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We're Asking the Wrong Questions About Canadian Television

09/26/2014 12:35 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
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Recently the CRTC -- the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission -- has been holding hearings trying to map out a future for Canadian TV in a changing technological environment. The issues affect the "content providers" (i.e.: broadcasters), "content producers" (i.e.: artists), and "content consumers" (i.e.: you an' me).

Broadcasters have one goal: to have more money than anyone else (as Cerebus the Aardvark once defined his world view).

Artists have one goal: to pursue their muse and have someone else pick up the tab.

The public has one goal: to watch as much as they want for as little cost as is possible.

What too few realize is that the only way they'll achieve even a portion of their individual goals is by working with, not against, the other groups.

Often these discussions involve questions like: should we have mandated Canadian-made programming? Should broadcasters receive protection? But, arguably, they are asking the wrong question. I'll get to that in a moment.

First though, consider a phrase that has been bandied about recently: "consumer choice." That's the trump card that seems to be used to beat all other cards. It's supposed to sound empowering. But isn't there something suggestive that those championing "choice" are a Conservative prime minister, frequently accused of being an autocratic control freak, and multinational corporations like Netflix? These aren't little guys striking a blow against "The Man" -- these are "The Man!"

Canadian broadcasting regulations are intended to support domestic "content providers" who are meant to commission programs from domestic "content producers" creating jobs and a Canadian presence on TV which will benefit "content consumers."

But such protectionism, goes the counter argument, creates mediocre programs. Get the regulators out of the way, they continue, and let the free market decide the future.

Shut down the CRTC! they exclaim. And Hallelujah!

Some things to consider:

The only time people aren't complaining about government regulation is when they are complaining about the lack of regulation! We buy groceries assuming the food isn't going to kill us, not because of consumer choice ("Well, if the food kills me, the company will lose a customer"), but because we assume it's been vetted by safety inspectors. Besides even that bastion of free enterprise, the United States, has a Federal Communications Commission which regulates what Americans can and can't watch.

Furthermore, Canada sits beside a country 10 times its population with which it shares a similar culture and accent (at least among the English-speaking population) -- a country which has evolved the most pervasive entertainment industry in history. Regulations aren't about "protectionism" -- they're about trying to provide a level playing field (not unlike how jockeys put weights on their saddles so the heavier jockeys aren't at disadvantage). They're about ensuring David has access to a few pebbles before he gets into the ring with Goliath.

Add to that American corporations are inherently expansionist. Manifest Destiny. The first priority of American businesses is conquering foreign competition. And the second priority is promulgating the American Dream -- to make everyone just like them.

When Netflix speaks against regulations, they do so out of two motives. One, as a corporate entity that wants nothing to interfere with their profits. But secondly, as an American company.

After all, if an issue is supporting Canadian programming -- how hard could that be for Netflix to offer a commitment? The broadcaster that has recently wowed critics with series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black? Why not just say: "Yes, we will immediately start commissioning Canadian programs, bringing the same exacting quality and creativity to these projects we bring to our American programs." They'd get the CRTC off their backs. They'd show what good corporate citizens they are. And, best of all, they'd end up producing some exciting programming that they can also air on their American wing.

Except Netflix isn't interested in being Netflix Canada. They're interested in being Netflix America with a branch office in Canada. They don't really want to commission programs set in Canada featuring Canadian protagonists because then they would have to acknowledge that Canada is a country. And as an American company -- they consider that anathema.

Netflix has already shown Canadian rules don't mean anything to them.

A lot of people ("consumers") complain Canadian Content regulations lead to mediocre programming -- visions of Littlest Hobo reruns dancing before their mind's eye. But recently there have been a number of Canadian series that have proven successful in Canada -- and only survived thanks to protectionism! Series like Saving Hope which was cancelled in its first season on an American network. Murdoch Mysteries is enjoying strong ratings on the CBC but had been cancelled by City TV because that broadcaster was more interested in airing American-friendly programming like the ill-fated Seed.

Can protectionism lead to mediocrity? Do broadcasters abuse the system by producing only the barest minimum of Canadian programming? You betcha. And that's a conversation worth having. How can the system be improved?

But protectionism is about insuring consumers really do have choices.

Earlier I said the wrong question was being asked. So now let's ask my question: Would you like a Canadian media landscape entirely dominated by another country?

Opened up entirely to "free market forces" we're back to that one to 10 ratio and I don't think anyone thinks much would survive in that match-up. The Canadian programs would drop off. The networks would follow suit. And soon every program, every news story, available to Canadians would be selected by programmers in the U.S. whose first priority (understandably) is satisfying the 10 -- not the one.

Just look at the current American media landscape: how many Canadian characters or settings are featured on American TV? Answer: just about none. The exceptions are made with Canadian production partners. (And just to pre-empt the usual disingenuous counter-argument: I'm talking about the characters not the actors who play them).

If you look through the American news you won't see Canadian stories about elections or missing Aboriginal women. You'll only see stories about -- Rob Ford.

But if American broadcasters can't be expected to produce Canadian-centric programming then that leaves Canadian broadcasters mandated to make Canadian programs.

Few people genuinely believe eliminating regulations and the CRTC will somehow strengthen Canadian-made TV. But that's because a lot of people championing the abolition of Canadian Content, if pressed, often don't like universal health care, consider non-American spelling to be "wrong," and wonder why Canada is coloured different from the U.S.A. on maps. And, hey, they're welcome to that point of view.

But that doesn't seem like it's providing "consumer choice" to me.

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