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A man walks by a Rogers retail store before the Rogers Communications Inc annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto April 22, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
A man walks by a Rogers retail store before the Rogers Communications Inc annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto April 22, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

John Doyle: Why is Canadian TV crying poor? Add to ...

It is a sad fact of life that many money-making schemes are actually less lucrative in practice than they are in theory. Take Canadian TV.

The business model looks sweet: Buy American shows and resell them to Canadians. If Canadian viewers happen to watch the show on a U.S. channel, the Canadian outfit gets to substitute their broadcast of the show and the ad dollars and tax advantages roll in. See, it’s rigged to favour Canadian commercial TV. Plain rigged.

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In return for doing business in a rigged system, the players are obliged to create and air some Canadian content. Give back, just a little. Just a little. How could anything go wrong?

Yet the sound that emanates from the Canadian TV industry these days is one long wail of woe. There’s no money in it, they say.

Looking at what the big three in Canada – Rogers, Bell Media and Shaw – have been up to, it seems the once-secure money-making scheme is now a dead loss. Entire channels have been gutted, shows cancelled and staff made redundant. The series Seed is cancelled; MuchMusic shrunk to almost nothing and current-affairs show W5 diminished in staffing and episodes. To cite just a few.

The phrase “mounting losses” has been thrown around. Only a fool would get into the TV racket, we’re told. And the fool would end up broke.

A top person at Rogers told the CRTC a few months back, “It is shocking, how dramatically the industry has changed.” A top person at Bell Media explained the gutting of the MuchMusic channel by saying, “Kids do not watch music videos on television. You’re not going to wait for somebody to program a music video when you have a million available on Vevo.”

Well there you go. Apparently this Internet thing crept up on everybody and changed everything. While they were dozing or something. Or cackling about the pile of money they used to make. And, wouldn’t you know it, the CRTC was also caught off-guard by this Internet thing.

And then, of course, in the arena of excuses for the apparent collapse of this sure-thing money-making scheme, along come the millennials. They won’t watch TV at the required day and time. Hell, no. Also, they don’t like paying to watch things. Parents can take care of that issue, but some decline the responsibility, being as sick and tired of millennials as the Canadian TV industry is. Also, there’s Netflix. Loads of shows and a few bucks a month. Who saw that coming? You’d need eyes in the back of your head.

At the same time – and here’s the real puzzler – there seems to be an awful lot of money floating around in the Canadian TV racket. An awful lot. BCE’s $3.4-billion purchase of Astral Media. Rogers’s whopping $5.2-billion purchase of NHL rights. No multibillion-dollar deals from Shaw, but Shaw Media announced this summer it will apply to the CRTC for a licence to run Global News 1 as a national, all-news cable channel. And of course, Shaw has eight new U.S. series, purchased from U.S. networks and studios. None of this comes cheap.

The upshot is that while the Canadian TV racket is crying poor and moaning about the pesky Internet ruining its sure-fire business model, there is loads of dough going around and around. Crisis, what crisis? Surely, in reality, it’s simply about adjustment and evolving.

Look at what’s been happening in programming. Police procedurals. That’s what’s been happening. Either purchased and resold to Canadians or grudgingly created and aired as part of the give-back, just a little, obligation. Mainly police procedurals that would be of deep and abiding interest to people who haven’t actually seen The Killing, True Detective or Breaking Bad and, therefore, know no better. It is a sad fact of life that companies that operate for years in a rigged system, with guaranteed money-making revenue streams, fail to be nimble, bold, original and risk-taking. And then cry poor. Take Canadian TV.

Airing tonight

Legends

(Bravo, 9 p.m.) is a new, dour drama from TNT, an outfit that usually offers lighter fare such as Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes. Here Sean Bean stars as Martin Odum, an undercover operative who is famous for disappearing into his undercover persona. At the start he’s winding up months of infiltrating a right-wing militia. The plot revolves around a vague conspiracy theory that seems centred on the possibility that Martin Odum doesn’t exist at all, but is just another identity assumed by the mercurial agent. It’s all a bit obvious and unsubtle, with some jarringly dull dialogue. Enjoyable stuff if you want your spy drama uncomplicated and violent.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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