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Scab Labour or Savvy Opportunity:
…Canadian TV success at the striking WGA’s expense?


As anyone mildly interested in entertainment is probably aware, Hollywood TV productions are caught up in an on going strike wherein the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) is demanding better terms from producers and refusing to write a word until something is done. For those who bought into the myth that directors were the creative visionaries, or that actors just “made up” their dialogue, hopefully this is helping to draw attention to the fact that writers really are at the core of storytelling…even in Hollywood.

As a result of the strike, American TV shows are, one by one, slipping into reruns until the strike is settled and new scripts can be delivered.

And in Canada, this has had a curious effect, where some in the biz have greeted the strike with something akin to glee.

Long forced to compete with the marketing juggernaut that is Hollywood, Canadian TV producers suddenly see a rare and fleeting window where Canadian shows might actually carve out a bit of a niche. The CBC -- Canada’s main forum for home grown TV -- has unleashed a slew of new TV series which, in itself, is not directly related to the U.S. strike (they were already in production). But what’s changed is expectation. The hope is, faced with a divided U.S. competitor, and channel surfers looking for something other than reruns or hastily assembled reality shows coughed up by the U.S. networks, these Canadian series might actually stand a chance.

So far, the ratings haven’t really borne out this theory one way or the other. Some shows have enjoyed good numbers, others not so much. And given the previous popularity of Canadian series like Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, maybe the shows posting good numbers would’ve landed them anyway.

But the assumption is: probably not. Nor does anyone expect the audience will keep watching if they aren’t enjoying the shows. But the point is, Canadian series very rarely get even a look in by the audience. So the fact that a bored audience might decide to give some new Canadian series a try is all anyone is hoping for.

Try it, they say. That’s all we’re asking.

So far, the show "most likely" seems to be CBC’s espionage-thriller, The Border, which, though the numbers have fluctuated a bit, seems to be building an audience (the fourth episode getting its biggest numbers, yet). When ratings go up, rather than down, that’s a good thing. Global’s rescue/soap opera The Guard also boasted atypically strong numbers for its first episode (unfortunately, it did see a drop with its second episode).

So though we aren’t seeing any records broken, the numbers are good, and a far cry from last season when the CBC unleashed its new season to weak numbers almost across the board.

But as always happens, there are the naysayers who argue: is there anything to boast about if the stronger numbers really are simply because the U.S. shows are in an unusually weak position temporarily?

And the answer is -- yeah, actually.

First off, as mentioned, you can’t force someone to watch a show they don’t enjoy. But now, at least, people are trying the series. If they don’t like ‘em, and tune out, fine, more power to ‘em. But at least the series have something Canadian series have rarely had -- a shot. Not only because they might be up against soft competition, but because they’re also being given a bigger piece of the publicity market. No new U.S. episodes mean no reason for Canadian newspapers to splash fluffy interviews with US TV actors across their pages, which means more room to splash fluffy interviews with Canadian actors. It isn’t simply that more people might be watching these Canadian shows -- but more are probably aware they actually exist!

But getting back to the point of: is there any victory in posting good ratings against soft competition? -- um, that’s the name of the game, baby. How many times have you read an interview with a U.S. TV producer complaining that his show’s poor ratings are due to an unfavourable timeslot up against killer competition? If such a series is then moved to a safer time slot, where it scores bigger numbers, do U.S. pundits or TV watchers sniff and say, “humph, that’s no victory, you just had weaker competition”? No -- they sigh happily and say, “aha, the series is now in a better position to find its audience.”

Of course, a funny little aside to all this is to wonder whether any of this theorizing is true. Because, for all the talk of the strike, for all the warnings of a dead U.S. season stuffed with putrifying reruns -- I’m not sure that’s happened yet. Series’ are filmed enough in advance that, as near as I can tell, a lot of U.S. series are still offering new episodes…and some of the Canadian shows are still boasting decent ratings.

Maybe like Dumbo thinking the feather let him fly, the Canadian TV producers only think their successes are due to a dead U.S. schedule, and actually are due to the fact that, well, people really are tuning in ‘cause they’re interested.

But, as I say, there are those who say any success home grown series enjoy, if it’s a result of the U.S, strike, is tainted -- bordering on scab labour. As if Canadian networks, as a sign of solidarity, should’ve cleared their schedules entirely of new offerings until the strike is resolved.

Such accusations become even more pointed when Canadian producers have publicly speculated that they might actually be able to shop Canadian series to U.S. networks desperate for new programming. Of course, such criticisms ignore the fact that, in a reversal of decades of entertainment trends, Canadians had already seen a few -- a very few -- Canadian series picked up down south, including Corner Gas and DaVinci’s Inquest, and this long before a strike was in the offing.

But to make things even more contentious comes news that a couple of upcoming Canadian series (Flashpoint, about a police tactical squad, being one) will be carried on a major American network -- something that hasn’t happened in a decade! There’s no ambiguity here -- everyone fully understands it’s the strike that has caused the American networks to come sniffing around The Land God Gave to Cain for alternate programming.

So, is this a “scab” production? Is this sleazy, unscrupulous Canadian producers making a quick buck on the backs of striking U.S. writers?

Again, not exactly.

Arguably, such “scab” labels could be applied if a Canadian TV producer headed south and said, “hey, I can make you a cheap U.S. series for your schedule”. But Flashpoint was already greenlit by a Canadian network long before the WGA strike. It was already a Canadian series intended to air on a Canadian network, set in Canada with a Canadian cast. CBS’ involvement didn’t precipitate the series’ genesis. What it might mean is Flashpoint will probably enjoy a slightly bigger budget and, though set in Toronto, Canada, probably won’t indulge in any contentious The Border type Canada/U.S. ideological schisms as part of its plot lines.

Viewed in that light, all the Flashpoint producers did was, when CBS came around, asking if they could sign on board, the Flashpoint people didn’t say ”no”.

Now some would say I’m arguing semantics. That dress it up however I want, it doesn’t change the fact that the Canadian producers made a lucrative U.S. sale based entirely on the fact that American writers are unemployed and walking a picket line. And that, friend, is being a scab.

So now let’s flip things about a bit.

Every year, Canadian network executive go to Hollywood, cheque book in hand, and scoop up a schedule full of U.S. series to air on Canadian networks. By doing this, they eliminate any need for them to make original, home grown Canadian programs. Yet when American producers sit across the table from the Canadian executives, contract between them, do any U.S. producers carefully put the lid back on their pen, push aside the unsigned contract, and say to the Canadian executives, “Go home, mister -- go home and make your own shows; do the right thing for your country, your industry, and your soul,” and then stand up and walk away?

No -- they sign, sign fast, and skip away with nary a twinge of conscience. After all, as someone once said, The business of America is business. And that means selling your product as far and as fast as you can, and crushing any competition you can find.

Nor is it a level playing field. U.S. producers are selling their series to Canadian networks at far below cost -- that’s because they get their real money internally, in the U.S. They can afford to sell their shows cheap to Canada because that’s just gravy to them. So they can sell a multi-million dollar TV series to a Canadian network for just a few thousand dollars…whereas a Canadian has to sell a multi-million dollar series to a Canadian network for, well, millions of dollars.

Is it any wonder Canadian networks cram their schedule with cheaply acquired U.S. series, leaving little room for Canadian-made programs?

One could argue the position U.S. writers are -- temporarily -- in is no different than the position Canadian TV workers are in ALL THE TIME. Every day, of every week, of every month, of every year, Canadian TV people can’t get work because, despite Canadian networks theoretically having hours of programming slots to fill, those networks fill them with uber-cheap imported U.S. shows. Canadian TV workers have even occasionally staged protests and walked picket lines over the issue -- with nary a sympathy card in support from the WGA.

So if the WGA feels that there is a moral problem with Canadians selling series like Flashpoint to the U.S. networks during this strike, I can only assume that means that, once the strike has been resolved, they will show reciprocal support for their Canadian brothers and sisters by collectively refusing to work on any American series that is sold to Canadian networks below cost, undercutting Canadian TV producers hoping to pitch series to a Canadian network, and resulting in lost job opportunities for thousands of Canadian actors, writers, set designers, etc.

Until that day happens, I can’t get too cross with any Canadian producers who might see a temporary advantage in the WGA strike.

Solidarity among workers means “you support me in my aspirations and then I’ll support you in your aspirations”. It doesn’t mean, “you support me and then I’ll shove my fist so far up your @$$ my fingers’ll come out yer nose!” -- which has kind of been Hollywood's attitude toward Canada for decades.

I’m just saying, is all.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Feb. 1, 2008

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