Thursday, March 29, 2007

Culture Wins One Over Commerce

So let me explain something. I'm not a musical person. I couldn't tell the difference between Nellie Furtado and Nellie McClung. Okay, that's wrong. I can tell you the differences between Nellie Furtado and Nellie McClung, but only because I know a little about Nellie McClung. When it comes to Nellie Furtado I'm a blank slate. So you can tell that the Juno Awards – Canada's answer to the Grammys and named for Pierre Juneau who as head of the CRTC introduced stringent Canadian Content regulations for TV and Radio – don't exactly turn my world upside down even though they're in my home town of Saskatoon. In fact if I got on my bike and used a short cut I know about I could reach TCU Place – formerly Saskatchewan Place – temporary home of the Junos and normally home of the mighty, mighty (pitiful) Saskatoon Blades in about 20 minutes. But I wouldn't because quite frankly I could care less. I mean right now I'm listening to CBC's Radio 2 right now and they don't play the sort of thing that gets honoured at awards shows, at least not on the TV broadcast. Face it, when was the last time you saw the Grammy for best Classical Album awarded during the television broadcast? Yeah that's right, never.

But I am all about the TV and that's where the Junos suddenly became interesting. You see the Junos were scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Sunday night. That's 7 p.m. Saskatoon time, which is Central Standard Time which really means it's Mountain Daylight Time (but just try explaining that to people around here). The problem is that we as Canadians live in a country that spans five and a half time zones, and if you'll recall the list of the most popular shows I ran last Monday, most Canadians watch The Amazing Race on Sundays. That includes me, as I`m sure you all know by now.

So the folks at CTV faced a conundrum: do they show the Junos live and move The Amazing Race out of its normal timeslot in most of the country, or run The Amazing Race at its usual time which coincides with the time that CBS shows it in the United States and cable systems across Canada (except of course for Saskatchewan which is too odd and unimportant for them to adjust the schedule so that US shows are seen at the same time that the American stations in Detroit show them). Really it was a no-brainer – they decided to do the right thing... and tape delay the Junos in most of the country, including Saskatchewan.

Apparently there was outrage. I`m not entirely sure from whom but there was outrage felt. When I first found out about this decision, I contacted Diane Kristine, who not only does the fine blog Unified Theory of Nothing Much but also created the website TV Eh! What`s Up in Canadian TV. Her reaction was admittedly a bit more musically interested than mine but still similar. Essentially she felt that the Juno show would receive better ratings with The Amazing Race as a lead in than going head to head with the American feed of the show. She did preface her statement with a "sadly", which I probably wouldn't have done. Actually I do know where a lot of the outrage came from – the Canadian music industry. According to a statement from CTV and the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, there was an "overwhelming feedback" from artists, managers and record labels. "They were feeling that . . . it really looked as though we were treating Canadian music in a way that made it look like second-class citizens," said CARAS chairman Stephen Stohn. "We reacted immediately to that and said, 'No, the important thing is: Canadian music comes number 1.' " Both CARAS and CTV had initially agreed to scheduling the Junos after The Amazing Race, which usually draws an audience of over 2 million viewers, as a way to increase viewership of the awards show. It's not without precedent – two years ago the Junos were tape delayed because it conflicted with Desperate Housewives. Initially the Junos were to air live in the Atlantic provinces (at 10 p.m.) and Alberta (at 7 p.m. – they get their American channels from Spokane in the Pacific time zone) and by tape delay in the rest of Canada including Saskatoon. The current plan has the show starting at 5 p.m. CST rather than as originally scheduled at 7 p.m. and airing live in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta. It will still be tape delayed in Manitoba and British Columbia, and will be reaired in Saskatchewan at 9 p.m.

Writer Denis McGrath who is a staunch defender of Canadian TV production was very much opposed to CTV's decision. In a post on his blog Dead Things ON Sticks he wrote "that pesky culture vs. commerce thing keeps rearing its ugly head, too, all because of the peculiarity of broadcasting in Canada: private broadcasters make their money by aping and piggybacking on U.S. nets, NOT by developing and broadcasting their own programs." He follows this up with an interesting observation "I've said this before, but it bears repeating: the very same arguments made against continuing subsidies and support for the domestic TV industry were made against Cancon in music. Yet Cancon rules for radio allowed the Canadian industry to mature, grow, and eventually become popular; popular enough that a Canadian private network would face a difficult choice between two properties.... If Canadian TV hasn't reached a popularity point with audiences yet that rivals the Junos, it's a problem of implementation – NOT basic philosophy." Frankly I think he's right to a point, although music – and a home-grown self-sufficient music industry – is a lot easier and less expensive to develop than television shows or a home-grown and self sufficient television industry. But that's a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that the current model, which not only allows Canadian stations and networks to buy American product but encourages them to do so through the mechanism of simultaneous substitution (which puts the Canadian signal – and advertising – over the top of the same American signal on cable systems) is not one that will encourage quality Canadian production or the development of a domestic industry. That's a crutch that private radio never had and may explain why the Canadian Content regulations for radio spawned a viable and vibrant recording industry in Canada.

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