The new purveyors of national culture

Ian Anderson,Gordon Legge March 29 1982

The new purveyors of national culture

Ian Anderson,Gordon Legge March 29 1982

The new purveyors of national culture


Ian Anderson

In any other country it would hardly seem appropriate for the man who had just been handed a money-spinning movie machine to declare the moment merely “kind of fun.” After all, Don MacPherson had become the capo di tutti capi, the boss of all bosses, in the Canadian film industry. In his hands lie the keys to Canadian pay television, entrusted to him by the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Some people view them as the keys to the vault—people such as the friends and “business acquaintances” who kept his phone jangling on the morning after the CRTC decision last week.

But overstatement is neither the Canadian nor the MacPherson way.

Fireworks do not explode when you have been handed the chalice of Canadian culture to protect. In the United States pay TV is simply entertainment. But in Canada it spells survival for Canadian programming.

Such lofty concerns will scarcely matter to the four million cable subscribers who may want to plunk down an extra $12 a month for pay TV from MacPherson’s First Choice Canadian Communications Corp. If they are at all like American viewers— and the ratings prove they are—they will want movies, and lots of them.

The meat and potatoes of First Choice will be feature films fresh out of the theatres. Mixed in will be such special programming as big-ticket boxing matches and live shows from Las Vegas. And slowly stirred in will be a steadily increasing measure of Canadian-produced entertainment. Most provinces will also have access to a regional pay channel and a special “lively arts” channel.

It seemed like a noncontroversial decision to choose MacPherson over the other national applicants. The former CBC vice-president has wide TV experience and a manner mild enough to bruise few egos—even in the entertain-

ment world. But the nuances of the choice proved startling. CRTC Chairman John Meisel and his fellow commissioners had chosen a company with bigbusiness backing—Manufacturers Life, the Royal Bank, the Mannix, Keevil and Sobeys families. As MacPherson put it: “Our investors have deep pockets.”

The commission rejected applications from other groups with similar promises but links to the cable and broadcasting industries. It also licensed a second tier of regional companies in Alberta, Ontario and the Atlantic provinces

and called for more applications from Quebec and British Columbia. This flew in the face of advice from CBC President AÍ Johnson, who warned that the country could support no more than a single national service. And the commission made the First Choice and Ontario licences conditional upon the companies producing a quarter of their material outside Ontario. It was as though the commission had decided the past was a disaster area and it wanted to throw the future of Canadian television into new hands—and, hopefully, livelier minds.

The commission may also have been defending itself from provincial pressure. British Columbia has decided to

issue its own pay-TV licences and has 10 applicants. Ontario Communications Minister James Snow has written to a cable operator in southern Ontario recommending it rent a channel to a local pay-TV entrepreneur. Quebec, too, wants to get into the act. At a news conference on Friday, Quebec Communications Minister Jean-François Bertrand made clear that the province is not pleased with the selection of First Choice. Claiming that the commission did not appear to have taken Quebec’s interests to heart in awarding the national licence to MacPherson’s outfit, Bertrand noted that it had been ordered by the CRTC to provide a 24-hour-aday channel entirely in French. In its bid, First Choice had offered only a bilingual service. Commented Bertrand: “Permit me to doubt the enthusiasm that will be shown by the people at First Choice now that a French channel has been imposed on them.” Within hours, federal Communications Minister Francis Fox countered with claims that First Choice will in fact provide adequate French-language service. But the issue may eventually wind up in the courts.

For the viewer, the provincial manoeuvring ^may be welcome. Few Btears will be shed for any dloss of federal regulatory control, which has resulted in three-quarters of Canadian prime-time television being devoted to non-Canadian shows. The key regional member of the new group chosen to break the grip of foreign programming is Dr. Charles Allard, 62, whose achievements as a parttime businessman in Edmonton have grown to mythic proportions. Allarco Broadcasting Ltd., controlled by Allard, won the Alberta licence and owns 46 per cent of the company with the Ontario licence. Allard’s track record over the eight years since he created Edmonton’s CITV station has been remarkable. He broke the mould for Canadian broadcasters by producing the highbudget “Celebrity Concerts,” with the

Edmonton Symphony backing guests as diverse as Procol Harum and Tom Jones. Then he sold the product in 60 countries. “In order to produce quality television, you have to be able to sell worldwide to recover your costs,” Allard asserts.

While this dilemma daunted larger Canadian broadcasters, Allard plowed $400,000 an episode into SCTV 90—and found the American NBC network willing to pay $350,000 per show. The CBC picked up the other $50,000. The key to Allard’s proposal was that revenue from his pay-TV shows would not be taken out until the production was out of the red—meaning Allard has to find a world audience and therefore must budget quality into the show. “Sometimes when you are a newcomer you take a different look at things,” remarked Allard. His sentiments echo those voiced earlier by former CRTC vice-chairman Charles Dalfen: “Noth-

ing will change until they [the broadcasters] start treating Canadian content not as a cost of doing business, but as a way of making money.”

Meisel has tried to make clear to the licensees that he does, as he said, “mean business.” Any failure to live up to content and production commitments may well result in loss of licence, he asserted. Meisel’s commitment to competition among the different companies has the fainthearted worried about shaky franchises. The Young Turks among the regional companies do not quake at the thought of facing the larger resources of First Choice, however. “We’re going to have to program headto-head and we genuinely believe we can program better for our region of the country,” said a cocky Finlay MacDonald, 36, president of the Maritimes licensee, Star Channel Services Ltd. But the competition, MacPherson estimates, will mean licence fees for new Canadian productions will have to be reduced by First Choice, from $330,000 an hour to $125,000, while the regionals will have to reduce their spending to just $10,000.

After all the promises of the past year, MacPherson found himself facing a blank piece of paper the morning after the decision. Programs had to be bought and put into motion. Deals had to be made with cable companies. Millions of subscribers needed to be reached. “We have to figure out how to market it, how to program it, then, boom, we’re off,” enthused MacDonald. And off with it go the fortunes of the Canadian entertainment industry.

With files from Gordon Legge in Calgary.