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How to Save the Canadian TV Industry:
A Manifesto


Last week I once again looked at the question of the ever-imploding Canadian TV industry -- and some of the alleged causes.

So what's the solution? I'm glad you asked. Consider this a manifesto. Consider this a blueprint for the future. Consider this the wild ravings of a man who's watched wa-ay too many Canadian movies in his life. But whatever you do, consider it.

Firstly, the problem with the Canadian Content rules is that, right from the beginning, they treated Can-Con as dead air. The intent was to oblige broadcasters to schedule just little enough Canadian programming that it wouldn't hurt them if it failed. This also led to a perceived mediocrity in the product. Networks aired Canadian programs to fill a quota, not because they were any good. What happened was that it removed any incentive for the networks to succeed with their Canadian programs. So, first off, instead of cutting Can-Con...Canadian Content quotas should be increased. Yes, you read right. Increased. Increased just enough that it starts to hurt. Give the networks an incentive to make popular, successful programs, because it will actually impact on their revenues if they don't! As capitalist businessmen, I'm sure the network executives can appreciate the logic in that.

Secondly, instead of just demanding that a certain number of hours be devoted to Canadian programs...it should be a rule that a certain percentage of profits be invested in Canadian shows. Currently, not only are Canadian networks giddily slashing programs...but they're looking for ways to make 'em cheaper and cheaper (such as Global's current quasi-soap, Train 48, which takes place entirely in a single train car). I don't object to making cheap programs...but when that's the sole reason for the show's existence, and when networks are making fewer shows, and spending less on them, it becomes an insult. But just so no network can complain their revenues are being bled dry, the amount a network has to spend could be adjusted to their overall revenues -- a little cable station would only have to invest a fraction of what a big network like CTV or CanWest-Global would have to. And just to make sure no one's cooking the books, the CRTC would have to keep an eye on things. You don't want a network assuring the CRTC they only make a tiny profit, and therefore can't invest much in shows...if they're also boasting to their shareholders that they're making huge profits.

Thirdly, the rules for what qualifies as Can-Con should be altered -- at once strengthened, and loosened.

In order to increase Canadian programs, you have to increase the profile of Canada, you have to make people comfortable with the idea of Canada so that they want to watch Canadiana. And that means cutting down on the amount of "anonymous" Canadian programs out there -- that is, all those Canadian movies and TV shows that pretend they're American. After all, one area of Canadian production that seems to be chugging along fine are co-productions. These are series that technically qualify as "Canadian", and are counted as such by broadcasters, but you wouldn't necessarily know it watching them, because they pretend they're American. This includes series like Andromeda, Mutant X, Dead Zone, Sue Thomas F.B.Eye, and many others. Networks and cable stations use these to count towards their Can-Con quotas. Well, under my plan...no more.

To qualify as Can-Con a program should have to have an identifiable, in-the-narrative element that is Canadian. It could be something as minor as identifying one of the regular characters as Canadian. Sounds difficult, does it? I mean, how would you work in a Canadian character into Sue Thomas F.B.Eye -- a series that, in its very title, tells you it's set in the United States of America? Quite easily, apparently. That same series has no trouble working in an Australian character...complete with his making references to "the outback". So why not a Canadian character?

And by "in-the-narrative", I mean as part of the story. I'm not talking about whether the actor is Canadian, or whether it was filmed in Canada -- I'm talking about whether the charracter is Canadian, and the story is set in Canada. I've covered the distinction in an earlier essay here.

Obviously, there can be exceptions to such regulations. The science fiction series Andromeda is set centuries in the future, at the fringes of the galaxy. A series like that could reasonably argue that it can't make Canadian references, simply because it doesn't make many earth references at all. Fair enough -- although, then again, not. Andromeda does -- occasionally -- make American references, and has ideentified one regular character as an American. So why not throw in a Canadian character? And if, say, Star Trek's Captain Kirk can admire Abraham Lincoln (as he did in one episode) couldn't Andromeda's Captain Hunt be shown to admire, say, Pierre Trudeau? Anyway, there obviously can be some wriggle room for space operas, or fantasy programs (like the defunct Beastmaster) which aren't set in an identifiable reality, and can be considered exempt from having to make Canadian references. Though such shows are few and far between.

There's, of course, the middle option -- what once was knows as "Anytown, North America". That is a program which doesn't say where it's set. As a compromise, I am not dismissive of the Anytown, North America route -- but it tends to be a false argument. If you've seen as many Canadian shows as I have -- and you haven't -- you know it almost never works. In the course of a weekly TV series in particular, sooner or later a scene is going to require someone to flash some money, or end up in court (in Canada, criminal lawyers wear judicial robes), or something. I've seen a lot of "Anytown, North America" programs...and almost invariably they end up doing something to indicate that they're set in the United States after all.

Now, to do all this would drastically affect some broadcasters. Space, The Imagination Station, would find almost its entire Can-Con material re-labelled as non-Canadian. They could still air those shows, of course -- it's a free country -- but they just couldn't pass it off as Can-Con. As such, it would be reasonable for any such revisions to be announced ahead of time and gradually enforced over, say, two to five years, to allow broadcasters and their production partners a chance to adjust and line up new, more "Canadian" programs -- or to introduce Canadian elements into existing shows (either by introducing a new character, relocating much of the action to an identifiably Canadian location, or simply taking an existing character who, if his background was never previously explored, could then be identified as a Canadian).

And when I use words like "identifiable", I mean it. I don't mean claiming a character is Canadian in the press releases...but not in the actual show itself. As such, the CRTC would actually have to do something I'm not sure it currently does...actually watch the damn programs! Just to make sure everyone behaves. Hey, I'll do the job, if they want to hire me. I'm basically doing it already.

Now the flip side, the concession to the broadcasters, would be to allow non-Canadian programs with a significant Canadian narrative element to be counted as Canadian Content -- at least, temporarily. In other words, a network could show American films like, say, the X-Men (in which a main character is Canadian) or the Whole Nine Yards (set principally in Montreal) and count it as Can-Con. I know that would be a controversial decision, and elicit screams of outrage from cultural purists, but in the long run, it would benefit Canada. It would allow broadcasters to initially substitute these offerings for the programs that have lost their Can-Con label, and it would do what is so, so, so, sooooooooooooooooo important to Canadian culture and the cultural industry. It would allow Canadians to see and, indeed, be comfortable seeing, "Canada" in their entertainment. It doesn't foster Canadian culture or identity one whit making programs that no one can recognize as Canadian -- and that includes such things as David Cronenberg's recent Art House offerings.

It might also shame filmmakers into doing their job right. After all, if a Canadian filmmaker is told by a broadcaster that they won't be showing his set-in-the-U.S. masterpiece, and will, instead, air, say, The X-Men, it might force Canadian filmmakers to start being, well, Canadian just to secure a time slot.

Admittedly, like everything else, such rules are ripe for abuse, which is why such a concept would still go hand-in-hand with my other regulations. That is, a network would still have to invest a certain percentage of their revenues into making original Canadian programs. A network couldn't just air The X-Men six times a month and say they've done their part for Can-Con. And the use of non-Canadian movies as Can-Con could also be a purely temporary arrangement, to be phased out in, say, five years, once the networks have had time to line up truly Canadian programs to fill their schedule.

So there you go, my formula for strengthening Canadian television -- a formula that, I'm well aware, runs counter to the prevailing mood among those who actually make decisions about the entertainment industry in Canada.

Just to recap:

A: Increase the number of hours a network must make available for Canadian programs. Make it hurt.

B: Insist on networks and production companies investing a certain percentage of their profits into making Canadian programs.

C: Re-define "Canadian Content" to mean it has to have an identifiable, in-the-narrative element that is Canadian (setting and/or character). With exceptions being allowed only for fantasy programs that make no references to identifiable nations (and historical programs set before Canada existed).

D: Temporarily allow movies and TV shows with a "significant" in-the-narrative Canadian element to be counted as Can-Con...even if it's not a Canadian production.

So what happens if the broadcasters balk at these new rules? What happens if the production companies threaten to shut down? Well -- let them. Canadian culture has been held hostage for years by entertainment bullies who greedily grab every hand-out and concession the government gives them...and then threaten to just quit if they don't get their way yet again. Like that's a threat? I mean, really, how could it get worse? They're already slashing productions and engaged in a kind of cultural genocide against their own country by deliberately purging any Canadian references from their programs. If they can't play the game, best they get off the field and allow someone a turn who can.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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