Sunday, May 08, 2005

Canadian Television: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Part 3: The Ugly

What exactly do I mean by "Ugly"? Well, in the context of these articles Ugly should probably be taken as meaning the most egregiously bad aspects of Canadian broadcasting. The inability for Canadian producers to create more than a couple of successful sitcoms is Bad - the fact the there is little incentive or punishment for Canadian networks to provide quality Canadian programming is Ugly. Here - in my opinion - are two of the three Ugliest aspects of Canadian television in no particular order. I'll save what I think is the worst for later (mainly because this post is turning out to be quite big).

Canadian Content Regulations: Don't get me wrong, I think the idea of regulations requiring Canadian Content is a good thing. The trouble is the way these regulations are applied. Per the regulations defined by the CRTC, Private Broadcasters are required to make sure that 60% of their daily schedule, measured during the day (defined as 6 a.m. to Midnight) and 50% of their evening broadcast period (defined as 6 p.m. to Midnight) be Canadian programming. However the regulations also state that this is measured yearly rather than monthly or quarterly. This allows broadcasters to make up their Canadian quota during the summer when fewer people are watching TV. Sports like Blue Jays Baseball and CFL Football are popular ways to make up the quota. Of course the evening broadcast quota is frequently made up with little difficulty. In Saskatoon the schedule for the CTV station is 6 -7 p.m. Local News, 10:30-11 p.m. eTalk Daily (Canadian made entertainment news show), 11-11:30 p.m. National News, 11:30 p.m. - 12:05 a.m. Local News for a total of two and a half hours of Canadian Content. On the Canwest-Global station the schedule is a little different but not much: 6-6:30 p.m. National News, 10:30-11 p.m. Local News, 11-11:30 p.m. Sports, 11:30 p.m. - 12:00 midnight Train 48 (a Canadian made drama or another half hour Canadian show) for a total of two hours. In addition "interstitial" (defined as "programs" of less than five minutes in length) qualify as Canadian Content. Because of the differences in the amount of commercial time allowed between Canada and the United States, most Canadian stations run news breaks or other brief informational "programs" during American shows.

Per regulations passed in 1999, Canadian networks are also required to program at least eight hours per week of "priority Canadian Programming" defined as Canadian drama programs (which also includes sitcoms, specials mini-series, made for TV movies, animated programs and Canadian theatrical movies), Canadian music and dance and variety programs, Canadian long form documentary programs, regionally produced programs in all categories except news and sports, Canadian entertainment magazine programs during the "peak viewing period", defined as 7 -11 p.m. However that doesn't actually mean eight hours a week. A 125% time credit for new hours of Canadian drama that "a) is aired for the first time on television on or after 1 September 1998, b) has a duration of at least one half hour, including a reasonable amount of time for commercial breaks, c) is recognized as a Canadian program, and qualifies for either a "C number" or an "SR number" from the Commission." In other words an hour long show defined by the CRTC as "Canadian" actually counts as 75 minutes of Canadian content. Four hours of Canadian drama actually qualifies as five hours of priority programming.

Canadian Content regulations for radio, which required a minimum of 35% of the music aired on Canadian radio stations to be Canadian, were literally the making of the Canadian recording industry. Before these regulations were in place you were lucky to hear any Canadian music on a Canadian radio station; this is one reason why there are virtually no recordings of Canadian big bands from the 1940s. Canadian Content regulations for television haven't worked nearly as well. Co-productions are common - although with the collapse of the first run syndication market in the U.S. not as common as they were - and some broadcasters work very hard at getting around their commitment.

CBC Management: As much as I love the CBC sometimes their management does stupid stuff. The organization sometimes seems overburdened with executives and attitudes sometimes change rapidly, although this can be exacerbated by government funding issues. Regional broadcasting suffered a major hit during the budget cutbacks of the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1970s a key aspect of policy was that the primary owned and operated station in each province would be located in the provincial capital (this policy was supposedly promulgated after then Saskatchewan Premier Alan Blakeney objected to placing the main broadcast centre for Saskatchewan in Saskatoon rather than his home city of Regina despite the fact that Saskatoon was more centrally located in the province). The exception in British Columbia where Vancouver is the largest city and the CBC doesn't own a station in Victoria. In the first major round of budget cuts the CBC shut down the Saskatoon station although they maintained a small news staff and offices in the city, however all news would be done out of Regina with minimal input from Saskatoon. A group of now laid-off employees together with some local business people and community leaders put together a group to buy the license and revive the station as a CBC affiliate. They were informed that the CBC did not sell its licenses - once they had them they kept them. In a later round of budget cuts, regional news programs were themselves cut from an hour to half an hour with an early evening national news program created to fill in the hour. Most recently the latest group of managers at the CBC have announced their intention to expand regional news programming back to an hour and eliminate or reposition the early national news program.

An aspect in the past was the tendency of CBC managers to devalue on-air talent. They had a distinct tendency to end popular programs while they were still popular apparently fearing that performers were becoming "stars". The attitude was that there were no Canadian "stars" - producers were more important. A case in point was the Tommy Hunter Show. Hunter was a tremendously popular country singer known as "Canada's Country Gentleman". His hour long show was a fixture on the CBC for 27 years and was one of the most popular programs on Canadian TV at the time of its cancellation although audience numbers were slipping. It was shown in the United States three times a week on The Nashville Network from 1983 to 1991. It attracted a lot of American performers including Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn as well as introducing Canadian musicians (Shania Twain made her debut on The Tommy Hunter Show as a 14 year-old). The CBC cancelled it, allegedly because it didn't reflect "current trends" in country music. The problem is that the program that replaced - which supposedly reflected those trends - lasted less than two years. If this were unique it might be excusable, but it is merely a part of a pattern that dates to at least the 1960s if not before and extends beyond variety programs to most of the genres that the network produced. There was a notorious problem with childrens programming that saw The Friendly Giant and Chez Helene (a 15 minute show that used a French immersion technique to encourage bilingualism) among others cancelled to free up funds for the American show Sesame Street. On the whole CBC management don't have a sterling record for sticking with success.

No comments: