The popularity and critical acclaim of shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have led many to proclaim we are in a golden age of television. Globe and Mail TV columnist John Doyle wants to know how Canada fits into this era.
“What has Canada contributed to this? Pretty much nothing,” he wrote in his Oct. 10 column. “Look at the last 14 years of Canadian TV and what you see is almost complete creative failure.”
CTV’s prime-time schedule is filled with U.S. comedies like The Big Bang Theory and action shows like Marvel’s Agents of Shield. It’s a similar story on Global and City. On the CBC, fewer Canadians watch its most popular drama, Murdoch Mysteries, than reruns of The Big Bang Theory.
This is old news for Canadian producers, who have been competing with Hollywood since the 1930s. But the rise of disruptive technologies like Internet TV and lack of regulation around that format, could pose a threat to Canadian television production and the livelihood of graduates from Ryerson’s RTA school of media and film programs.
Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), wants to know what Canadians want from local TV. He launched a national discussion on the future of television on Oct. 24 at Ryerson University.
“Technology is driving people to want more choice,” Blais said. “More choice comes with a trade-off.”
Canadian broadcasters are concerned because online video streaming sites like Netflix are unaffected by Canadian content laws. Canadian stations such as CBC, CTV and Global are legally required to carry a certain amount of Canadian content. Cancon, the Canadian content rules, were put in place in 1970. Regulators were concerned about the threat of U.S.-based productions, which have a much greater budget than Canadian television.
“The other broadcasters are going to justifiably complain, and the CRTC has twice looked at this and said it’s not damaging the overall system … but it will,” said Gregory Taylor, principal investigator at Canadian Spectrum Policy Research. “I think it’s a matter of time. So, one of the questions we’re going to have to ask, is Canadian content doomed? Or do we put Canadian content on Netflix?”
Ryerson RTA instructor Dana Lee argues Canadian content needs to be protected. Canadian content may not always be as good as U.S. television, but “everyone has to start somewhere,” he said. “If we just say, well, we don’t have the money, forget about this, we’ll just buy the American stuff — the answer is, you might as well just be a part of America at that point, in terms of your culture.
“Our Canadian stories are different from American stories, they just are. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t have an APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), which I think is a necessary part of Canadian culture.”
If Canadian broadcasters want to survive, Lee says they should rethink their distribution model.
“I think the distribution model is old school. It’s a model based on the 1950s — individual channels put on individual things, certain shows on at certain times. Appointment television.”
Lee says distributors who want to compete with online streaming sites should use Netflix’s model.
“Don’t bundle anything, take absolutely everything. How we’re going to charge you is the way we charge you on the Internet — it’s all out there — your bandwidth is 80 gigabytes a month, knock yourself out, take whatever you want.”
He compares this phenomenon to what went on with the music industry with the rise of digital downloads. People would share pirated copies of digital music with their friends. ITunes came up with a magic formula that won music-lovers over. ATO Records co-founder Michael McDonald told the Associated Press: “The sky was falling, and iTunes provided a place where we were going to monetize music and in theory stem the tide of piracy.”
As Lee says, “They started to unbundle music. I think the unbundling model in any medium is a good thing. May the best show win.”
But the CRTC doesn’t know if it will be possible to protect Cancon online.
Blais says Canadians need a new approach to managing Canadian content. “I’m more of a promotionist than a protectionist. What would concern me is people take the old tool kit and show up and try to utilize the old tool kit (in a) totally different environment. If you have a plumbing problem at home you don’t show up with a hammer and a saw.”
Even if distributors don’t choose to unbundle, new programs will have to be creative to stand out. If they aren’t creative, they won’t be noticed, they won’t be watched and they will be cancelled.
One example of Canadian creativity is the show Orphan Black, a science fiction thriller about a woman who discovers that she is one of many clones. After receiving rave reviews from publications like the Boston Globe and the New York Times, you would think Orphan Black would be a Canadian success story. But it’s not. The success has been ripped out from beneath the feet of the Canadian crew that runs the project: it’s funded by BBC America.
The fact that large-scale dramas like Orphan Black don’t really exist on Canadian television stations concerns Taylor. He says independent production companies are suffering because networks are doing a lot of production in-house, whether they are daytime talk entertainment shows, or cheap reality television.
“Broadcasters in Canada often don’t want to invest in bigger budget work like Orphan Black,” he said. “Generally, they have not been willing to sink that amount of money into it.”
It’s much cheaper to buy the licensing rights to an American show and produce cheap reality TV than to pour money into an expensive drama. This is why Taylor says that Canadian broadcasters are much more willing to fund reality shows like Dragons’ Den or Battle of the Blades.
CTV was hugely successful transplanting The Amazing Race into Canada. “They had a ratings blockbuster,” says Taylor, “and they didn’t have to hire an actor, a writer, (and) they didn’t have to come up with a concept. There is a natural tendency by a lot of the broadcasters to play it safe, and in the end this hurts … the creative productions like Orphan Black.”
His solution to guaranteeing an abundance of quality Canadian content is to sink more money into the cash-strapped CBC.
The CBC costs each Canadian about $33 a year. In the United Kingdom, however, households each pay the equivilent of about $240. Taylor points out that the CBC receives its funding year-to-year, while the BBC receives funding in seven-year blocks.
“If you want to compare the BBC to the CBC, you have to start on some kind of even platform, and we’re not even there yet,” said Taylor. “If you want to protect Canadian content in the digital age, the best guarantee of that is to hugely fund the CBC,” he added, citing a report by the C.D. Howe Institute, a conservative think-tank.
“As we might know, that hasn’t happened. In fact we’re cutting the CBC.”
Though the situation looks pretty grim, one soon-to-be Ryerson grad doesn’t think Canadian TV is suffering.
“Canadian content is really finding its way,” said fourth-year RTA student Meagan Kelly, who wants to be a TV script writer. “Canada has more opportunity now, and they are able to produce content that maybe isn’t the exact same quality as American content, but it is starting to get a better play. With shows like Rookie Blue that are going into America and doing well, I think Canadian television writing is fine.”
As someone who has worked in the Canadian television industry, and an instructor who watches his students go off to do great things, Lee agrees that programming created north of the border is worth watching.
“The reason I watch Canadian television now is because it’s every bit as good as American television,” said Lee, “and frankly a bit smarter, more intelligent and (better) thought out than American television. It’s actually better content. I think Canadian content has improved because we have to compete with American programming.”
Now, he says, we have the talent pool and the ability to compete with U.S. productions.
Back in the atrium of the George Vari Engineering Building, Blais listened to the concerns of the group of RTA instructors and Ryerson students as they talked about the future of Canadian TV. Blais invited speakers to share their solutions on navigating this increasingly complex media environment. During the discussion, Orphan Black, Rookie Blue and Degrassi were cited as Canadian success stories.
“Hopefully one day people will be trying to circumvent blockages to see Canadian content,” said Blais.