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Loosening Talent Rules Would Be A Move Backwards For Canadian TV Industry

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Caspar Benson
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One definition of insanity is repeating the same action but expecting a different result.

Recently the CRTC -- the overseeing body regulating Canadian TV -- announced it wants to loosen rules that limit importing non-Canadian talent (behind and before the camera).

Productions have always been allowed to import talent. This needs to be stated because there's a myth that Canada forbids the use of non-Canadian talent. Killjoys, Motive, Orphan Black, X Company, Sensitive Skin and Dark Matter are just a few examples of Canadian TV series in which imported actors appear either as regulars or guest stars. (And what rules there are only apply to productions that want government hand-outs anyway).

The rules weren't put in place to keep out imported talent -- they were put in place because no one trusted producers to give domestic talent a fair shake. (And history has shown this isn't just paranoia).

So why does the CRTC want to change this? Well, because ostensibly hiring more imported talent will allow Canadian productions to rise to the heights of international acclaim.

Let's break some of this down:

Currently English-Canadian TV is enjoying an unprecedented Golden Age (a term I use deliberately to annoy a few snobs). I'm pretty sure there's never been another period when there have been so many Canadian-made TV series that have boasted solid domestic ratings (Private Eyes, Murdoch Mysteries, etc.) and/or international distribution and acclaim (Orphan Black, etc.).

The CRTC wants to turn back the clock to the days when Canadian TV was often comprised of franchise series' based on American properties starring imported actors. We've been down this route and the results were problematic to say the least.

That isn't to say there weren't successes. You could even argue the old formula laid a needed foundation for the industry -- but one it has since risen above. Now the CRTC is looking at a bunch of teenagers on 10-speeds and saying what's needed is to go back to tricycles with frilly tassels.

I understand the behind-the-scenes argument. That it makes dealing with Hollywood partners easier if the producers don't have to insist on Canadian content. But, um, the easiest path isn't always the best. It would have been easier to make Jurassic Park using hand puppets -- but I'm pretty sure the movie would've bombed if they had.

Because one of the problems is that -- and forgive me for paraphrasing the human cheeto currently raping the American political system -- when Canadian producers import American talent it's not always the best talent. It's the talent they can afford and who aren't busy on American productions (which is why Canadian film history is littered with the bones of movies starring the likes of Lee Majors and Daniel and Stephen Baldwin).

Snideness aside, I'm not trying to diss hard-working, talented American actors. But the rationale for importing talent is they will bolster the production -- but is there much evidence for this? If they did we wouldn't have to be having this discussion because the Canadian film & TV business would be churning out massive hit after massive hit.

You know what boosts ratings (and box office)? Making a good program.

No one wants an industry that shuts its doors to importing talent -- I can point to a bunch of recent Canadian productions where the imported actors gave great performances. But what Canadian artists don't want is to go back to the days when Canadians aren't even allowed to read for a lead part because it's been earmarked for one of the Baldwin brothers. Or for writers to find they can't even land a meeting because the producer is down in Hollywood excitedly listening to American writers pitch The Trouble with Tracy: The Next Generation.

What they want is for imported talent to be hired because they were the best person for the job -- not because they were imported.

So why would the CRTC buy into this idea if it's such a flawed premise?

Maybe they don't know enough about the business, global trends, or the industry's sordid history. Maybe they've been sold on fairy stories about how the only thing holding back Canadian TV is not being able to import Americans. Perhaps they are dazzled by fantasies of going to industry soirees and dancing the night away with some buxom American starlet who is too young for them by half -- instead of having to jostle with Eric Peterson or Stephen McHattie for the last canape.

(I'm being snarky but I'm making a point. The idea that policy decisions might be influenced by Hollywood glamour is not implausible. Nor is the idea that bureaucrats might be seduced by fantasies of Scarlet Johansson and George Clooney coming up to star in Canadian movies and TV shows).

Almost all the responses I've seen to this proposal have been negative -- so who exactly was whispering in the CRTC's ears that it was a good idea?

Maybe it's production company executives who want the rules loosened because they fondly recall the days when their main job was as essentially a regional branch plant manager working for a Hollywood studio, negotiating deals while sun-bathing down in California, making millions while the domestic industry crumbled around them.

Yet are they any different than any other group? Would screenwriters be defending actors if the loosened rules threatened actors, but not writers? Would actors care about writers as long as acting roles were protected?

But this all gets to the fundamental question: What's the point of a TV (and film) industry?

What are we hoping it will do? Provide employment? Bring in foreign investment? Be a kind of cultural ambassador to the world? Provide a Canadian perspective on the screen?

Opening the gates to more imported talent certainly won't do either of the latter two. It won't do the first point if it leads to less job opportunities for Canadians. And as for foreign investment -- since this is about loosening the rules for accessing Canadian funding it sounds more like Canadians will be on the hook for the bills.

So what's the point? Other than aging executives wrangling opportunities to slow dance with Hollywood starlets?

I don't have a perfect solution to the problems in Canadian TV, but I'm pretty sure resurrecting the policies of yesteryear is the dictionary definition of insanity.

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