In the matter of the CBC and its president talking about Netflix’s cultural imperialism, the dust has now settled a bit. It is time for sensible talk.
As a citizen, a consumer and a journalist keeping an eye on the Canadian TV racket, I sympathize with CBC boss Catherine Tait’s expression of anguish. Netflix is rich, powerful and internationally renowned. It knows no boundaries and essentially it scoffs at international barriers. But if you want Netflix to take Canadian content with a seriousness that involves regulations and specific commitments of the kind familiar in Canadian TV for decades, take that up with the government. It is unwise and unfair to make the public feel guilty about enjoying Netflix.
The CBC’s problem, as I see it, is less about Netflix dominance and the sheer quantity of its content, than it is the remarkable quality of some of that content. Tait said, “Let us be mindful of how it is we as Canadians respond to global companies coming into our country.” She was talking about “damage to local communities.” This is a highly peculiar interpretation of what Netflix, as a platform, achieves. TV made locally in countless countries has reached a vast audience through Netflix and subscribers have responded, often by being impressed with the quality of series made in, say, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel and Iceland.
While numerous Canadian series now benefit from a global audience, through Netflix and other platforms, it’s clear some are doing better than others in terms of critical acclaim and audience appreciation. The implication behind Tait’s remark is that locally made, distinctly Canadian content will be washed away by Netflix. Well, it depends on how you define “distinct” and “local.”
There is no doubt that international viewers see Toronto in Kim’s Convenience on Netflix and maybe they see less Canadianness in Schitt’s Creek. And, by the way, if Tait is embarrassed or upset that the latter show is presented as a “Netflix Original” in other countries, that’s something to take up with Netflix, not the press or the public.
The very idea of distinctly local Canadian productions being erased by Netflix’s presence is plainly absurd. But nothing is truly absurd if you exist in a state of victimhood. A succession of CBC executives has complained about this, that or the other that is inflicting pain on the public broadcaster. But in reality the complaint amounts to an excuse for the poor quality of its Canadian content in drama and comedy.
Usually the complaint, with the CBC seeing itself in a poor-us position, is that other broadcasters, from HBO to Netflix and beyond, have more money to make better shows. This is an eternal irritation to me, as a citizen consumer and TV critic. Two of the most distinctly Canadian and truly successful shows of the past number of years are low-budget: Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny. The Boys became an international cult sensation, and yes, landed a lucrative deal with Netflix. Letterkenny is on Hulu and getting rave reviews. Both are emphatically Canadian in a way that, I suspect, no CBC executive grasps.
Almost simultaneous with Tait’s “cultural imperialism” remarks was an announcement from CBC-TV that its new drama Coroner was doing very well in the ratings in Canada, with episodes pulling in around one million viewers. That’s great for CBC-TV and everyone involved, and Coroner will probably end up finding an international audience, eventually, on Netflix.
But it’s a very ordinary series. It’s popular entertainment, forgettable and middling good. Its Canadianness is on the surface. Such fare is CBC’s stock-in-trade. And CBC-TV is deeply, terribly complacent about its middling-good content. Nobody watching it abroad is going to be wildly impressed that Canada is making striking TV drama of sociological depth, beauty and moral seriousness. They would forget Coroner rather quickly, as I did after watching several episodes.
The main Netflix-related issue in Canada is with the streaming service’s commitment, or lack of commitment, to French-language content made in Quebec. This is a Netflix mistake, no doubt about it. The unique cultural ecosystem – a microsystem – that is Quebec needs special handling from Netflix. Again, mind you, that is something CBC/Radio-Canada should take up with the government.
Me, I’ve said it before and will say it again: In this golden age of TV, Canada has made shockingly little TV that’s truly great. Two items, Alias Grace and Anne, have flashes of true greatness, and both were made with help from Netflix.
Day to day and week to week, CBC Television’s weakness is its commitment to ordinary, middling-good TV, and it has become complacent about middling success. That’s CBC’s problem, one created by lack of imagination and laziness, not some imagined cultural imperialism.