“The problem with Canadian TV”
(The article was originally published Dec 10, 1991 in the Toronto Star)
The ‘Can-con rule’ is supposed to foster better homegrown television. It does just the opposite.
Toronto Star – Toronto, Ont.
Author: Oleh Iwanyshyn and Carl Knutson
Date: Dec 10, 1991
Start Page: A.19
Text Word Count: 1141
Every year Canadian taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on our TV industry. That’s the price, we’re told, to help foster a national identity distinct from that of our American neighbor.
Yet, despite this investment, our primetime TV viewing is dominated by American shows. Eighty per cent of primetime viewing in English Canada originates in the U.S. Worse, it’s rare to find a Canadian drama or comedy series in Canada’s Top 20. As a mass appeal medium, Canadian TV has been a failure.
Ironically, the root cause of this failure has been the 60 per cent Canadian content rule. The rule is supposed to be a bulwark against the U.S. onslaught. In practice, however, it is nothing more than a cultural Maginot Line.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) requires Canadian TV stations to fill 60 per cent of their schedule with Canadian programs. The emphasis is on volume. The well intentioned assumption is: if you offer Canadians a large enough choice of Canadian shows, they’ll find what they need. They won’t have to choose American.
However, by emphasizing volume ahead of popularity of programming, the 60 per cent rule fails to recognize the inherent unifying power of popular television.
When millions of Canadians watched Paul Henderson score the game- winning goal on Sept. 28, 1972, the nation felt more than just pride in hockey. TV turned that hockey game into a mass shared experience. The resulting conversation, debate, and emotion helped engender a sense of cultural unity.
Mass appeal television can do that. It can offer viewers a common experience, the basis for a relationship. It gets people talking about what they have shared.
By creating TV that isn’t popular to Canadians we are stripping the medium of its power. We’re robbing Canadians of the opportunity to share their common values – or create new ones.
This is not to say that all Canadian TV must aim for high ratings. We’re talking about balance. For example, no matter how well done, information shows tend to get lower ratings than popular dramas because they demand more of the viewer.
Of course Canadian broadcasters would love to fill their schedules with popular Canadian shows. But TV is expensive. Having to fill 60 per cent of their schedule with expensive-looking Canadian shows, to compete with U.S. products, puts broadcasters behind a financial the 8-ball.
Their solution? Co-productions, involving one or more foreign partners, usually for a drama. But the result, as many a story editor will tell you, is the disemboweling of the drama. Because the target marketplace is no longer just Canada, the content must shift to universal themes whose meaning remains unchanged across borders.
So, for example, if a Canadian series producer wanted to do a story about an English cop during the FLQ crisis who tries to walk the fine line between legitimate democratic protest and the need to preserve law and order, a U.S. co-production deal would reduce the story to a cop fighting terrorists.
U.S. producers would argue that the particular historical context would have no dramatic impact outside Canada. Yet for Canadian viewers this foreign editorial input would disembowel the true guts of the drama. It would surrender the drama’s ‘home field’ advantage – the same quality that attracts Canadians in huge numbers to Canadian rather than U.S. news shows.
Examples of the problem with co-productions abound. The classic is Night Heat, now in syndication, which was set against a backdrop any Torontonian would recognize but was intended to look like ‘Anybigcity, U.S.A.’ Danger Bay and My Secret Identity were also generically North American.
In drama, home field advantage lies with themes that we read, talk and think about every day, like the fear of being dominated by the economic might of the U.S; environmental degradation; the anger at our politicians; animosity between French and English; the suffering of native peoples. These would give Canadian dramas an edge over the U.S. competition. Yet, these are the sort of themes co- productions generally avoid.
Another unfortunate consequence of drama series co-productions is that they can be very successful financially, yet remain unpopular with Canadians. This is because the Canadian market provides only a fraction of their cost. The rest is covered by sales abroad, government subsidies, and tax write-offs.
In the ’89-’90 season a series needed 1.4 million viewers to break into Canada’s Top 20. Most Canadian drama series, however, fall in the range of the Canadian ratings ghetto – 600,000 to 1,000,000 viewers.
Ghetto existence is depressing. It diminishes self-esteem and dreams of success. That’s exactly what’s happened to the Canadian TV industry. How can we break out of this ghetto? We offer two solutions:
Get rid of the 60 per cent rule. It’s an albatross. It creates a massive amount of TV product for which there is little demand. Instead, require networks and stations to produce a minimum number of popular shows each season. If they fail, penalize them. Force them to spend more next season. If they fail again, withdraw their license.
Stop government subsidies for drama series production. Instead, redirect the money into TV movies and mini-series.
Series are expensive. Depending on the number and length of episodes, a season can cost $10-20 million. That’s why they need co- production deals.
TV movies generally cost $1-3 million. With money redirected from series, they can be financed totally in Canada. Their content can be directed toward serving the unique needs of Canadians, not the international market.
Canada’s biggest successes, both critical and popular, in the last decade have been movies and mini-series – Anne of Green Gables, Love and Hate, Riel, Chautauqua Girl. Tracking their performance over the years reveals they have substantially higher average ratings than weekly series.
Choosing movies over weekly series minimizes the risks and maximizes the chance of popular success. If a series fails, its failure continues over a season’s worth of episodes or longer. If a movie fails the next one represents a brand new start.
More importantly, concentrating on TV movies will increase the creative pool in our industry. Instead of the dozen or so groups creating series, we could end up with a hundred doing one-time movies and mini-series. The chance for a ratings breakthrough increases immensely.
There is a downside. Producing more movies and fewer series will reduce volume. We won’t have 60 per cent Canadian content.
What will we have? Event television. Every week of our TV season, two or three original movies that represent the best of Canadian drama. Movies about characters and situations of interest to Canadians. Movies with the potential of attracting a large Canadian audience. Movies that help foster our uniquely Canadian identity.
* Oleh Iwanyshyn and Carl Knutson are Toronto-based screenwriters.
Caption: Drawing (Tim Young): Man watching Canadian television his sets is dwarfed by one with an American flag
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