Sunday, May 01, 2005

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

Part 2: The Bad

This is the second part of my series about the best and worst things about Canadian Television. The focus is on the industry as a whole and the behavior of people in it (more accurately the English Canadian TV industry primarily because it's what I know). This week I'm focussing on The Bad, but I'll confess that The Bad isn't that bad. I'm saving that for next week when I tackle the Ugly.

Media Concentration: In the United States the FCC restricts the number of televisions stations any single corporate entity can own. At one time it was five stations, and although the number of stations that can be owned has increased and looks likely to increase further, the fact is that it is still far more restrictive than anything that exists in Canada. Of 24 CTV stations, 21 are owned and operated by CTV itself (the company also own at least two CBC affiliated stations). CTV itself is owned by Bell Globemedia which is not just the phone company in much of Canada but also owns one of Canada's two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and has full or partial ownership of 22 cable or digital cable specialty channels. The other major Canadian network, Canwest Global, owns 11 stations across the country as well as three stations branded as the CH Network in Hamilton, Montreal and Victoria, and two CBC affiliated stations. They also own or control TV networks in New Zealand (two), Australia, and the Republic of Ireland, and eight Canadian specialty channels . They also own 11 English language newspapers in Canada including five in single newspaper markets and both newspapers in Vancouver and the national daily The National Post. The only TV network ads in Canwest newspapers come from Canwest Global or its cable networks.

Co-productions: Pop Quiz - which of the following are Canadian shows: (a) Da Vinci's Inquest, (b) Andromeda, (c) Stargate SG1, (d) Highlander, (e) all of the above? If you said (e) you begin to understand a major component of Canadian television - the co-production - because all but DaVinci's Inquest are co-productions with other broadcasters. Co-productions are a way for Canadian networks to obtain high quality "Canadian" shows without paying anywhere near the full cost. It works like this: an foreign production company - in the case of Andromeda Tribune Entertainment and MBR productions - take a Canadian production company - Fireworks Entertainment and their parent company Global - as a production partner with the Canadian company paying part of the production costs. Using Canadian actors in some roles - five of the supporting actors in Andromeda are Canadian - as well as Canadian directors and crews earns the production Canadian status as defined by the CRTC, and frequently earns government film and TV grants for the Canadian producer in addition to tax breaks making the show in Canada. The Canadian network is then able to air a show which, although it has nothing to do with Canada, is considered Canadian for a fraction of the cost of making a show of the same length themselves.

CBC Funding: Funding for Canada's national broadcasting network is one fo the great irritants for Canadian nationalists. CBC/Radio Canada (as it is known in French) operates four radio networks (AM and FM in English and French) the national shortwave service Radio Canada International, two national Television networks (one English, one French), two English language cable networks, and one French language news network. While the networks accept advertising, much of its funding comes from a government grant because while other nations are able to charge license fees for TVs and radios, Canada was unable to maintain the licensing system so tax revenue was directed to the CBC. This has however meant that CBC funding has been subject to cuts during periods of budget reduction which would not have been the case if a license fee system had been in place. The CBC suffered major budget cuts in the 1980s and while the Chretien Liberals promised "stable funding for the CBC" it was another promise they never delivered on. At the same time there have been demands for increased Canadian Content - the CanCon requirements for CBC television are higher than for other Canadian broadcasters - and demands that the CBC stop airing American shows in prime time, and stop showing sports. The CBC did the former (which explains both Doctor Who and why Coronation Street is seen in prime time four nights a week) but refuses to do the latter since sports - mainly Hockey - contributes a high percentage of the commercial revenue the network earns. The private networks call this unfair.

Toronto-centric Broadcasting: This one isn't as bad as it once was, but there seems to be a tendency for all Canadian broadcasters to focus news coverage, sports and production on Toronto and the larger Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal corridor. In terms of production, the rise of Vancouver as a major production location for American as well as Canadian programming has meant that a larger number of shows are being made there. It is true however that the networks all have their head offices in Toronto (even though Canwest Global has long operated out of Winnipeg their Canadian headquarters are in Toronto). Sports is a particular irritant. The major cable companies were forced to provide coverage of Major Junior Hockey playoffs this year despite the fact that Rogers Sportsnet was licensed to provide regional sports coverage, and TSN has long been said to stand for the "Toronto Sports Network" because of their focus on the Maple Leafs, the Raptors and the Blue Jays to the exclusion of other teams in the country (notably of course the Montreal Expos who essentially disappeared from English Canadian television with the arrival on the scene of the Toronto Blue Jays).

Simulcasting: Technically this isn't the correct term. I believe it's called signal substitution, but for a variety of reasons simulcasting is the term that most people use. When cable TV became a major force in Canadian broadcasting a number of advertisers began placing their commercials on US stations that were being carried on Canadian cable systems. This was particularly popular when the Canadian dollar was valued at or above par with the American dollar. This naturally hurt the Canadian networks and they complained to the CRTC which banned the practice. They went a step further however. On those occasions when a Canadian broadcaster played an American show at the same time as an American broadcaster, Canadian cable providers - satellite providers as well I think - have to replace the American signal with the Canadian signal. Thus if The Amazing Race is on CBS on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central Time (call it channel 4) and on CTV at the same time (call it channel 9), the CTV signal with the ads intended for the Canadian market is seen on both the channel 9 and channel 4. This is usually fine but it can be a massive pain in the butt. The whole process is automated so situations arise when times aren't accurate. It is infuriating to be watching a football game on CBS and suddenly have 60 Minutes appear in the middle of a play because the automated switcher at the cable company was instructed to put the appropriate Canadian signal over the American channel at precisely 6 p.m. Even the Canadian networks don't like the process. They've applied to the CRTC on several occasions to have Canadian "versions" of American shows (that is the American show with Canadian commercials inserted) replace the American version even if the Canadian network isn't broadcasting the show at the same time. They want this so that they can "program their own networks" a notion that the CRTC has rejected repeatedly.

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