“Why Canadian TV drama avoids gut issues”
(The article was originally published on March 17, 1992 in the Toronto Star)
Toronto Star – Toronto, Ont.
Author: Oleh Iwanyshyn and Carl Knutson
Date: Mar 17, 1992
Start Page: A.19
Text Word Count: 1274
IMAGINE SEEING THIS drama on TV: constitutional negotiations break down, Quebec declares independence and, a week later, a protest by frustrated English Montrealers turns into a riot. Brutal suppression by police, fully captured by TV cameras, results in the deaths of some rioters. English Canada is enraged. The feds send in the army to restore order. Army loyalty splits along language lines. Instead of order we see what may be the beginning of a civil war . . . .
An absurd scenario? Perhaps not.
But will we ever see it portrayed on TV? Not a chance. Why? Because it’s provocative. It exposes contentious political realities. In a TV industry kept afloat by government subsidies, portraying our country’s political realities is simply not done. Little wonder that English Canadians have yet to see a TV movie dramatization of the 1970 FLQ crisis.
But how can you ignore politics when the government is a major player in just about every important conflict in the country? Conflicts like: the antagonism between French and English; U.S. domination of Canada; the destruction of our environment; corruption and cover-ups in our national institutions; the struggles of native people.
These are among the most divisive issues on the minds and lips of Canadians today. Dramas can confront the fears underlying these divisions. They can offer the experience of the other side. They have a great capacity to heal, to bring Canadians closer together. But such dramas have no credibility if they avoid the political dimension of our Canadian reality. They cannot avoid being provocative.
For instance, what if one were to script a fictional drama about a native blockade, not unlike Oka. Do you ignore the role of the provincial government, the feds, the PMO, the relationship between the various levels of government, police and army? If you did, the result is not provocative drama. It’s a fairy tale.
Some would argue that we already have provocative drama. Recent CBC dramas like Love And Hate, about convicted murderer Colin Thatcher, Conspiracy Of Silence, about the killing of native teenager Betty Osbourne, and Justice Denied, about the wrongful imprisonment of Donald Marshall, dealt with extraordinary criminal events which occurred a decade or two earlier. They were exciting dramas that attracted millions of viewers. But all were about events of the past.
All three were based on court records and, if anything, were cautiously provocative. This caution is rooted in an experience the CBC had with a docudrama called Tar Sands in the 1970s.
The drama attributed certain dialogue to former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed which he found libelous. He sued and won. The lesson was not lost on CBC management. When you do a provocative drama: stick to the public record.
But the price of this approach is crippling. How many important conflicts in this country are we ignoring because a convenient court case hasn’t provided us with “safe” testimony? Will a drama about possible Quebec separation have to wait five years after separation occurs? Aren’t we straight-jacketing ourselves by tying our dramatic myth-making only to historical fact?
Our cautious approach has made us prisoners of the past. Let your TV serve as the litmus test. If a Canadian drama is set in the present, it won’t be controversial. If it is controversial, it will be rooted in the past.
The way to break out of this straightjacket is to do what dramatists have done for thousands of years: fictionalize events.
There’s only one problem: Most Canadian TV dramas are subsidized by the government. For cultural bureaucrats who dispense these subsidies, it’s far safer to greenlight a comedy, a romance, or a drama whose parameters are defined by public record, than to go out on a limb with something controversial. Particularly if the source of controversy is an issue being debated at the political level.
A cultural bureaucrat who “greenlights” a politically controversial TV drama risks his job. An agency dispensing government funds (CBC, Telefilm, OFDC) risks its budget.
But it’s not just the cultural bureaucrats and agencies to whom these concerns apply. Writers, directors and producers – all of whom depend on government subsidy – are put in a position of self- censorship. It’s not just fear. It’s being practical. Why pitch a project you know will get turned down?
The problem is endemic to the system. TV drama in Canada will always be dependent on government funding. Cultural bureaucrats will always feel the pressure of being accountable to the government. But for the Canadian public the current system is nothing less than a betrayal of trust. We expect exciting contemporary drama but we almost never get it.
Therefore, we propose a new accountability for our TV funding agencies: accountability to the Canadian public. The means of accountability? TV ratings. After all, it is the Canadian public who pays for our TV industry. It is the Canadian public who watches its product. Let us tie the fate of our cultural bureaucrats to the popular success of the shows that they approve.
The demand that TV drama be popular will force the cultural bureaucrats to take risks. Of course, the natural tendency will be to choose a popular genre which is least controversial, like a romance or historical piece. But the pressure to create at least a minimal number of popular dramas will force cultural bureaucrats to look at every genre capable of attracting large audiences.
On that score, provocative contemporary dramas are attractive candidates. There’s strong evidence Canadians are attracted in large numbers to provocative themes. Conspiracy Of Silence drew almost 2.5 million viewers; Love And Hate, almost 3.5 million. The audience potential of dramas set in the present is clearly high.
Most Canadian dramas fall in the range of 600,000 to 1.1 million. We can afford to have some Canadian dramas that appeal to smaller audiences. But when all we can show for our TV season is one or two hit dramas, we’re losing the struggle for culrural sovereignty.
Putting a premium on popularity is also a recognition of a blunt reality: as a medium for affecting national values and identity, TV is most powerful when it’s popular.
When a drama captures the imagination of a broad cross-section of Canadians it creates a mass shared experience. It is this experience which then serves as the basis for participation in our culture. We think about it, we talk about it, we may argue about it. For better or for worse, that’s how TV weaves our cultural fabric. Dramas low in popularity simply do not have the critical mass to set this mechanism into play.
Critics argue that if we pursue popularity we’ll just end up making American dramas here in Canada. Nonsense. If we try and parrot the Americans they’ll beat us hands down. We can beat them when we offer Canadians something the Americans won’t.
Americans won’t create provocative dramas about the struggles of our native people. Or the hostility between the French and English. These are our issues. There are dozens of them. They give our dramas a home-field advantage. For the same reason that we choose Canadian over American news programs, we will choose dramas that are relevant and important to us over the foreign competition.
Let’s make TV ratings readily accessible to the public, as they are in America. That way programming decisions will become a public act. No more secrecy. No more excuses. No more post-facto rationalizations. Ratings will give our cultural bureaucrats tangible goals. And Canadians will be the judge of whether the millions of tax dollars invested in our TV industry are worth it.
* Oleh Iwanyshyn and Carl Knutson are Toronto-based screenwriters.
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