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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

A Window or a Mirror?

A new book produces startling ideas about the future of Canadian television

Trina McQueen

Canadian Television Today

Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan

University of Calgary Press

168 pages, paperback

If you’re a television person, like me, your curse is to look at everything in life as a possible TV show. Let’s take the authors of Canadian Television Today. Could they be a show? They’re young, they’re gorgeous, they live in Calgary. Excellent start—another great Canadian regional sitcom! Okay, but they’re academics specializing in communication theory. How can we make that work? Let’s give them academic sidelines. One can write about comics and the other about sexuality. We’ll throw in a best friend, say a slacker, girlie professor of feminist studies. We’ll make the dean a small guy from Toronto who insists on wearing cowboy gear. It’s “The Bart and Becky Show”! Major points for regional and we can work in the multi-culti stuff later.

There could be a little problem with the releases. Professor Rebecca Sullivan and Professor Bart Beaty have different ideas about television. For them, “The Bart and Becky Show” would be just another wasted effort in the ongoing paternalistic attempt to impose the dominant values of western culture on a Canadian audience that, increasingly, neither needs nor wants those values.

They propose an entirely new model of Canadian television, a way to unshackle it from its pathological dependence on and rejection of American programming. They argue that a fresh concentration on local programming and an openness to television from around the world could bring Canada’s people to a more relevant and rewarding citizenship.

It’s an audacious and original idea. I happen to think it is probably wrong and perfectly impractical, but maybe it’s me who is wrong and impractical. More importantly, though, the need for innovative thinking and a good kick in the shibboleths for Canadian television is so necessary that I would suggest that anyone in and around broadcasting read Canadian Television Today. And I’d extend that invitation to anyone who occasionally thinks about the idea of Canada—because this is really a book about being Canadian and it has some startling notions about that.

Canadian Television Today will not be a comfortable read for television people. Beaty and Sullivan don’t pull any punches. From Ben Mulroney to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, no one gets out alive. The authors’ fellow Calgarian, cable baron Jim Shaw, achieved broadcasting industry infamy this fall when he slagged Canadian television programs. This book makes Shaw sound like an ACTRA executive. Although, unlike the cable guy, I think the authors are partial to Trailer Park Boys. They call it lowbrow, but in, you know, a good way.

Overall, Beaty and Sullivan give a failing grade to almost everything about Canadian television: the Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (“embedded paternalism” … “increasing irrelevance”), the production industry (“bemoaning the poor viewing habits of Canadians while seeking out new funding opportunities”), private television (“[many] efforts … to reduce or evade their licence obligations”), the CBC (“the idea of the CBC is far more powerful than its reality”), Parliament’s Heritage committee (“easily distracted by their pet issues and the issues of their campaign contributors”), Don Cherry (“racist and sexist remarks”) and Canadian Idol (“dull, homogenous … the worst of Canadian television”).

It’s all rather fun, as long as you are not in the index. And you won’t be if you are from Quebec. The authors acknowledge that Quebec has got television right and they have nothing to contribute. Like every other English Canadian interested in broadcasting, they can only stand outside in the perpetual gloom watching, as through French windows, the bright lights, beautiful people and the rich nourishment that Quebec television provides. Real stars! Top ten shows! Cultural specificity! And yet, even in Quebec, television cannot survive without subsidies. The threat by Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Peladeau to withdraw his support from the program funding agency, the Canadian Television Fund, has received oceans more ink and air in Quebec than Jim Shaw’s similar threat in the rest of Canada. Editorial cartoons, libel suits, accusations of moral failure and hooliganism—even in television policy, Quebec produces better drama.

Back in English Canada, the authors’ widespread disapproval does have a theme. They believe Canadian television has a history of making two calamitous mistakes. First, Canadian television defines itself only in relation to American television. “The anxiety over American influence is so keenly felt in Canada that it circumscribes nearly every facet of national cultural policy. In particular, this anxiety defines Canadian television.” Second, Canadian television policy has always, from the Aird report in 1929 to the Lincoln report in 2003, seen western culture as dominant and has never acknowledged a need to share real power with other cultures.

One of the surprises of this academic book is that it takes the power of television seriously. The authors are convinced that television is “of vital importance not only in media and cultural debates but in discussions about the flow of world order on national, global, and local scales.” They are entirely correct.

Television is, quite simply, the most seductive form of communication known to humankind. In Canada, the average viewing time each week is 23 hours. Most readers of the LRC will watch much less. That means that your fellow Canadians are watching much more to make up for you. In a lifetime, the average viewer will spend more time watching television than going to school, work or church; more time than playing with children, talking with friends, exercising or going to all sports, cultural and public events combined. The internet? Since it arrived significantly about ten years ago, television viewing has gone not down, but up. Television is ubiquitous—in 99 percent of Canadian homes. The majority of homes have more than one set. Around the world, business leaders, governments, advocacy groups and charities spend more than $75 billion in television advertising. All these groups believe that television can change not just our brand preferences, but also our politics, our religious life, our sexual habits and our social conscience.

And yet, as Beaty and Sullivan point out, television is almost ignored by academics. “What struck us most was the lack of attention [Canadian television] has received from scholars and critics … The issues had been dealt with more forcefully in the practice of television viewers than in the theories of television scholars.”

Beaty and Sullivan also distinguish themselves by actually looking at and writing about Canadian television programs. Unfortunately, they spend so much of this section dissecting (or beating up) what’s on now that they have little time to make the programming case for their transformation of television.

They are convinced that a return to local programming is key to a more confident and responsive Canadian television, but little evidence is provided of the demand they say is “pronounced.” Perhaps they think it is obvious, since the provision of local news is one of the few television events that rouses politicians at every level, draws hundreds of letters and submissions to the CRTC, and occasionally attracts picket lines, print editorials and other forms of harassment of television executives hoping for a quiet life. As president of CTV, I was preremptorily summoned to Ottawa for emergency meetings with the minister of Canadian Heritage over some cuts to the local news operation in Timmins, Ontario. That was nothing compared to the living hell that CBC president Robert Rabinovitch went through when he attempted to eliminate CBC’s local newscasts.

And yet, I timidly admit that I am not completely sure that the devotion to local television beats so fiercely in the Canadian breast. My apostasy began a few years ago when satellite dishes were marketed and sold in large numbers to people around small towns where cable did not reach. Even though people knew they would not receive their local news, they chose the satellite, with its movies and professional sports offerings. The local news audience in areas like Yorkton declined by as much as 40 percent. And there are other straws in the wind: just before CHUM was sold to CTV, the network announced it would trim its award-winning City Pulse news operations and move to a talk format for economic reasons. Local advertising is the only genre of television advertising to decrease in the last ten years, and it has trended down for four of the last five years. Although viewers tell opinion surveys that local news is the most important television for them, the university-based Canadian Media Research Consortium mega poll in 2005 showed no difference in the actual consumption of national versus local news. The highest audience gain for any news program in the last five years has been to a national news program: Global News. Ratings are up for both national news services, CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet.

There are counter-arguments. The total cross-country ratings for CTV’s Evening News make it one of two or three Canadian programs regularly in the top 15 ratings list. CBC radio has had enormous success by redefining community programming. CBC television has ambitious plans to revive its local news service, with MyCBC, now under development as a pilot in Vancouver. MyCBC would combine citizen-engaged journalism on television with a strong online community-based news offering. CBC radio’s successful community shows would join the partnership. I hope my doubts are shown to be comprehensively wrong, and that Canadian Television Today is prescient.

But perhaps the authors’ main concern and their great hope for Canadian television is that its future could be truly multicultural. Now, they say, that future is blocked by CRTC policies.

As evidence, they cite the decision of the CRTC to deny a licence to Italy’s RAI, after objections by the Corus-owned Telelatino (a decision later reversed), and the restrictive licencing of Al Jazeera. At the same time, the CRTC licensed the Fox News Network, which the authors describe as ethnically, culturally and linguistically intolerant. The regulator was wrong, they say:

The CRTC’s policies minimize foreign-language intervention into Canadian airwaves, keeping linguistic minorities in secure cubbyholes that ensure Anglophone cultural dominance. Foreign culture is restricted to the marginalized space of multiculturalism, where values of folk, tradition, and heritage prevent them from influencing the aesthetic authority of English Canada.

At the same time that the authors urge regulators to provide more space for minorities, they propose less space for traditional Canadian television. They would like more co-productions with countries outside North America, more subtitled programs from other countries and more local programming. Fundamentally sane, they do not propose the dropping of American programs. What should go, they think, are the programs that cling to a nationalist dream of unity and identity. Instead, they advocate “a globalized outlook of heterogenous culture.”

Them’s fighting words. But first, Beaty and Sullivan blithely admit their plan would mean smaller shares, lower ratings, viewer fragmentation and reduced profits. That’s okay, they say, because it is happening anyway. In their dismissal of economics, they join their despised nationalists in the traditional belief that if it is a worthy idea, finances do not matter. They do. They always have. If there is a present and worsening failure of Canadian television, it is not a failure of creativity or entrepreneurship or ideals, or even of audience. It is a failure of a business model. In that model, Canadian television programs do not have to be profitable. They are made available by regulation and financed by subsidies of public television and independent production, or by profits from the purchase and exhibition of American programs.

As for subsidies, public television’s budgets have been whittled away for 30 years. CBC television executives refer to their network as half a public broadcaster, since they must now raise half the funds to operate from the commercial marketplace. Subsidies for independent production, mainly from the CTF, came under fierce attack this fall from the cable companies that must provide the funds for the CTF under regulation. Only a few dreamers still imagine that government will provide more subsidy money for television.

As for American programs, the costs to Canadian television networks are rising and margins are falling. Technology is threatening both exclusivity and simultaneous substitution, which has allowed Canadian networks to show their U.S. buys on both their channel and an American one, reaping the benefits of the increased audience.

Television companies are well aware that both the public subsidy and the “U.S. pays” models are weakening. They are looking at consolidation, exclusivity, multi-platform content, and aggregating rights and audiences as solutions. It is not likely that subtitled Spanish movies will be a big part of their plans. Multicultural niche content will be available, but only at prices that will produce earnings. For example, the “World Cup of Cricket” package offered to Canadian viewers in March was priced at a hefty $179. This could produce another kind of marginalization.

But more worrying than the economics of globalized television is the philosophic vision presented by Beaty and Sullivan. They believe that “it is not as clear that Canada is a nation.” And by that they mean “a cultural entity that can clearly define itself and assert conditions of membership based on shared experiences, values, language, and the like.”

The efforts to assert a national cultural identity have largely been unsuccessful and, indeed, have marginalized many Canadians, they say. Instead, their dream is a “fractured, fragmented vision of culture” where “western traditions” are just part of a truly multicultural society.

It is a tremendously daring assertion at this time of Hérouxville, the identity gap and a census that predicts that most of Canada’s population growth in the future will come through immigration. For some it will be a stirring goal, a breakthrough that could make Canada a generous leader in an inevitably globalizing society. For others, it is a turning of backs on hard-won principles and values, a future of constant instability and negotiation. It is a vision of separateness, all of us kept apart, in front of our cool blue screen that is no longer a window, but a mirror, reflecting the languages, the jokes, the sports, the laws and the ideals of every place but this one. And yet, this is the essential debate our country must have, and Canadian Television Today enters the debate forcefully. 

At one point in this book, the writers shyly admit to being a bit romantic, as if this were a fault. If it is, I have it. I am completely romantic about Canada, a country I see as inspiring and modestly heroic. Its identity is always a work in progress, but it is not a blank sheet. Canada does not begin with the last person who is born or moves here. Adrienne Clarkson, the immigrant who became governor general, once said that she advised new citizens to “take Canada on, all of it.” The Inuit, the Riel rebellion, residential schools and Vimy, the Milgaard case and Expo ’67. The last spike, the underground railway, the cod fishery, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Bluenose. The Great Bear Rainforest. Deepa Mehta and Michael Ondaatje. René Lévesque and Bev Oda. The Stanley Cup. Winter. All of it. A national dream does not have to exclude or marginalize. It can comfort and inspire. And even the search for it can bring value to life. Canada, said the poet Patrick Anderson, is the wind that wants a flag.

The people who will come to Canada in the future will bring many gifts to us and we will learn from them, and be changed by them. But our past and our present have much to offer them as well. Canadian television that takes Canada on, all of it, could be one of our greatest gifts.

Trina McQueen, a broadcaster and journalist, sits on the boards of the Canadian Opera Company, McClelland and Stewart and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She has served on numerous other cultural boards, including Canadian Stage, the CBC and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.