A Canadian film editorial brought to you by The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV

Amazing! It's a Canadian Fall TV Season!
...plus: CBC vs. the private networks


Something kind of odd occurred this previous week -- something that I think is almost unprecedented in Canadian English language television. We had the start of a Canadian TV season!

What I mean by that is that it's customary for the networks to unveil the American fall TV season, bombarding the airwaves with literally a hundred or more new and returning American series. But in Canada, where TV series are produced infrequently, the notion of a fall "season" is rather an optimistic overstatement. TV series tend to dribble in, one by one, slithering under the cultural radar as it were (if you'll excuse my mixing of metaphors).

But this year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has unleashed its own tsunami of programs -- Rumours, Intelligence, Jozi-H, October 1970, and even the British import, Doctor Who (as well as returning series like This Hour Has 22 Minutes). An entire primetime schedule of programs premiering within days of each other -- sure, October 1970 is technically a mini-series, but serialized in 8 hour long episodes, it will continue through the next couple of months.

Was this wise? Should the CBC really unleash a bunch of series all at once? Maybe yes, maybe no. But you've got to admit one thing -- it's gutsy. Instead of apologetically slipping a series onto the schedule, hoping not to be crushed in the hurricane of American series, the CBC is standing up, weathering the storm, and, in the words (I believe) of Pierre Trudeau, saying: "Here we are!"

Unfortunately, early numbers indicate ratings for most of the shows have been poor -- even dismal. Though, ironically, one can't really say that's a reflection on any of the series' inherent quality. Good opening numbers that drop off dramatically reflect on a show's quality (the audience gave it a try...and turned off) -- but poor opening numbers indicates the audience didn't even try. Why? Well, promotion is one culprit -- there wasn't much and what there was was poor. I came upon one internet blog where the writer dismissed Rumours as terrible...based solely on the commercials! Yup, he hadn't seen one frame of film of an actual episode, but decided it was awful anyway. (I think a future essay I write should deal entirely with the sorry state of Canadian commercials and marketing for Canadian movies and TV series).

Having seen only the first episodes of all the above shows, I'm not prepared to pass judgement yet, but what I will say is that it's a well rounded schedule -- from sitcoms, to thrillers, to dramas -- and, perhaps surprisingly, they're all perfectly respectable efforts. That is, when detractors of Canadian TV get into full swing, they like to bandy about words like "embarrassing" and "awful" -- and none of these shows are that. I'm not saying (yet) whether they're great shows, good shows, or simply "ho hum" time fillers that don't warrant a second season, but give the programmers their due: there's not an egregiously rotten apple in the bushel. At first glance, the most "commercial" is the medical drama Jozi-H, about various doctors -- including some Canadians -- at a Johannesburg emergency room; it's a transparent attempt to mimic the hit U.S. series, E.R., only jazzed up with an exotic locale and the old world/new world clash you just won't get in most North American cities. Sure it's a rip-off, but it's a pretty good rip off with its fast pace and mix of dilemmas, both moral and medical.

And all this got me thinking.

Look, I didn't really want to talk about the CBC again -- I didn't. I've referred to it in some previous editorials, and I was hoping to move on to other topics that I've jotted down on napkins and sticky notes. But let's look at it one more time.

There are a lot of people who don't like the CBC and feel it should be shut down -- claiming the private networks can do the same job as the CBC, only better.

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

The CBC has just premiered a whole slew of new and returning series -- shows unavailable anywhere else in the world (an exception is Doctor Who, which is carried overseas and on an American specialty channel...but a channel unavailable in Canada; and since the British Doctor Who carries the credit at the end acknowledging the CBC, an argument might be made that the series wouldn't currently be in production if not for the CBC).

Now consider CTV and CanWest-Global. They are currently offering...well, no new Canadian series. At all. CTV is offering new episodes of the successful returning comedy, Corner Gas, however -- but that's it. CanWest-Global is offering episodes of ReGenesis...which had already aired last year on cable. That's it, that's their fall Canadian season. One series each.

So how do they fill up their schedule? With simulcasts of current American series -- series which many in Canada with cable, or a satellite dish, or just really good rabbit ears, could watch on the American stations.

In other words, if the CBC were to cease to exist -- a bunch of series would vanish forever from the face of the earth...if CTV or CanWest-Global were to cease to exist...the audience would simply shrug, turn the dial, and continue watching CSI, or Heroes, or Lost on the original American network. In other words: no one would even notice.

And therein lies the rub. The CBC is a network but, all too often, CTV and CanWest-Global are glorified relay stations bouncing signals from American networks.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating...just a little. I'm not trying to downplay the genuine success of Corner Gas for instance (although since it also airs on the Comedy Network, the argument could still be made that if CTV ceased to exist, Corner Gas would continue). And, of course, I'm deliberately looking at the TV schedules for the last couple of weeks. If you look over the last six or twelve months, CTV has also given us Alice I Think, Whistler, Jeff Ltd, Degrassi: TNG, Comedy Inc, and Instant Star, as well as various TV movies, while CanWest-Global has given us Falcon Beach, The Jane Show and...and...well, I guess that's it. Of course, in the same period, the CBC gave us Northern Town, 49th and Main, North-South, Hatching Matching & Dispatching, What it's Like Being Alone, 11 Channels, Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, At the Hotel, DaVinci's City Hall, This is Wonderland, plus various movies and mini-series.

Even comparing the nature of the TV movies is illuminating. A few weeks ago, the CBC aired a bunch of mini-series: one about Rene Levesque, one about the Oka Crisis, and an Australian co-production, Answered by Fire, exploring (in a fictional narrative) the difficulties of peace keeping amid geo-political instability, with a Canadian main character. In other words, movies that looked at Canada past and present, dealing with relevant and provocative themes. In the same time period, CTV offered...a heavily fictionalized movie about a serial killer and another TV movie that seemed to studiously avoid even admitting it was set in Canada. CanWest-Global offered...well, nothing.

And all that doesn't change the fact that the CBC is currently offering a whole schedule of original programs, while CTV and CanWest-Global are offering mainly a schedule of American series easily available on other channels just with a press of the remote control.

The argument against the CBC is that as a government supported network, it's basically indicative of the evils of socialism, whereas the private networks reflect the plucky spirit of free enterprise. But here's the catch: CTV and CanWest-Global are themselves beneficiaries of government protection and support!

You see, the whole nature of "simulcasting" U.S. shows only works because the government, years ago, brought in regulations that said where a Canadian network and an American network were showing the same show in the same time slot, the cable provider had to substitute the Canadian signal over the American one...even when your tuner is set to the U.S. station. This way, the Canadian network could sell advertising space based on the totality of a show's audience, rather than whatever fraction of it they might have.

In a "free market" situation, the government would've done no such thing, and leave it to the Canadian networks to figure out how to make money...just offering shows that are already being offered by a competing (U.S.) network.

So neither the CBC nor the private networks are really able to brag that they are truly independent, free market animals.

The problem is...well, I'm gonna have to be frank with you. As I've mentioned before, there is often -- not always, but often -- a political agenda to some of the criticism of the CBC. Critics often don't just want the CBC reformed, or overhauled, but literally shut down and yanked from the airwaves. And though such criticism may well have CTV and CanWest-Global executives giving each other the high-five -- they should remember that the enemy of their enemy isn't always their friend. For it seems to me there may well be a hidden agenda. You see, for all that such critics virulently attack and denounce the CBC...you don't often see them complimenting, say, CTV. In fact, I've come across a few message boards and websites denouncing the CBC where, then, a couple of comments down the screen, a few swipes will be taken at the private networks, as well. Nor when critics bitterly attack the CBC's programs, does that automatically lead into them heaping bountiful praise on Corner Gas or The Jane Show.

And that's because with some of these critics -- and maybe I'm just noticing the most extreme -- you begin to realize their objection is not to the CBC, or its use of tax payers' dollars, or a supposed Left Wing bias. Their objection is to Canadian programming in general. And that's because they aren't comfortable with a Canadian identity, period. Because there are some people in Canada on the political right whose ultimate goal is to see Canada become the 51st state of the United States, in spirit if not in law. We've all seen it cropping up in op ed pieces and letters to the editor and message boards -- the greatest, nastiest slur Canadian conservatives feel they can hurl at their opponents these days is "anti-American". And anything that is too blatantly "Canadian", or suggests Canada might have separate interests and goals from the United States, can be labelled anti-American (America, in the minds of Canadian conservatives, being defined solely by Republican/far right values...a fact that might disconcert American Democrats and moderates!)

Am I being paranoid? Yeah, probably a little. But decide for yourself. The next time you read an essay demanding the CBC be shut down, or you skim a message board telling you how awful CBC programs are...look carefully. See if they are praising the competition. Are they telling you how much they love CTV's Jeff, Ltd. or how their whole family sits down to watch CanWest-Global's Falcon Beach? And if not, then the question is, are they really objecting to the CBC specifically, or merely as a symbol of Canadian programs in general? And if the latter, are they objecting because they wish Canadian programs were better...or because they want them to go away entirely?

Hearing that the CBC's new shows aren't drawing particularly auspicious ratings, I'm kind of saddened. Regardless of whether I like a series, I'd like to see some of them do well. Or, at least, I'd like to see them open well, to know the audience at least gave them a chance before deciding to turn off. But read some of the articles and blogs out there and you'll see a lot of other people who are actually giddy at the bad ratings -- people who would've been furious if the shows did bring in decent audience numbers.

Just food for thought.

Look, I have my issues with the CBC -- I think a few knuckles need to be whacked, a few decision makers handed pink slips. But, man, they've just unveiled an (almost) full schedule of new programs in a single week! I'm sure in a couple of weeks the bloom will be off the rose and I'll be grumbling again. But right now -- I don't think I've felt so much love for the Mother Corps in, well, maybe ever!

The private networks brag about their "hit" schedules...but those hits are mainly American series, benefitting from the millions the American networks have pumped into marketing. And yes, CBC does cost the tax payers money, but look what you get out of it -- a fall season of new and diverse shows. And sure, CTV and CanWest-Global don't cost the tax payer as much, but then they aren't offering a schedule of Canadian shows.

So I guess you get what you pay for, eh?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

October 16, 2006

Back to The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies and TV