Warning: Canadian Content Ahead!

Tonight, if you don’t mind, a few words about the CBC. Oh, and CTV, and the Globe and Mail, and the National Post too. But mostly, the CBC.

I love the CBC. It’s a great network. No, really! Minute for minute, it’s got more watchable programming on it than most stations, if you don’t believe me just do the math and see how it adds up. And that’s just the TV. That’s not even counting the radio, which (though it’s often forgotten) is a lifeline to all those living in rural communities across our country, from sea to sea to sea, as it were…

In fact: wow! Does CBC radio ever get a bad rap from the folks in the major urban centres! But then what do they care about having a lifeline…they think the city is everything…

(Yes, I’m afraid there will be a small amount of Toronto-bashing in this post. But, not too much! Don’t worry! It’s an extremely specific complaint I have, as you’ll see, and it relates only to one specific little tic on the part of television writers who are from Toronto. The rest of you are fine, really. Relax. In fact I’m pretty sure you’re going to agree with me about it…)

Now, let’s see, where to begin. Tom Stone? Mosquito Lake? Gullage’s? Or should I dive right into Little Mosque on the Prairie?

No; I’ll tell you what. Let’s start with sports, and Larry Sanders, and the late night movie: start, in other words, with what the CBC’s life-cycle is based on.

…So every few years, a new government appoints a new director or president or what-have-you of the CBC, and it’s always the same. The CBC loses money; politicians love to “cut the fat”; it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate a little new-broom-ism. Because if you live in urban Canada, your perception is very probably that the CBC is a fairly lousy institution – years upon dreadful years of unfunny sitcoms, schizoid dramedies, superflop dramas, and the painful earnestness of issue-based TV movies (not to mention the perennial miniseries tropes about growing up poor on the Prairies/Irish in the Maritimes/Jewish in Montreal – always never a laugh riot) have soured most urbanites on CBC by the time they’re twenty. Mind you, a lot of the time the commercial networks like CTV don’t fare too much better: a counterpoint to CBC, they used to be loaded with APPALLINGLY BAD programs produced, one suspects, literally on a shoestring…that were just as embarrassingly Canadian as the ones on the CBC, even though they tried not to be, because their settings and subjects were so VERY, VERY AGGRESSIVELY “not-Canadian”. These were programs produced essentially for mass export to other countries: Pepsi “B”, if you like. Events took place in “the city” or “the mountains”, just like The Matrix Reloaded…police cars that looked like cans of generic soda, endless references to “the mayor’s office” and other nationally-unspecific entities that fit into the nationally-unspecific storylines…reminds me of what Ed had to say about the Iron Man cartoon of a few years ago, where Tony Stark fought tirelessly to defend something called “our democracy”…so it scans in Canada or Latvia or the Philippines the same as it does in the U.S…

But anyway. What I’m saying is: it was pretty bad. And I haven’t even mentioned Snow Job or Check It Out! yet…

So overall, there’s a persistent idea that Canadian TV in general, and the CBC in particular, sucks. You have to understand, we’ve always gotten a lot of American TV up here. There probably never was a television character as universally beloved in Canada as Archie Bunker…

So when the new head honcho of the CBC is appointed every few years, he or she always has some grand new-broom ideas, and they’re always the same ideas. Get rid of sports. Get rid of American programming. Get rid of late-night. Make more original Canadian shows that will be successful, i.e. profitable. Downsize. Restructure. Centralize. Amalgamate.

It never works out the way they think it will. For one thing, most of their new shows that pass the screening process are no good…and for another, more shameful thing, some of them are excellent, but they disappear after a few episodes anyway! Sigh. So many fine, fine programs gone down to noplace because whoever’s in charge can’t tell what quality is, or because the person in charge of them doesn’t care, or can’t be patient…still, I guess I can be thankful I’m not stuck watching “These Arms Of Mine” (a show about Torontonians moving to a weirdly-distorted Toronto’s-eye-view of Vancouver – gah! Bite me!) or worse, the execrable “This Space For Rent”…

And then, too, the new broom finds it can get rid of the late night live broadcasts of World Cup skeleton semifinals from Switzerland at 4 a.m., but unfortunately this doesn’t quite satisfy…all it does is get the skeleton fans (yup, over here) pissed off. They just don’t save that much money on the deal, when they count it all up. And, it damages CBC’s reputation somewhat, since CBC Sports is like the Avro Arrow team of sports coverage, a veritable jewel in the crown, and to not use it is to throw away a cheap way to look good…not to mention a cheap way to fulfill the CBC’s mandate…and besides, what any new broom wants to do most of all is always to get rid of the hockey coverage.

But of course, this they cannot do, for reasons which I deem far too obvious to explain at length here.

So that doesn’t pan out, either.

And so what’s left? The new shows didn’t work. Cutting the inexpensive end of the sports budget didn’t actually help anything. The last new broom already pretty much eliminated the regional programming. And, who knew how much ad revenue “The Nanny” was bringing in all this time? Damn. Okay, back to the drawing board…more new shows. But this time, since we already know we can’t get something people like and will watch (although they could, if they only left the good ones on the air), let’s try something we can support as “good and Canadian”. That means: sitcoms where the “sit-” is multiculturalism, and the “-com” is bigotry. Or, alternatively…and please, Torontonians, you know it’s true…where the “sit-” is “honey, don’t look now, but we’re not in Toronto anymore!”, and the “-com” is “honey, don’t look now, but we’re not in Toronto anymore!” Ai ya. Well, I suppose this is a form of multiculturalism. A dumb form, but a form. Anyway, the imbecilic TV critics at the Globe and Mail and the National Post seem to think it is (although please, they would prefer to be called “media analysts”, just like the sportswriters)…remember how they hated “Corner Gas” when it first aired on the grounds of it not being “Saskatchewanny” enough? Three guesses what they meant, there…oh yeah, and you couldn’t tell it now, but they pretty much abominated “Trailer Park Boys” too…ick, coarseness and vulgarity! Never funny! Jeez. Again, it’s rather clear (to me, anyway) that that’s code, too…code for “how can it really be good-and-Canadian, when I’m not seeing myself in this mirror?” See, they know what the game is. Hate the good stuff because it’s irrelevant, praise the irrelevant stuff because it’s compliant with your self-congratulatory self-image (well, why else do you think that show about the hip-hop station got taken off the air?), pray for hockey to be Raptured away, leaving only the timeless mythopoetic resonance of baseball…I’m sorry, but I did warn you about the Canadian content, and right now regular readers of the Globe sports section should be doing a slow nod, if I’ve done this correctly…and prepare to disavow all surprise when something unexpectedly proves to be popular with the masses. Ah, I’ll let you in on a little secret, “national” TV reviewers…you are actually not that interested in shows, just in ideas of shows. You’re high-concept people. You didn’t like “Gullage’s” because you didn’t see that it was about anything…you didn’t like “North Of 60” after the white guy left because you thought that was the point…your interest in “Tom Stone” waned once he got back together with his wife. And you love “Little Mosque on the Prairie”. Boy, how you love it…!

And that makes me a tad suspicious of it, you know?

The current ad for “Little Mosque”:

HE: A Muslim feminist…that’s unusual.

SHE: Like a friendly Torontonian?

Oh…my, my, why are you trying to play me like that, “Little Mosque”? You must think that you’ve said something I’m sure to agree with, and thus secured my allegiance. But, sorry! I don’t agree, actually. I’ve only ever been to Toronto once, you see, and I have to say everybody was just great. So if you could please go peddle that somewhere else…like maybe in Toronto. Because I do not see myself in your mirror, y’know? Also, just by the way, I don’t think of a Muslim feminist as being a weird thing at all. Why should I? Also again, I think this show’s specific kind of topicality might just be a little off-putting for me in general. And why are all the white people so god-damn ignorant, can you tell me that?

Let me stress that I like all the actors on this show. Some, I like a lot. I would watch it. But…something about it has a little School of Air Farce feeling that makes me leery of it. Sorry again! And, I don’t want to pre-judge…but maybe I’ll check it out once the reviewers from the Globe and Post start thinking it isn’t so hot anymore. If you don’t mind.

Oops, I’m off-topic, suddenly. Where was I? Oh yes…so then the CBC’s in Stage Two of its life-cycle, when it’s making this stuff. Not too pleasant. But, it’s necessary if we’re ever to get to Stage Three, which is when the new broom says, oh well, I guess none of that worked. What the hell. Let’s go back to the way it was.

And that’s the stage I like best. Today I saw a late night Doctor Who replay episode (first-run stuff is on Monday night), followed by a movie for TV, uncut and uncensored. Great! Weekdays at midnight it’s Arrested Development, just like a few years ago it was Larry Sanders…because is it not meet, as well as quite within the CBC’s mandate, to bring Canadians the best of the rest of the world, too? The Canadian identity it’s charged with discussing doesn’t exist in a vacuum, you know…and of course the beauty of this is that CBC is a Crown corporation, and so it can air whatever it wants in pursuit of this lofty aim. Unedited. Commercial-free. Cherry-picked. All special-like. In many ways, it’s simply the best of all possible media worlds…because so much is possible, in this mature stage of the life-cycle, that wasn’t possible before. That isn’t possible for private broadcasters, either! Over time the CBC has been made to serve two masters, God and Mammon, but finding that it can’t serve them together, and then finding that it can’t serve one over the other, it then decides to serve them separately. Late night skeleton for the purity of it all: watch our young Canadians in action! It returns absolutely no money to us at all! Doctor Who, Coronation Street, Arrested Development, movies: it’s British, it’s American, it’s all over the map! It’s fine! Tune in! We need the sponsors! And a little hockey, a little “Little Mosque”, a little “This Hour”, a little “Chataqua Girl” or something, a little random Disney for the kids! Whatever, it’s good, it’s fine! Watch what you like!

Ahhh…so good to have peace in the kingdom.

Mind you, it’s too bad we can’t just port in the show-creation part of Stage One, into Stage Three. That would make it perfect. I think the reason that One fails all the time is because it’s just too important to also be cutting the fat, while you’re reinventing your programming. The pressure to get a hit is way too intense then, you see: we’re not the States, where (I think I heard) ninety thousand pilots (that can’t be right, can it?) are made every year. We make a lot less, and put a lot more on the air. Some, as I said, are really quite amazing. But they aren’t smash hits right away, so they have to go. It’s a bad system. Meanwhile it seems a lot easier to keep a show on the air if it comes out in Stage Two, but then most of the time it can’t be good, because instead it has to be safe. Well, believe me, even at that it’s better than the way things used to be, when a new Canadian sitcom came out like once every three years…ha, thought I wasn’t going to get around to mentioning “Mosquito Lake”, didn’t you? Well, I did, so nyah. But, imagine taking on the Stage One streamlining impulse in an environment where things can be given a better chance to develop. An environment where any show didn’t have to pay its own way practically in advance, but could rely on what it brought to the schedule as a whole. Aha, I wasn’t lying when I said the public broadcaster had more possibilities to enjoy than the private broadcasters, and I wasn’t just talking about decreased emphasis on the bottom line. Because consider this:

A couple of years ago, “Tom Stone” – a show set in a commercial crime unit of the RCMP in oilpatch Calgary (“Tom_Stone”, get it?) – did an episode very clearly inspired by the story of Wiebo Ludwig. My apologies, non-Canadians, I don’t suppose you know much about the Ludwig family. But anyway, this was a family who got kind of screwed by sour gas coming out of the refinery next to their land. And, there it was, skillfully topicalized for this (very enjoyable, I thought) new show. At the end of the episode, on comes a presenter in a station break, who informs the audience that the following night at the same time the investigative-documentary-magazine show that is also new for that season will be doing a whole thing on the real-life Ludwig situation. And I thought…

Gee, that’s kind of smart, isn’t it? I mean CBC is all one big happy family, why can’t the writer of “Tom Stone” call up the news division and say “tell me what you’re working on for next week”? A private broadcaster couldn’t do it, but CBC could lead viewers and listeners whose interest had been piqued very smoothly from one night, one medium, one story to another. It would practically be like hyperlinks. It would be brilliant. “Profitable” homegrown programming? Don’t be so shortsighted, Captain New Broom: profitable doesn’t have to always mean the same thing in every situation. And that could really work well for you, if it had enough time to work…

Unfortunately, in Stage One, it probably doesn’t.

And, as things stand now, there’s a real danger that it never will. At least, to my mind there is.

Back to that dire presentiment in a minute, but first I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the private networks in Canada have something a little different going on: unlike CBC, their big goal was never to produce domestic programming for a domestic audience, so much as it was to obey the quotas for original Canadian programming laid down by the CRTC (our version of the FCC), so they could then import shows from the States, and sell ads for them. So original programming was mainly a cost, to them: the cost of doing business. But, recently – and I can’t thank them enough for this – they’ve changed their tune. Domestic programming for the domestic audience is now their order of the day, and it has to be said they’re not too bad at it. It’s taken time; but, the quotas have worked. No more “our democracy”. No more generic mushroom-soup-can cop-cars.

But, they’re still awfully dependent on rebroadcasts of Survivor and Grey’s Anatomy. Unlike the CBC, they can’t cherrypick the best: their business mandates that they also scoop up the worst. And, God knows what may happen now, with the Conservative government in charge: they’ve always said they’d neuter the CRTC, and sell off the CBC, if they got elected. But that one-two punch could put an end to everything hopeful that I’ve described above. Then again, I’ve got my biases too: I’ll freely admit that when CTV won the Olympics rights over CBC, I thought the world was coming to an end. But, we’ll see about that. And anyway, a minority Conservative government probably can’t do too much harm…

Oh, damn, did I forget to mention this was all just sort of a shapeless pile of random thoughts?

I’m always leaving that part out, somehow…and always forgetting my point, on top of it…

Oh, yeah. I remember it now.

I love CBC.

Especially now that it’s brought me back my mirror. Now, don’t anybody break it! You know how much bad luck that is!

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2 responses to “Warning: Canadian Content Ahead!

  1. Wow, that was actually the best description of the current CBC that I’ve read in a long long time. Randomness works sometimes.

    I just wish they’d realize that if you’re going to give Rick Mercer an entire half-hour to finish you need to give the show enough money to hire enough funny writers to actually draw out enough laughs from the audience to make it worthwhile to tune it. I can’t even watch 22 minutes anymore, since he left because I hate lame Air Farce forced sketch comedy. But watching the CBC golden boy of political commentary and satire produce second rate Daily Show (and now Colbert Report) content is just kind of sad to me.

    I do think they got the rights to either the next World Cup or Euro 2008, so soccer will be getting more national coverage and that makes me happy because I’ll have a better chance at seeing Newcastle United on TV.

  2. Thanks, Jon! Yeah, I put this off for a long time, because every time I read something about Canadian television online, it made me really pissed-off…like people who fulminate about the lousiness of the CBC don’t even watch it, they just have this pop-soc columnist’s set of generalizations about it, and it’s like they don’t even want good shows, they just want their “bad Canadian television”…just like Globe and Mail “hockey experts” seem like they’d be a lot happier if the NHL just went away for good…

    (I even read something in the Globe where a columnist said Todd Bertuzzi had been convicted of assault, which is funny because he was actually acquitted…I mean come on!…)

    And then I would get too aggravated to be anything but scatterbrained about the subject. But then when I noticed we were finally back in a good patch, I thought I’d better mark the occasion. Because it was starting to seem to me that no one else was even aware of it!

    I think what could happen now is that CBC could live up to its recent promise, or not: over the last few years we’ve actually seen a lot of extremely high-quality shows come up and then die away…so we know we can produce them. Next step is to identify them as things we want, and do what we can to save them. A little extra money could go a very long way, at this point in time…imagine, for just a little more money we could have kept “This Is Wonderland”, or whatever that hip-hop one was called (why can’t I remember its name?) — both shows about Toronto, please note — or Tom Stone, or Undercurrents, or Gullage’s, or any of a half-dozen things I miss that I’ll probably never get back. Of course, in with the mix we’d probably have gotten some pandering crap, too, but then again we’ll never bust out of being a network that makes a whole lot of pandering crap, if we don’t give it a chance to get its ass kicked by quality. If you look closely, you’ll notice that most CBC shows mutate from their high concepts rather quickly, anyway, and become something slightly different and slightly more intriguingly fleshed-out as time goes on. So selecting for whatever makes the best replica of contemporaneous American high-concept programming is a strategy that never really works out anyway! Let’s face it, we’re quirky people, and our TV is quirky, too: and we probably can’t fight it, so we probably ought to join it. You wait, in a year Little Mosque will be a thought-provoking drama that the Globe reviewers hate and the CBC wants to cancel, that has a dedicated following who can’t believe they’re taking it off the air just as it’s getting interesting…

    More random thoughts, I’m afraid. But if CBC could just stop being so penny wise and so pound foolish, maybe we could have a public broadcaster better-equipped to serve both its masters at the same time.

    Well, here’s hoping, anyhow.

    End rant.

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