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The Invisible Audience: Canadian TV

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I covered the Banff World Television Festival last month because I'm interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of TV. I'm interested from the perspective of a kid who likes to take my toys apart to see how they work and I write about it from the viewpoint of a fan.

Even more than writing about the industry itself, I'd enjoy writing about the new homegrown show I'm enjoying — that is, if I knew about such a show in the first place; and enjoyed it in the second place. Those two events so rarely coincide, Halley's comet looks like a pest.

I've written before about the invisible networks, about realizing how little Canadian programming I stumble across, how difficult it is to even seek it out, and lamenting the fact that the poor Canadian industry can't compete against the giant American TV marketing machine.

But now that I'm motivated to at least be aware of what's out there in Canadian television so that I'm not overlooking programs I might enjoy and programs that might reflect stories I wouldn't otherwise see, I find that Canadian television does not seem to see me as its future.

At the Banff festival, I attended a town hall session on the future of Canadian TV with representatives from funders, regulators, content producers, and broadcasters, talking to an audience of the same. Now I think I understand another layer of the invisible networks problem. Listening to executives talk about my own country's product, I felt completely invisible. The discussion was focused on everything but the Canadian television viewer.

I'm not necessarily the typical viewer. At this point, I'm probably more motivated than average to seek out Canadian programming. Unfortunately, the reason for my recent motivation is not a reproducible marketing strategy: I got addicted to the blog of a Canadian television writer who's insightful, passionate, and funny about a wide range of subjects, but particularly the industry he works in. And he kept talking about shows I'd never heard of, like Jeff Ltd., Billable Hours and The Jane Show.

I started to be conscious of the fact that all these Canadian shows were appearing without a blip on my radar and wondered why. Was I just not paying attention? Or was the industry not paying attention to me?

That writer, Denis McGrath, ended up using me as a case study of how the industry is not reaching viewers (TV Mandarins Meet the Viewer: Part One and Part Two), and his questions probed the ways the industry has failed to connect to me in the present. On top of the discussions at Banff, I'm starting to feel the industry isn't particularly interested in connecting to me in the future, either.

Listening to executives fretting about international markets felt a little insulting. What about me? Wouldn't they like to make a TV show I might want to watch and then let me know about it so I can watch it? I heard "let's protect Canadian content in the scary new world of the unregulated Internet, but let's not make it too Canadian or we can't sell it."

I heard it suggested that successful shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys might be too Canadian for international markets, despite the fact that the former had just signed a US distributor, and the latter is broadcast on BBC America. Not to mention the apparently unimportant fact that Canadians like to watch them, too.

I had to wonder if, in their hunger for the secondary markets of the future, they'd forgotten their primary audience of the future, an audience that in the past made shows like Degrassi, Slings & Arrows, and DaVinci's Inquest successful within our borders before they were embraced outside them.

The future of Canadian television also seems to overlook the primary product in the zeal to create secondary products. The suits talked about how to entice viewers through means other than television – that is, how to use new technologies and media to drive people to programming and vice versa. They talked about audiovisual content on the web, cell phone videos, and the need to train and support more Canadian artists to produce this new multi-platform content.

Despite a consensus that the Internet would enhance rather than replace broadcast television, I didn't hear them talk about how to entice Canadian viewers with the shows themselves. Lost wasn't a success because it managed to provide engrossing extras like clue-filled websites and online games. Lost's extras were a success because people wanted to spend more than an hour a week with the show. What was on their television screens had hooked them. The Internet extras fed their addiction and now they're happily codependent.

Today, a segment of the audience is beginning to expect web-based extras and that segment is growing, but there has to be something there before there can be something on top of it. Canadian TV can't afford to produce a Lost or market a Lost, but there's a lesson that shouldn't be lost – the show's the thing. The extras are…extra. And both need to connect with the audience.

The Banff panel threw around the word "quality" a lot: "We have to make a quality product." But I didn't hear how the Canadian television industry plans to meet that goal of creating more quality shows, strategies to overcome barriers to making quality shows, or what happens when a quality show falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it.

I have no doubt the future of television will include multi-platform programming with an international reach. The future of television will depend on finding new sources of revenue to supplement the declining value of on-air advertising. But the future of television will also depend on loyal viewers, and you can't create a future with them by ignoring them in the present.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • AlbertaLife

    We have not done enough in terms of Canadian content, and a lot of the CanCon we have simply sucks (e.g., Jeff Ltd., which is a textbook example of what happens when untalented actors and writers get together).

    I have been lamenting the lack of CanCon, and I have been calling for the adoption of European law, which states that you have to show 60% domestic content.

  • Diane Kristine

    I hate to say it, but I don’t know that more Canadian content is the answer right now, when we can’t produce and promote what is on the air now properly. I think we should focus on doing it right first, then doing more of it.

  • Brent

    Dianne, I’m not entirely convinced that both you and AlbertaLife aren’t right and wrong at the same time. I think that there are loopholes in the regulations that need to be plugged, like the ones which allow networks to show a lot of their Cancon during the summer, and which define “peak viewing hours” (aka “prime time”) in such a way that the evening and late night local newscasts count towards a station’s peak viewing hour quota. Make the stations make the quota on a quarterly basis rather than an annual one is just one way to go. At the same time we need to find some way to encourage quality programming in shows that aren’t co-productions with some foreign network or did we all forget the farce that was Canwest’s “Adventures of Sinbad”, shot in South Africa and money from All-American TV and with only a couple of Canadian Actors and government money to make it “Canadian”.