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What Happened to Canadian TV Drama?
and What Does it Mean for the Future?



 
 

A story that has been slowly percolating through the media, off and on over the last few months, is the seeming end of Canadian television drama. Commentators have pointed out that there is only one new Canadian drama series slated for the fall season, and only about four returning shows. The main networks seem to have given up on the whole idea of weekly dramatic fiction programming.

Why is it happening? Well, the long and the short of it is that fiction drama is expensive to produce, and offers limited returns for the networks. In other words, it's hard to gain and keep an audience.

More to the point, networks are dumping drama because they can get away with it -- period.

The regulatory body, The Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunication Commission (the CRTC) which for years insisted broadcasters had to meet certain programming commitments in order to keep their licenses, has recently loosened the rules, so that broadcasters can include "reality" shows and newsmagazines as a part of their domestic drama quota (shows that are a lot cheaper to produce than fiction, and provide very little work for actors or dramatic writers or any of the hundreds of miscellaneous crew members that would normally work on a TV series).

Why did the CRTC do that? Why did it sacrifice the thousands of actors, writers, technicians, etc., and, indeed, the very notion of Canadian culture -- what it was established to protect lo thhose many years ago -- in favour of the networks? Why? Particularly as the expense of a fiction series isn't the difference between a network making a profit or going bankrupt, but simply the difference between a network making money...and making even more money by not having to air domestic programs. Despite all the whining and caterwauling from network suits, no network was in any danger of going bankrupt broadcasting Canadian drama. In fact, most network executive salaries are probably pretty obscene by the standards of you or I. Need proof that the networks are already making money hand over fist? Canada still has the same private networks its had for years -- CTV and CanWest-Global. No one's gone bankrupt yet.

And in recent years, cable networks have proliferated like bunnies at an orgy (well, a bunny orgy). And not one cable station -- from Space to the Women's network, from Scream to the Comedy Network -- have closed up shop yet. In fact, networks and cable stations seem to be immune to the survival of the fittest attrition that culls the population of most industries. Clearly there're profits galore in them thar (TV) hills.

The CRTC's relaxing of rules just means there's even more money for the privileged few. And damn those who work in the business, and damn Canadian identity, to boot.

Of course, some of the blame for the current situation has to be laid at the feet of those who make the series to begin with. The poor ratings that many Canadian TV dramas endured can be partly attributed to, well, poor shows. Second rate writers-producers-and-directors churning out third rate shows. But one could argue that it was not so much because of poor workmanship, but poor work ethics. In one interview I read (Canadian Screenwriter Magazine Summer 2002), actor-producer Paul Gross, lamenting the demise of Canadian drama, laid some of the blame at weak budgets. His example was to say that sometimes when his hit TV series, "Due South", had a "weakish" script, they could get around it by "throwing money" at it with a "car chase"; without that extra money, a weak script just "sits out there". Obviously, the heart bleeds for him in such dilemmas. But, hey, here's a radical thought, Paul: use better scripts to begin with!

(Sure, that sounds naive. After all, every series has its lesser episodes -- it's unavoidable. However, as much as I enjoyed "Due South", I was painfully aware of an overall...thinness to many of the episodes.)

One can't help feeling there's an illustration of a larger problem in Gross' anecdote. In an industry where success is so rare and difficult to achieve, people need to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as their (America) competition. Yet there's a feeling that there are too many people, perhaps smugly secure on their thrones of being big fish in a little pond, who work half as hard and expect twice the reward. It's not an attitude restricted to Canada, of course. I've seem a similar attitude expressed in interviews given by American producers -- but usually producers of failed, not very good Hollywood TV shows, who can't understand why their show was cancelled.

As for the future: in order for fiction to survive, some writers and producers (and critics) advocate the production of "edgy", cult shows. Shows that can make an impact because they're different. Shows that don't expect a big audience.

Although I'm as in favour of ground breaking, "edgy" shows as the next guy, there are problems with that when viewed as the foundation of an industry. For one, how do you define edgy? One person's "edgy" is another person's pabulum. I've seen too many -- way too many -- movies and TV shows that critics and filmmakers herald as edgy that just strike me as tired and hackneyed. But, of course, if anyone dares to say that, then they're assured that the program in question was just sooo edgy, it only seemed tired and hackneyed to their plebeian tastes. In other words, edgy can be edgy, and edgy can also be a code word for making bad programs that are immune to criticism (anyone who doesn't like it just isn't hip). It's a retreat from having to actually succeed.

As well, that's part of how we got into this problem to begin with: making TV shows that were deemed "successes" even though no one was watching, leading to other shows with even fewer viewers. Ken Finkleman's series "The Newsroom" was, according to reports, a ratings hit. Yet, instead of the CBC "encouraging" him to stick with what he was doing, he was indulged in increasingly so-called "edgy" -- and irrelevant -- subsequent series that eroded away whatever audience he had. "Traders", meanwhile, was not noticeably "edgy", being just a glossy soap set among stock traders, but neither was it very good (in my opinion) nor did it ever bring in much of an audience. Yet that didn't stop it from running five years, being aired on two networks at one point, and being used as the benchmark by which later dramas seem to be measured. Whole series have gone into production with the credentials that someone working on it had previously worked on "Traders" -- a series few people watched to begin with!

It's no wonder the audience has been turning off -- the programmers have kindly hung out a sign saying: "viewer's need not apply".

One of the things missing from the current TV landscape, according to some people quoted in Canadian Screenwriter, is an advocate like Robert Lantos; a producer seeming genuinely committed to Canadian production, who would fight tooth and nail to get it done, and find the new ways of doing old things to get the money (not that Lantos' credits aren't without his share of dreck, nor was he always as committed to Canadiana as some like to remember). Lantos isn't dead -- but he's focusing more on films these days. Those waiting for a Robert Lantos to save them are right, in the sense that Canadian drama needs a fighter. But maybe instead of waiting for a saviour, those in the business bemoaning the situation need to fight harder themselves. Not just within the industry, but without. Maybe ACTRA and other artist unions need to take their complaints to the public through advertising and other publicity, using recognizable celebrities (Paul Gross doing a TV commercial telling his fans they'll never see another "Due South" if something isn't done) to make their case, to embarrass the CRTC into remembering what it's supposed to stand for, and who it's really supposed to be serving.

And what can be done within the industry? Maybe working with what's there. One area which isn't suffering are international co-productions, like Andromeda, Mutant X and others -- generally science fiction shows. Because they're science fiction, and with the added costs such premises often incur, the American producers need the savings that the low Canadian dollar with its accompanying talent pool of actors and crews provide to make these shows. In fact, one of the American producers of Andromeda stated in an interview, uncategorically, that the show could not have been made if it had to be shot in the U.S.

Such shows are made with Canadian partners and are officially Canadian co- productions (as opposed to all-American shows that are shot in Canada). The U.S. producers need Canadian partners as much as the Canadians need them...so maybe its time to start being a little more assertive. That is, for the Canadian partners to stop grovelling around like abused puppies and to start insisting that such shows reflect their bi-national nature by having some of the regular characters -- not just the actors who portray them -- be Canadian, as well as expanding where they are set to maybe include Canadian locales. I'm not saying they need an all-Canadian over haul -- I'm sure some American producers would balk at that. But a compromise could certainly be worked out. Consider Mutant X, with its roster of about six regular characters set in the United States -- what if two or three characters were Canadian, and maybe the heroes operated from a base in Canada, battling their evil nemesis based in the U.S. Not only would it not hurt the series, but I dare say it would actually enhance it, adding dramatic nuances and originality to the series with exciting late night chases across the border. In fact, in a series nominally playing with the metaphor of racial persecution, such a scenario would have an added resonance, conjuring up the spectre of the Underground Railroad when U.S. slaves fled to freedom in Canada.

Obviously, suggesting the above would cause the bladders of more than a few Canadian TV producers to spasm uncomfortably. Assert themselves? Make creative demands on their U.S. partners? Oh, heavens! Fortitude is not a hallmark of Canadian filmmakers, after all. But "Due South" proved the Americans can be quite interested in such bi-national stories. So why not try more? And if the CRTC started insisting on it, as a requirement of Canadian content status, producers could go to their U.S. partners and say, "It's not me, it's those darn regulations." They might be surprised at how amenable some of their Hollywood friends might be.

After all, as noted above, the Americans need the Canadians as much as the Canadians need them.

TV series are a crucial part of any entertainment industry, providing a training ground for writers, directors and actors, providing them with exposure, nurturing future stars. Paul Gross' feature film, "Men With Brooms" is the most successful Canadian movie of the year, based in large part on Gross being a recognizable "star". But Paul Gross is only a star because of "Due South". Without future Canadian TV dramas, there won't be a future Paul Gross. And as for cultural identity? People may watch mini-series like "Random Passage" and "The Last Chapter"...but they remember a weekly series, it becomes part of our shared experiences. It's time the CRTC started realizing that and to realize that when they allow networks to cut back on drama, they aren't just betraying this generation, they threaten the very future of the industry, and mayhap Canada as well.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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