Of all the transgressions and failures the CBC has been accused of -- with renewed vigour since the Conservative government brought down its budget -- there is one indictment the Mother Corp. doesn't deserve. Point fingers all you want at the national broadcaster's bloated bureaucracy, its holier-than-thou intellectualism and slanted politics, but don't blame it for failing to produce entertaining English-language TV. The CBC has nothing -- or at least very little -- to work with on this file. The truth is, Canadians just aren't very good at making compelling TV.
Think of a CBC drama or comedy of recent memory -- any one will do, really -- and what immediately comes to mind is bland storytelling, sophomoric acting and cheap production values. Republic of Doyle, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Arctic Air -- none of these CBC shows could be classified as compelling, certainly not by the standards of the American network and cable series Canadians love to watch.
Moreover, this isn't the CBC's problem exclusively. Global, CTV, our sports networks -- none produce original Canadian entertainment content that would pass muster when run against American, British, European or even French-Canadian competition. Really, there is but one Canadian-made TV show, Second City Television (SCTV), that carries any significant artistic cache in this country and elsewhere, and it's been off the air for 28 years now -- the only people who still care about that gem are TV geeks, not your average prime-time viewer.
It's time to face facts: Our TV simply sucks.
The ratings bear this out. For the week, March 19-25, not a single Canadian-made comedy or drama was in the top 10 programs watched by Canadians (though Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) placed sixth). Dragons' Den came in 13th place, but the CBC reality show is far from an original program -- it's a knock-off of a Japanese show. You have to scroll all the way down to 30th place -- that is, last place -- to find Doyle, the only Canadian-made comedy or drama on the list. Every show in the top 12, save HNIC, is made in the U.S.
(It's worth noting the ratings failure of homegrown shows is specific to English Canada; French-Canadians love Quebec-made TV shows -- during the same week-long period, the American Idol ripoff Star Académie was the number one and two rated show in Quebec.)
Canadian TV is so lousy for two reasons that are related: First, making a quality TV show is very expensive -- the AMC series Mad Men, for example, costs $2-2.5 million per episode to make, so does NCIS, the number three show in Canada. It makes no economic sense to spend that kind of money on a show that will be seen by, maximum, 2.5 million people (the number of Canadians who watch number-one rated, and made in the U.S.A., The Amazing Race).
Which leads to reason number two: There's no money to make TV in Canada. Our best television actors, producers, directors and script writers head south for work. The talent drain is perpetual -- and who can blame them for leaving when the money's better and the fame bigger? Canadian actors acting on Canadian-made shows are there because they can't make it in Hollywood, plain and simple.
So, while the knee-jerk reaction is to hold the CBC, and other networks, accountable for failing to provide quality television entertainment -- for wasting precious taxpayer dollars to produce and market sub-par shows season after season, the reality is what makes it to air is, literally, the best Canadian content our networks have to offer. Shackled by a mandate that says it must produce Canadian-made comedies and dramas, the CBC is essentially being forced into feeding us crud, and then enduring our complaints about it.
If budget cuts mean the CBC will be able to produce less original Canadian content, well maybe that's not a bad thing. Canadians would rather watch Simpsons reruns, Coronation Street and Jeopardy! anyways, and those shows are cheaper to air than an episode of the mediocre Mr. D. Given a choice between homegrown TV and entertaining TV, Canadians long ago chose the latter.
In the end, it's worth remembering that this is television we're talking about. It's not an issue of national import, just a big hunk of metal and plastic spewing contrived tales that have little or no bearing on regular life (not to mention the interminable commercials) -- so what if ours is worse than everyone else's?
There are far, far better ways to spend your time than lying comatose in front of the idiot box -- like, say, reading a Canadian book, or listening to a Canadian band. You know, things we're actually good at.
Follow Yoni Goldstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yonigoldstein