Let us watch what we want

The best way to save the TV networks? Get rid of CanCon quotas.

Let us watch what we wantIf Canadian broadcasters were capable of producing a decent drama, this would have the makings of a pretty good pilot: “In a world turned upside down . . . as an empire lies in ruins . . . the name of the game is survival. One man has the power . . . to decide who lives, who dies, and who pays. They call him . . . The Commissioner.”

Naturally I’m referring to the industry’s own abundant troubles. By now you will have heard and read a great deal of the losses the networks are suffering, the jobs that have been cut, the stations that have been closed. And, these being broadcasters and this being Canada, it will have been impressed upon you that the solution to the industry’s woes lies in the hands of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and its chairman, Konrad von Finckenstein.

For his part, the chairman has been sympathetic. The industry’s business model, he declared in a recent speech, is “broken,” torn apart by the combined destructive force of the global economic downturn, the fragmentation of the audience among competing channels, and the rise of the Internet. He has promised to respond with what the commission evidently regards as quite reckless speed. Special hearings are promised for later this month, at which the broadcasters will be awarded temporary licences on one-year terms instead of the usual seven—plausibly enough, since it’s not clear any of them will be around much longer than that. Indeed, at least one, Canwest Global, may not even make it as far as the hearings. Further hearings are scheduled for this summer to set the terms of licence for the longer run, with yet a third set of hearings next April to focus on . . . whatever’s left.

But it’s clear we live in revolutionary times. As the commissioner has observed, the crisis means “we have an opportunity and an obligation to rethink our traditional assumptions.” It is time, he said, to step forward with “bold and creative ideas.” So far these have included more money from the government—a new $150-million fund, perhaps, on top of the $60-million Local Programming Improvement Fund, on top of the $285-million Canadian Television Fund, etc.—or better yet, more money from the cable and satellite industries, for carrying their signals: fee-for-carriage, as it’s known in the trade.

In the spirit of free inquiry and blue-sky thinking, then, allow me to make a truly radical suggestion: let broadcasters show programs that people want to watch. I know, that’s a lot to digest, but what the hell: while we’re at it, let them charge the cable companies for their signals if they like—but let the cablecos choose whether they wish to carry them. And let consumers decide whether they wish to subscribe to them.

In place of the tight corset of regulation in which the industry is currently confined, where consumers must pay for channels the cable companies must carry showing content the broadcasters must make—a vast, roundabout system for transferring income from consumers via the carriers to the broadcasters to television producers—just let viewers watch what they want to watch, broadcasters show what they want to show, cable and satellite providers carry what they want to carry.

Okay, baby steps. For now, let’s just deal with Canadian content quotas. If the industry’s crisis is as existential as everyone says it is, and if we’re as liberated to rethink traditional assumptions as the commissioner says we are, then it is worth discussing whether the industry should still be required to devote 60 per cent of its broadcast day, and 50 per cent of its evening schedule, to Canadian programming. To be sure, the industry has many other issues on its plate than just CanCon. But the constraint is clearly binding: the regulations exist because broadcasters, given a choice, would rather show other programs—because viewers, given a choice, would rather watch other programs. And to the extent that broadcasters are prevented from showing the programs viewers would prefer to watch in favour of the programs the commission would prefer they show, that’s a cost to the broadcasters—a point von Finckenstein has conceded by offering to temporarily relax the requirements at this month’s licence hearings.

Yet it’s clear that, nearly 50 years after they were first introduced, CanCon regulations remain an integral part of the commission’s vision for broadcasting’s future. Even the advent of the Internet, and the blurring of the line between conventional TV and “new media,” has only prompted it to muse about regulating the Net. This, despite the policy’s enduring failure even to define what it is trying to achieve, let alone actually achieve it.

We all know the mantra: without content quotas, and similar regulations designed to protect Canada’s “cultural sovereignty,” Canada would be swamped with foreign cultural products. Regulations are required to make “space” for Canadian content, to ensure Canadians can “tell ourselves our own stories.”

It all sounds terribly persuasive, if you don’t stop to unpack all the assumptions hidden inside: among others, that it is possible to define with any coherence what is “Canadian” and what is “foreign” content; that American culture is imposed upon Canadians, rather than something they freely choose; that there exist great differences between the two countries, that watching American TV will erode these, that there would be terrible consequences if it did, and that there is some public purpose in preventing it.

But in fact none of it is true. For all the seeming objectivity of the CRTC’s complex formulae for determining if a program is Canadian, they are based on a series of arbitrary judgments and valuations: how many of which sorts of creative personnel are Canadian, what proportion of production costs are incurred in Canada, and so on. Even as simple a matter as the rule that the producer must be Canadian is fraught with difficulty. Canadian based on residence, citizenship, or both? Suppose a corporation is involved. Is the nationality of the owners what counts? Or the location of the head office? What if that corporation is a subsidiary of another corporation? If it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, recall that it was exactly this process that resulted in Universal Studios being classed as a Canadian corporation because it was owned by (New York-based) Seagram, and because Seagram was controlled by the Bronfman family.

Even if we could find our way through any of this, we come up against the reality that much of what counts as CanCon amounts to repackaging foreign programs (Canadian Idol) or commenting on foreign celebrities (all those interchangeable entertainment “news” programs) or performing in a foreign idiom (Country Music Television, for example). Or else it is produced for export to the U.S.—Flashpoint, Stargate SG-1, it’s a long list—and consciously tailored to erase any distinctly “Canadian” features. How does this count as “telling ourselves our own stories”? For that matter, much of the “foreign” programming from which we are to be protected is produced, written or acted by Canadians working abroad. Aren’t they telling Canadian stories?

It is true that they have left Canada to work in New York, or Hollywood, and perhaps that’s a shame. But it’s just as true of artists from Alabama, or Nebraska. Are the people who live in these states not just as “swamped” as Canada? Indeed, the cultural differences within each country are at least as great as those between them. Research by the Pew Center, for example, has found broad agreement on social values between English Canadians and people in much of the United States. The really sharp dissents from that continental consensus are to be found in the two outliers: Quebec and the South.

Suppose, over time, those differences were to fade. Would that be a tragedy? The point of protecting Canadians (as opposed to Canadian television producers) from being flooded with imported programming is presumably that such programming, being alien to our way of life, cannot speak to us with the same resonance. But were our differences to disappear, that objection would surely disappear with it. Assimilation is in this regard its own defence.

If that sounds harsh, consider that this is what happens all the time—as immigrants bring change, and are changed by the receiving population; as new generations replace the old; with each technological revolution. Or consider a more fundamental paradox: a big part of the Canadian identity we are supposed to protect from the influx of American television was and is formed by . . . American television. That’s who we are—the people who watch another people’s television.

Cultures are not hermetically sealed boxes, or frozen in time: they are perpetually heaving seas, mongrel mixes, combining and commingling with promiscuous disregard for political projects like nationalism. Canadian TV producers who adopt the language of economics, talking of the necessity of protectionism because of the smallness of our market, overlook one thing: what is “our” market? Canada? Or, as our burgeoning export trade suggests, the world?

Or suppose we accept their point: that national markets, and national differences, are what count. Does that not still undercut their complaint—that American producers, by virtue of the economies of scale they enjoy, enjoy a prohibitive price advantage? For it is only useful to compare the prices of things that are essentially interchangeable, substitutes for one another. And the whole premise of the exercise is that Canadian and American programs are not substitutes, but profoundly different—apples and oranges, culturally speaking.

To put the matter another way: some forms of cultural expression, like news, are specific, of interest only to the people in a particular place and time—and as such have no foreign competition. Others, like art or drama, speak to the universal, to people in all places and times—and as such are at no disadvantage to their foreign competitors. In neither case is protection necessary.

CanCon, in short, never had much point to it. For a long while, it was something the broadcasters could put up with, even if it meant the rest of us had to suffer through The Trouble With Tracy and similar outrages. But now it is a cost they cannot bear. It is time this show was cancelled.

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