC, a man some are apparently saying will soon lead the regulatory body, dismisses the suggestion that they should mandate how much money and airtime is budgeted for Canadian content:

"You know, I know the purposes for all those recommendations and, you know, I see the happy coincidence between your members’ interests and the Canadian public interest," said Richard French, "but I submit to you that there is not a hell of a lot left for a programmer to do after you or we have told them to do all those things, is there?"

There is no brain cell in my head that can make sense of that. Does that mean he sees no problem with the Canadian television industry as it currently stands, or that the CRTC shouldn't be in the business of fixing it? Remind me again what their purpose is – to protect the interests of broadcasters? Wait, no, "communications in the public interest" is the slogan they trumpet on their website.

It's not just the CRTC or the broadcasters I can't figure out. It's the audience, too. If one more person tells me, even in jest, that Canadian TV sucks – someone who hasn't seen a Canadian show since The Beachcombers – I'm going to club them over the head with a piece of driftwood.

Over the last year we've seen Intelligence, Corner Gas, The Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Trailer Park Boys, Slings and Arrows, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Instant Star, Dragons' Den, Canada's Next Top Model, Canadian Idol, Whistler, Kenny vs. Spenny, ReGenesis, Robson Arms, and Alice, I Think, among many others. I don't love them all, haven't even seen them all, but if there's nothing on that list that appeals to you, you should not be allowed to handle a remote control.

About Diane Kristine Wild

  • Reed Solomon

    Ah, but what makes us Canadian is repackaging American shows for Canadian consumption. We’re all watching the American Networks anyways. Just let them come up here and instead offer more incentives for showing Canadian productions. And get the CBC out of the hands of Toronto Elitists. We can have ONE saturday night without the maple leafs.

  • PM Palmer

    If there is so much great Canadian content already being aired (as indicated in the long list given), then the real issue is that Canadians aren’t CHOSING to watch it. So the approach is to have the CRTC FORCE Canadians to watch it? Talk about clubbing people over the head. A nation chooses their own culture by what they spend their free time (and disposable income) on- that’s how culture develops. Not forced down people’s throats by elitists who think they know better.

  • Diane Kristine

    You misread what I said about the shows in the list – not that they are not being watched, but that if someone has not seen any of them, or has seen them all and does not like any of them, they aren’t qualified to be discussing television in the first place.

    Some of the shows are being watched in large numbers. Corner Gas, Rick Mercer Report, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Canadian Idol, Canada’s Next Top Model, etc. regularly beat their American competition. Trailer Park Boys and Slings and Arrows are respected hits on cable networks; TPB was turned into a movie this year.

    The CRTC does not have the power to force people to watch anything. They do have the power to reverse their 1999 decision that saw the number of Canadian scripted series being produced drastically reduced, and the power to get broadcasters to schedule Canadian shows during primetime when people are more likely to come across them, and the power to get more funding to publicize the shows so people know they’re there. The rest is up to us as an audience. But at least give us that chance to develop our own culture.

  • PM Palmer

    Actually, no I didn’t misread about the shows in the list- I understood that point when reading the original article just fine. (But thanks for telling me what I was thinking all the same- it seems to be the Canadian way). I was using that convenient long list to point out that there already is a significant amount of Canadian content being aired, and yet it’s not being chosen by the majority of Canadian viewers all the time. It’s all fine and good that there are Canadian productions that “regularly beat their American competition” (which is apparently all that matters). All the more reason not to increase the amount of regulation, as some Canadian productions are able to successfully compete already in the current environment. People are making that choice based on what they want to watch. If it is good, they’ll watch it, regardless of what type of production it is. We shouldn’t have to be giving an edge to Canadian productions (by regulating that they get prime time slots for example) just because they are Canadian. Let them stand on their own merits, airing at the times that the audience, advertisers and networks will support.
    Why do we feel that we need more regulation to make sure that there’s even more Canadian content? Because there are always the elitists that feel that it’s never enough. When is the percentage ever going to be enough? As long as there is ever an American show that out performs Canadian productions, there will still be those that say we need more Canadian content. When all of prime time is filled exclusively with Canadian content, then they can pat themselves on the back and say “See, look at all the great Canadian content people are choosing to watch.”
    I’d be less concerned about this whole issue if I truly believed that it was all in the interest of being pro-Canadian, instead of really being anti-American. Somehow I think there’d be less push for more regulation and Canadian content if instead large numbers of Canadians were watching lawn bowling from Peru 24 hours a say. And even if that was the case, then so be it. Canadians should be able to make their own choices as to what their culture is to be, whatever that may be (even if it is similar to Peruvian, or *gasp* American culture).
    Already we do not have the degree of free choice that we should. For example, we have no choice about our tax dollars going to the CBC. We have no input into how the CBC spends those tax dollars (which it can use to make embarrassing productions like “Talking with Americans” or horribly biased news productions). The CRTC selects which foreign networks are deemed suitable for Canadians to view (USA Network is apparently not appropriate- maybe because of its title- but Al Jazeera is). Satellite feeds must be come from one of the two Canadian providers, and the feeds are filtered as to what can be viewed.
    It is true that the CRTC can’t force us to watch anything. But it certainly can dictate (it was a little unnerving to read the word “power” that many times associated with that topic) what options we do have to watch. As I said, if elitists continue to push their agenda, they’d have the government completely regulate (read dictate) all our viewing choices. All of our prime time (if not all our broadcast day) would be Canadian content, whether we want it or not, in which case we the only real choice would be to turn it off or not. And that seems to be what Canada is becoming all about- limited choices, as dictated by an elite few. (No wonder we feel so threatened by American ideals).

  • Diane Kristine

    We shouldn’t have to be giving an edge to Canadian productions (by regulating that they get prime time slots for example) just because they are Canadian.

    The issue, to me, is that Canadian shows are far from being given an edge, but find themselves in a very uneven playing field. Canada was the only country in a study of 18 Western nations not to have indigenous programming in the top ratings. We get American programming at the same time as the Americans, simulcast so our networks can reap the financial benefits and the huge marketing push the American networks do for their own shows.

    Which is great, for audience and networks, and you’d have to tear the ability to watch American shows at the same time from my cold, dead hands, but it also means Canadian shows are in direct competition with the largest exporter of entertainment in the world – quality entertainment that of course we will continue to watch as long as it’s available to us. Here’s the thing: no one is advocating taking away or even begging Canadians not to watch American programming. If Peruvian lawn bowling were half as entertaining, I’d hope Canadians would watch that too.

    The creative groups are asking for 7 percent of ad revenues – not your tax money – to go to Canadian programming, not all of prime time. 7 percent of what broadcasters are already making by buying American shows we can already see on the American networks to supplement that “long list” (which I would argue is sadly short if you’re trying to use it a list of all the shows produced by a country in a year) of shows we can make in a year.

    We protect our music industry, publishing industry, movie industry in the same way for the same reasons. People fought against radio Cancon rules too – which dictate now that something like 35% of programming must be Canadian – until the industry started to thrive, people stopped saying “Canadian music sucks,” and no one cared that we were being “forced” to listen to our own music, because our own music is damn good. The same will happen to Canadian TV if the industry is allowed to thrive.

    7 percent of ad revenues does not take away from your tax dollars, and does not force you to watch anything you don’t want to watch. It does force our broadcasters to use the public airwaves in a way that would add to the entertainment we already get, not subtract from it.

  • PM Palmer

    Fair enough, though that is still a small part of the much larger issue of Canadian broadcasting and individual choices.
    Remarkable how Canadian industries need to be so protected- essentially from the consumer choices that Canadians themselves are making.
    If Canadian content rules are intended to give a Canadian industry an opportunity to demonstrate itself (as described by the Canadian music industry and radio requirements), then once that industry has proven itself, the content and spending requirements shouldn’t be needed. Yet they would still seem to be in place for radio. If the industry is so good and people are content with it, there really shouldn’t be the need to dictate the amount of content any longer. The amount of Canadian content being broadcast will be determined by the demand from the Canadian consumer, as it should be.
    By the way, as productions are the issue at hand, perhaps it would have been more appropriate (and perhaps less accusatory) to label the US as the “largest producer of entertainment in the world”, rather than “exporter”. American productions are made first and foremost for the domestic audience, without much consideration given to export. Contrary to what many Canadians want to believe, there is not a concerted effort on the part of Americans to impose themselves on the rest of the world. The US is the largest exporter of entertainment only because there are so many willing importers.

  • Diane Kristine

    I don’t think of exporting as a bad thing, so didn’t mean anything at all accusatory by that. Their product is in demand worldwide and they profit from it, but so do we, both financially and entertainment-ally.

    There are other issues around Cancon, but this post was particular to the recent CRTC hearings which could drastically affect what happens to the industry. I think the Canadian TV industry is far from thriving and can’t compete with the money and marketing machine behind American shows, and to decide we don’t even care frustrates me. If you do care about the issues but have decided to oppose what the cultural groups are asking for, that’s fair.

    But the people asking for support to put our own stories on our own airwaves are not who I consider the elite. The broadcasters and the CRTC have all the economic and political power in this situation, and they are making decisions in the absence of audience reaction, both because they don’t care what’s in the public interest, and we aren’t interested enough to speak up.

    It would be enlightening to see what would happen to the now-thriving Canadian music industry if Cancon rules weren’t in place – I’m guessing newer artists would have a difficult time getting noticed. They’ve got the same issues with competing against more American marketing money. And I think there’s an argument to be made that the CRTC’s role to protect the public interest in the use of our airwaves means making sure our artists and culture gets priority. But the music industry is definitely in a position of strength compared to TV.

  • Dave Hanley

    Although I would concede that there are many talented individuals in the Canadian Film and Television Industry, I find that, when they come together, for the most part the product is inferior for three reaons: one, most productions contain so many references to how ‘Canadian’ they are that it mars the final product (and interest outside of Canada); two, a consistently forced effort for productions to be ‘current’ and address issues (see “Little Mosque on the Prarie’ or any episode of Degrassi, old or new) and third, for some reason, outside of subject matter, few productions take any risk especially with production value… how many Medium-Wide shots can Canadian Television endure? Observe Street Legal, ENG, Traders, Corner Gas and you’ll see what I mean… directors with any sense of daring or adventure work in Europe or the US. I believe the first and most important step is to stop celebrating every single thing we put on celluloid(do you have any idea how many “Canadian entertainment at risk” forums there are?) and start taking some genuine risks. Also, our country is delightfully inclusive and tolerant… we shouldn’t have to force our entertainment to do the same if it doesn’t happen organically. I am far from optimistic because, at the moment, there is way too much power in the hands of civil servants who have somehow bluffed their way into the entertainment industry and not nearly enough in the hands of the creative brothers and sisters who actually create…