Sunday, January 02, 2011

On The Fourth Day Of Christmas

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love – Television – gave to me… four reasons to complain about being Canadian.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love just about everything about being Canadian. I love our style of Bowling, I’m quite fond of the Queen being on the money, and after my mother’s heart attack in November, you bet I love our government run health care system and phooey on Americans for not understanding how and why it works. Suffice it to say that if we lived in the United States my mother would either be dead, bankrupt or both.

But still, there are a few things wrong about how this country works, and  how it impacts me trying to do this. Those things are of course Television related. These aren’t in any particular order, just thoughts as we go along.

1. Media Concentration: You think it’s bad in the United States? Consider this: The vast majority of private TV stations (as opposed to the CBC’s stations) are owned by three companies. These three companies also own a large percentage of Canada’s cable TV stations. These three companies are Rogers, Bell Canada, and Shaw. By no coincidence whatsoever, these three companies own both of Canada’s satellite broadcasting systems – Bell ExpressVu and Shaw Direct – and the largest and second largest cable companies in the country – Rogers and Shaw Cable. 

Five years ago – January 2006 – things were somewhat different. I say somewhat because while the three major “systems” (that has a specific meaning in Canadian TV that I won’t get into) owned almost all of the stations that aired their shows, there was a far greater variety of voices in terms of ownership. It’s true that Bell owned CTV and some cable networks, but Rogers and Shaw both owned comparatively small cable channel group. The Chum Media Group owned the CITY-TV system, having taken over the Craig Media Group two years before which gave them most of the stations in the group. CHUM also owned a fairly significant cable presence both from channels they had started and those they acquired from Craig. The Global network, now owned by Shaw, was then owned by Canwest along with a number of specialty channels. Alliance-Atlantis, now exclusively a movie production and distribution company, had a significant cable presence. In 2006, CHUM sold their broadcasting assets to Rogers and their cable channels to CTV, while Alliance-Atlantis sold its channels to Canwest and they are now owned by Shaw.

In my opinion this trend towards media concentration is a bad thing. It restricts the local responsiveness of stations in the community. Economic decisions mean that in Saskatchewan (for example) local newscast aren’t local any more. There are only two of them, and they have become more regional broadcasts than local. People in Prince Albert, which used to have its own CTV station now watch news from Saskatoon, which has a primary focus on Saskatoon but also has to serve not only that city and Prince Albert and all of the other communities in Northern Saskatchewan. 

Another part of the situation is that concentration of ownership can effectively restrict what we see. The former CEO of Shaw Media, Jim Shaw, quite famously refused to pay a fee to the Canadian Television Fund (which he was required to do as part of his license) because he felt that Canadians didn’t want to watch the shows that were being supported by the fund, and in part because he disagreed with some of the shows being funded (Trailer Park Boys in particular was a show that Shaw loathed). Back then, all Shaw could do was complain and make this sort of “grandstand play.” Today Shaw, or rather his successor at Shaw Media, can largely determine what shows will and won’t be made.

2. I can’t be on The Amazing Race: That may seem like a selfish one but it is a reason to complain about being Canadian. I can’t a participant on The Amazing Race, or Survivor, or Big Brother, or many of the prime time game shows like the current Million Dollar Money Drop, and it’s all because I don’t have a US passport. In a recent visit to Canada Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan said that if Canadians wanted to participate in The Amazing Race they should get a Canadian network to do their own version of the show. That of course is never going to happen, either in the specific case of The Amazing Race or the general idea of Canadian based reality shows. Why? Because the Canadian networks have no valid reason to do their own version of these shows. Canadians are huge fans of The Amazing Race – it is one of the top rated shows on Canadian TV – but the Canadian networks get a show like The Amazing Race for far less money than it would cost them to produce a Canadian version, particularly when you realize that a Canadian network would be unable to sell it in the international community to recoup some of the cost… like the producers of The Amazing Race (or Survivor or Big Brother, or Dancing With The Stars) are able to do.

It’s something of a shame really. There’s no real reason – beyond cost really – why we in Canada shouldn’t have a Dancing With The Stars featuring Canadian celebrities and sports figures, or a Canadian Big Brother. We do have a Canadian version of So You Think You Can Dance and we have had Canadian Idol. But Canadian Idol is no more and a large part of the reason for that is that CTV, the Canadian network that ran Canadian Idol decided that they couldn’t afford it.

3. Finding shows: It isn’t easy. On occasion I get offers to participate in phone interviews with people from shows I’ve never heard of let alone watched, or information and promotional material for shows. I’d like to at least try some of this stuff but I don’t feel that I can do a lot of this stuff because I don’t know if the show is airing in Canada or if it does air here I don’t know when, or on what channel. It’s one of the reasons why so much of what I write about is broadcast TV. I don’t know if Psych is available in Canada, or if it is where I can find it.

Another side of this is that a lot of the shows that really interest me are on the higher priced premium movie channels that I don’t subscribe to because I can’t afford them. I’d love to write about something like Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Men Of A Certain Age and a number of other shows, but I can’t because they’re only available on two premium movie channels which would cost me $17.00 each. I can’t afford to spend $34.00 a month to watch these shows, some of which are basic cable shows in the United States. Sure, these may eventually make their way to non-premium cable here, in much the same way that Dexter and The Closer have, but by the time they do, the episodes are often a year or two (or more) old and any reviews that I could write about them would be out of date at best, irrelevant (because the show is no longer on the air) at worst.

4. Blocked feeds: These are the bane of my existence, particularly around Upfronts, but it often also applies when publicists send me links to clips. Last year all of the American networks had their trailers available on YouTube, but only NBC (and I think maybe The CW) had their new series trailers available to viewers outside of the United States. This made it very hard for me to put together a package of trailers for this blog. Even if I could find a source for clips that were legitimately available to me as a Canadian, my readership isn’t exclusively Canadian – in fact if the results from Google Analytics are correct the largest single nationality is American – and those people who aren’t Canadian won’t be able to see those Canadian legal clips. During the last Upfronts I managed to find a source for clips for all of the networks so that I and all of my readers could see them…until YouTube shut the clips down a few days later. With publicists, I’ll take the link that they’ve sent me, and usually end up being told that the clip that I’m supposed to be seeing – because the publicist wants me to see it – isn’t available in my jurisdiction. It is frustrating (to say the least).

A second aspect of this relates to people posting clips. It isn’t uncommon for people to post Hulu clips, or clips from AOL’s In2TV. Which is all very well in most circumstances – which is to say when they’re Americans serving an American audience – but when it comes to non-American audiences we’re out of luck. Obviously it’s usually impossible for bloggers or website owners posting clips like this to find an alternative source for this sort of clip that isn’t blocked, but they should at least be aware that the problem exists.

I’m constantly amused/irritated by people like Leo Laporte who say that broadcast TV, or even the current model of broadcast and cable, is outmoded going to go away because people can use services like Hulu and Netflix and devices like AppleTV, the Boxee Box, and other ways of linking your TV to the Internet to get shows online. This they say allows you to pick and choose what you want to see when you want to see it. It’s probably Nirvana for those who understand how to make it work and and can afford it or actually be bothered to use it. The thing is that so much of the technology and the services that it depends on to be able to work isn’t available outside of the United States. There is no Hulu in Canada, and given that our major content providers and Internet service providers are also owned by cable and satellite providers, I doubt that there will be anything like Hulu in Canada for a very, very long time.


tim gueguen said...

A good example of something I'd like to watch on Hulu is some seocnd season episodes of Hill Street Blues. Unfortunately the season one DVD didn't sell well enough for further seasons to be released in North America.

cable companies in my area said...

CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) has basically handed Canada over to Bell on a silver platter. They have allowed Bell to impose a 25 GB UBB on their wholesalers, which will pretty much kill unlimited plans, and the bills for any plan with a cap above that will likely increase dramatically. Rogers has stated they plan on implementing something similar in the summer. So much for just getting Netflix (not to mention downloading 10+ GB games in the future)?