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Your typical Canadian? (Cat London/iStockphoto)
Your typical Canadian? (Cat London/iStockphoto)

John Doyle: Television

Lament for a TV nation Add to ...

It's true that there is a distinct set of Canadian values. It's one of those realities that become apparent on return from even a brief trip to another country, as I did recently. This country is a fascinating place to consider with eyes educated by experiences somewhere else.

On the plane back from Heathrow last week I read a piece in The Times about a book by Laurence C. Smith, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. The book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future, predicts that the near-future belongs to Canada and other northern countries. Global climate change and a ceaseless need for oil, plus a shortage of water in the world, will make Canada a formidable economic power is the gist. We shall be a truly powerful country.

It's plausible. But I wondered, as I headed home, "Are we ready for this?"

Nope. We're a smug country, coddled by the predictable rhythms of the seasons, cozy in our British Commonwealth status and interested in nurturing a tiny sliver of distinct Canadian-ness. We like our hockey, royal weddings and bland U.S.-centric entertainment. By our popular-culture tastes we are defined.

This is how it is right now - at the tail end of a long election campaign, public interest has fizzled. It looks like another Conservative government, probably a stronger minority one. The offer to voters from the Conservatives was this: the stability of us, again, or some kinda weird uncertainty. Canadians go with stability. We're complacent that way.

The election dynamic faded as the Stanley Cup playoffs started and the royal wedding was on the immediate horizon. As soon as the leaders' debate was over - the cumulative viewer numbers of 3.85 million are only superficially impressive - the country went hockey-mad. And, you know, once the TV viewing numbers are crunched and put in context, what becomes clear is a pattern of indifference and escapism. Some 7.3 million Canadians watched the Super Bowl in February and the Academy Awards had 6.1 million viewers. In fact, the English-language debate numbers are up there with the numbers for a new episode of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (3.4 million viewers) last fall.

While it might seem unkind to extrapolate so much from TV viewing numbers, the measurement is one of the few things we have to reliably reflect what engages Canadians.

Thus, the election debate was a one-off and a not very impressive one. What really matters day after day is hockey, that wedding in London and American reality shows.

With the Canucks and the Canadiens involved, and even in the early going of the playoffs, CBC viewing numbers are staggering - 2.84 million on Saturday, April 16, and 2.63 million on Sunday, April 17.

Then consider the numbers for (decidedly hokey) American network shows for the week of April 11 to 17. The Amazing Race, 2.56 million, Dancing with the Stars, 2.52 million, Survivor: Redemption Island, 2.48 million, American Idol 2.45 million. Also, Canadians seemed primed for the return of character Thirteen on House and 2.4 million watched.

The mass audience adores these shows. The audience for the royal wedding at an unholy hour on Friday will also be huge. Right now, election coverage is fighting for attention on the TV news, getting squeezed by hockey updates and royal wedding minutiae. These are the impressions I garner in the days after returning from being away.

And what truly struck me was finally seeing the infamous footage of Michael Ignatieff doing his "rise up" thing at an election event somewhere. He lists all the peculiarities of recent events engineered by the minority government and notes that "Canadians kinda shrugged," or that people say "so what?" or "who cares?" in response to everything. He's right. This is a shrug-it-off, show-me-the-hockey, let's-watch the-royal-wedding, let's-watch-that- Amazing Race country. The Amazing Race, not the election race, is what truly interests and engages us. The genius of the Conservative campaign is understanding the smug indifference that Iggy decried.

Now that the election is in its final days - though it will barely exist during the royal wedding fuss on Friday - the last TV commercials are being unleashed and add to my impressions of who and what we are. The defining one is NDP Leader Jack Layton's "Imagine a Leader" ad. The idea, I think, is to posit Layton as prime ministerial. This is, of course, delusional. Also I'm struck by the blandness of the ad - those well-scrubbed, obviously well-off people in very nice, intensely clean homes or offices musing about "a leader." What's truly striking is the lack of energy and zest, and the complete absence of ideas.

This is part of that distinct set of Canadian values - indifference to new ideas, shrugging off chicanery, fetishizing hockey, watching Survivor. The idea that the future belongs to us is immensely attractive, especially as we do actually have the oil and the water. But are we ready and do we have the drive to take anything from the opportunity, apart from a handful of people making big money?

A week after returning home, I still say "nope." That Canadian well of the energy of ideas, openness to change and embracing vigour has run dry. But never mind, American Idol (Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) is on tonight.

Check local listings.

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