Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Why Canadian Shows Are Invisible

Between the end of the regular TV season, the Memorial Day holiday in the US there has been a singular lack of news about TV over the past week or so since NBC took the bold move of thoroughly rejigging their line up so they could move one show to a safer time slot. Oh yeah there are things to report: women's groups are sending letters of protest to ABC over the "clear demotion" of Elizabeth Vargas from ABC's World News Tonight that is - in their view - "a dispiriting return to the days of discrimination against women that we thought were behind us," (and somehow manages to couple it with the cancellation of Commander-in-Chief to claim that ABC "doesn't look like a very woman-friendly or family-friendly workplace") but it seems to be a tempest in a teapot considering that Vargas herself has said that her circumstances make it very difficult for her to stay in the job. There is an article about this in the Washington Post.

What actually caught my interest recently was a post on the blog Unified Theory of Nothing Much by Diane Kristine, in which she says that "I am a bad, bad Canadian. I'd be clutching my passport as I type this, ready to defend it, except my sin is far from unusual: I very rarely watch Canadian TV." The post, called The Invisible Networks takes a look at some of the reasons at least, why not. There are details that I disagree with, like her statement that Corner Gas doesn't get "water cooler conversation - around here it does. Of course the fact that Janet Wright is from Saskatoon (and her family basically founded Persephone Theatre which is currently located maybe a ten minute walk from where I'm sitting) and Eric Petersen is from Regina and Brent Butt is from Tisdale and the show is set and made in Saskatchewan probably helps that along a lot. Still you've got to admit when someone is right and dammit Diane is right - most Canadians don't watch Canadian Television including the CBC.

There are lots of reasons but Diane does hit on a big one; lack of promotion. Trouble is I think she's being way too easy on the newspapers. I live in a one newspaper city and like most cities in Canada my local rag is owned by Canwest Global. You know, the people who own the Global TV network (sorry the Global television service since apparently neither Global or CTV are licensed as networks in the bizarre world that is CRTC licensing). Would it surprise you to know that I have yet to see an ad for anything other than a Global show in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix or the TV section that comes with it on Fridays? I don't get the Globe & Mail on a regular basis but I would bet a Toonie that you don't see many ads from Global in that paper because The Globe is owned by Bell Globemedia (which is owned by Bell Canada) and Bell Globemedia owns CTV. The poor old CBC used to have it's own magazine but that disappeared many budget cuts ago and MotherCorp has to depend on people watching Hockey Night In Canada to promote their programming. About the only newspaper chain not linked to a TV network is the Sunmedia group and they would if they could. Mention of Canadian shows is relegated to a column inch or so in the TV critic's section.

So forget about advertising and rely on promotion. Do it on your own networks. Of course that's a bit of an exercise in circular logic - people don't watch Canadian TV so they don't see ads for Canadian programs so they don't watch Canadian TV. But surely you say (if you're a Canadian and know about such stuff) the practice of inserting Canadian signals over the American feed when the Canadian network has the show on at the same time (and the Canadian network bend heaven and earth to make sure that happens as much as possible). They actually have extra time for in-house material because the US networks are allowed more commercial time than the Canadians so the Canadian channels have to insert things like newsbreaks and PSAs and in-house promos. But of course the Canadian networks mostly use that time to promote their American programming. Because it's the American programming that people watch and advertisers pay to put ads on (because people watch them - circular logic again).

Diane also points out that there are no comprehensive websites that cover Canadian television in the way that TV Tattle or the American TV Guide do (and I'll just add sites like TVSquad and Futon Critic). If you go to TVGuide.ca all you'll find is an ad for the magazine - no other content. If you want a comprehensive listings site you pretty much have to go to Zap2It.com (and they've "improved" the site, which means that it isn't of course). News about Canadian shows? Not likely there, and nearly impossible to find elsewhere. And don't even think about shows like eTalk Daily on CTV or ET Canada on Global for news about Canadian shows. Mostly they're concerned about Canadian "links" to American shows, American shows that are on their networks, or Brad & Angelina's baby.

It's a sorry, sorry mess, but I have a suspicion that it's a sad and sorry mess that the two private networks want. They want their Canadian shows not to drawn an audience so they can complain to the CRTC that Canadians don't want Canadian shows (Global is notorious for this sort of thing - a few years ago it was Global that wanted the CRTC to allow Canadian made infomercials to be counted as Canadian content). Their bread and butter is showing American shows because they can get them cheap, in much the same way that they can do co-productions at a lower cost to them. I will admit that CTV seems to be making an effort at making quality Canadian shows, with Corner Gas, Degrassi The Next Generation and yeah I'll even say Canadian Idol (it started on Monday in case you didn't know). But here's the annoying part. In her article Diane mentions a new show called Alice, I Think which is currently showing on the Comedy Network to generate "buzz" for its debut on the main CTV network. Alice, I Think is produced by Vancover's Omni Film, which produced a show called Robson Arms which first showed up last summer and reappeared on the network this past winter. I saw the summer run and I enjoyed it; there's something about hearing Megan Follows - Anne of Green Gables herself - saying "shithole" to give me a sort of perverse joy, and to be fair the show had an excellent cast that included Shirley Douglas, William B. Davis and Margot Kidder (and a great cameo by Will & Grace's Eric McCormack in one episode). But here's the annoying thing. Not only wasn't I aware that the show was being repeated during the winter, I was also unaware that CTV had renewed the series for a second season almost eight months ago. Robson Arms is a good show, but how are people supposed to know that if they not only can't find it but don't even know that it still exists. Is it any wonder that Canadians don't watch Canadian shows?

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