ANOTHER VIEW

Only in Canada: the CRTC’s stupidity

A person on the street has a better chance of meeting someone with AIDS than someone who has bought a Canadian novel

CHARLES GORDON January 30 1995
ANOTHER VIEW

Only in Canada: the CRTC’s stupidity

A person on the street has a better chance of meeting someone with AIDS than someone who has bought a Canadian novel

CHARLES GORDON January 30 1995

Only in Canada: the CRTC’s stupidity

ANOTHER VIEW

A person on the street has a better chance of meeting someone with AIDS than someone who has bought a Canadian novel

CHARLES GORDON

It’s comic and very Canadian the way this cable business has turned out The question is how Canadian this cable business will be when the dust finally settles.

First, the cable companies smoked some new channels and higher rates past the CRTC behind the veil of Canadian content. That has always happened. If we had half the Canadian content that had been promised to us at the CRTC, we would be begging for relief from it.

Then, the CRTC tried to smoke the Canadian content past the Canadian consumer behind a veil of greater choice. Greater choice meant more movies, more country music, more arts programming— and, by the way, you couldn’t get The Sports Network and the Arts & Entertainment channel unless you bought the new stuff, too.

Typical: The industry knows the regulator is a sucker for Canadian content; the regulator thinks the consumer isn’t. So they played their game and got caught at it. Then, they retreated and their retreat was declared a big win for the consumer.

But wait. What about that Canadian content? Well, it would cost extra—unlike the American Arts & Entertainment network, the American Cable News Network and a few others. Canadian consumers, ecstatic over their triumph, wouldn’t mind, the cable people reasoned.

Should they? Sure. Canadian culture, of which Canadian TV is, or should be, a part, is what defines us, what distinguishes us from the rest of the world, and particularly the rest of the world south of us. It is also employment-jobs for the talented young writers and performers in this country. Those jobs can be just as good for our economy as jobs in the auto parts industry or the fisheries.

Canadians don’t appreciate that fact enough. This is mostly because the survival of Canadian culture has been in the wrong hands—the hands of big corporations and government. The corporate sector is fickle,

more interested in the fast buck than in the development of something that will last. Government is, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. We need only look at the CRTC. Even the most well-intended and generous initiatives in the cultural sphere are bound up in such an extraordinary web of stifling regulations that it is a wonder anything gets written or performed in this country at all.

If this were any other country, the CRTC would put the new Canadian specialty channels on the basic cable and make the older American specialty channels optional. Canadians would get Bravo! and pay extra for A&E. Simple. But the CRTC won’t do that. Anticipating a storm, it will decline to ride it out. Only in Canada do people feel apologetic about protecting their culture.

Of course, if this were any other country, the matter would not have reached this stage. The proposed channels would be proudly Canadian because there would be money to be made in being proudly Canadian. The CRTC would not need to sneak Canadian culture in the side door and we would all live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, it is not that way here and now. Culture is in danger—the arts because

the audience is small, mass culture because it is mostly not ours. The irony of all this is that the country has never had so many excellent artists: in popular music and jazz, on stage, in the movies, in literature, me and more Canadians are being heard and appreciated.

The catch is that there is no money in it for them. They are being overwhelmed, particularly in the big-ticket areas, by the economies of scale of American entertainment.

How do we find our way out of this? The answer clearly does not lie with government. The government can, and should, create a friendly environment, but it can’t create consumers. Enlightened areas of the private sector can help, but the overwhelming drift of the free market is continental and that will affect the arts as well. If there is a solution, it has to lie with the public, with individual consumers. Consumers have to vote with their feet, with their book-buying, ticket-buying and CD-buying dollars.

Will they do so? There are glimmers of hope. In books, most lists of Canadian bestsellers show that Canadian sells. In fiction, for example, more than half of the top sellers are, typically, Canadian. Bookstores that promote Canadian literature—and there are not enough of them—find that Canadian books pay off.

But the book world is small. A tiny fraction of the public actually buys books; a book that sells 5,000 copies can make the best-seller lists. That’s 5,000 books in a country of almost 30 million. The Ottawa writer and critic John Metcalf has observed that a Canadian walking down the street has a better chance of meeting someone who has AIDS than someone who has bought a Canadian novel this year.

Nevertheless, the point is worth noting: Canadians are capable of choosing Canadian in at least one area. Perhaps they could do so in others. We are all too familiar with the example of award-winning Canadian films that can’t find a theatre in Canada to show them. A government that wasn’t stupid (and timid) would do something about that.

As for television, the trick is to create programs that speak to us the way Canadian books speak to us. Right now, most Canadian programs speak to us the way American programs speak to us. That is because we have been afraid to try anything else and because we have not been encouraged to do so, either by the market or by the regulators.

So where do we start? First, by putting the Canadian stuff on the air, making the American stuff available for a price. Second, by being honest about what we are doing. Don’t sneak Canadian programming in like mixing the castor oil in with the lemonade. Tell Canadians what they are getting and stop apologizing about it. Third, make sure they get it. Make the broadcasters live up to their promises. When, as seems inevitable, the promised Canadian programming becomes repeats of The Benny Hill Show, pull the plug. One fewer channel won’t do us any harm. But a couple of good ones could help us a lot.