02/17/2012 11:55 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Big Brother Makes for Crappy TV

The fact that Canadian tastes in entertainment are largely indistinguishable from our southern neighbours is a stubborn fact no amount of central planning can seem to kill; not advertising blitzes, not prime time quotas, and certainly not a fourth season of Being Erica.


Assuming your city is anything like mine, you're no doubt aware that the CBC has recently produced a show called Arctic Air. A casual tourist to Vancouver, in fact, could be excused for thinking Canadians toil under the cruel tyranny of Adam Beach, so omnipresent are the enormous billboards bearing the leading man's world-weary mug. Certainly the red-carpet gala Beach and company received on premiere night last month, in which heaps of fawning praise and applause were thrust upon the dear leader, would have done little to dissuade that notion.

And just as the most garish propaganda seeks to mask inner weakness with over-the-top pomposity, Arctic Air's real-world support has proven to be shakier than Gaddafi's. Though the CBC and other Can-con apologists did their best to spin the numbers favourably, the show's January 10 debut yielded barely over a million viewers, a showing so poor that it failed to even crack BBM Canada's top 30 of the week. To be fair, Arctic Air did briefly sneak into the #27 slot during the last week of January (narrowly edging out a re-run of CSI New York), but has remained absent ever since.

Why Canadians aren't warming to the CBC's latest taxpayer-funded opus is hard to say. In typical Canadian fashion, no mainstream publication appears to have tasked anyone with actually watching the show, meaning most coverage has simply been of the "local boy makes good" variety. One can only presume the subject matter, which centers around a gang of moody misfits attempting to run a rural airline in the Northwest Territories, somewhat lacks mainstream appeal, despite Beach's insistence that bush flying across Yellowknife "speaks volumes about what it is to be Canadian."

In any case, it should go without saying that absolutely no lessons will be learned from the failure of Arctic Air. Fat and happy from government subsidies, mandatory broadcast quotas, and unapologetically rigged award shows, the Canadian television industry is quite content to live in its parallel universe where normal laws of success and failure do not apply. In this topsy-turvy dimension, fame and laurels are always awarded first, with trivial things like "viewership" coming much later, if at all.

When pressed, the Canadian media-industrial complex will justify their skewered standards of accomplishment with the conveniently conspiratorial fairy tale that the only reason Canadians aren't watching more Can-con is because the devil Americans wont let us. There's no shortage of violent verbiage available to describe the horror; our markets are "bombarded," "saturated," "overrun," etc. Yet in reality, thanks to the billion-dollar-a-year budget of the CBC and its not-much-less subsidized competitors, never before in history have Canadians had more readily available access to Canadian-made alternatives. It's easier than ever to watch, say, Republic of Doyle rather than Two and a Half Men --  yet we still elect not to.

If you've never done so before, I highly advise checking out Canada's TV ratings, as they offer such a stark view of the reality that Canadian officialdom does its best to deny. Canada's most beloved shows are consistently the most clichéd examples of crass Americana -- The Big Bang Theory, Dancing with the Stars, Canadian Idol, etc -- while the subsidized offerings that "speak volumes about what it is to be Canadian" languish near the bottom.

The fact that Canadian tastes in entertainment are not particularly patriotic but are largely indistinguishable from our southern neighbours is a stubborn fact no amount of central planning can seem to kill; not advertising blitzes, not prime time quotas, and certainly not a fourth season of Being Erica.

In such a climate, the Internet remains a great oasis for Canada's beleaguered audiences, and in a hopefully portentous decision last week, the Supreme Court defied the usual cartel of actors' unions and culture lobbyists in declaring that Internet Service Providers do not officially count as "broadcasters" and were thus immune from the byzantinian web of content regulations that have long shackled the cable networks.

While it's possible to read too much into this narrow ruling, it's clear from the freaked out reactions of some members of the culturati that our present era of forcing Canadians to pay for TV shows they don't want to watch so they can hog air time from those they do isn't guaranteed to survive the information age.

Culture is an undeniable part of any nation's identity, yet it must also be something which arises organically through a mass aggregate of individual tastes, of which (for better or worse) the marketplace remains the most useful measurement. So there's only one conclusion that can be drawn from the cultural climate of a nation like Canada, where a small, self-interested elite exerts so much energy limiting, controlling, and denouncing the preferences of the majority.

In other words, maybe the billboards send the right message after all.