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How Bravo went from highbrow docs to ‘Dallas’

Brenda Strong and Patrick Duffy in a scene from an episode of the new “Dallas” series

Zade Rosenthal

The Ewings of Southfork have been having a wild summer over on Bravo: rivalries between big oil and alternative energy, a wedding and two break-ups, various death-defying health scares and a campaign for the governor's office. Yup, that's the new Dallas , and its summertime run helped make Bravo, according to its press material, the fastest-growing specialty channel in Canadian prime time.

Wait a second. Isn't Bravo the arts channel? Documentaries about ballet companies. Interviews with esteemed film directors. That kind of thing.

Not any more. Since the channel was first brought into the CTV stable in 2006-2007, and more rapidly since Bell bought back CTV in 2010, Bravo has concentrated more and more on U.S. dramas and less and less on arts programming. Today the only shows listed on its website that suggest its roots as the "NewStyleArtsChannel" created by Moses Znaimer and CHUM in 1994 are the U.S. interview show Inside the Actors Studio and a Canadian reality series called Way Off Broadway. Gone are the arts magazines Bravo! News and Arts & Minds, documentaries about artists, concert shows and interview programs such as Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ... In their place are the Canadian co-produced historical drama The Borgias, and the U.S. crime dramas Suits and White Collar.

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It's a loss that may finally get an airing at hearings this month when Bell goes before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to defend its acquisition of yet more specialty channels through its purchase of Astral.

But it is also a loss that the regulator may be able to overlook because of an odd historical omission in Bravo's licence, which doesn't actually mention the arts in the "nature of service."

"What we are seeing is a drift toward the most profitable forms of programming and a complete denial of what the specialty services were launched for, to serve niche audiences," says David Balcon, a television producer who has created documentaries for Bravo, and who supported Bell's acquisition of CHUM but doesn't support the Astral bid. Instead, he has sent in an intervention complaining about the programming shift.

"Canadians support the arts through millions of dollars by federal and provincial governments [in grants]; we have a very vibrant arts and literary culture. And there is no place on television for it?"

Bell executives, however, say they are not violating the conditions of Bravo's licence.

"There is a bit of a misunderstanding about the nature of service; we are squarely in the terms of our licence," said Catherine MacLeod, Bell Media's vice-president of specialty channels, pointing out that the original licence Bravo was awarded in 1994 only stipulated the channel focus on drama and performance programming. "We are focusing on the drama part without abandoning the arts. ... I guess we are very lucky. It gives us an ability to do broad-based programming."

Bravo is apparently a historical anomaly in that regard: it is the only specialty channel of which CRTC staff are aware that does not have a licence specifically tied to a defined genre such as science programming, comedy, cooking shows or shows about animals.

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The original CRTC approval, however, did contain a description of programming provided by the original licensee, mentioning "a general focus on the performing arts" and saying, "Bravo! will offer a mix of dance, music, opera, documentary, cinema, visual art as well as discussion programs from Canada and abroad."

The tight genres for specialties were originally established to provide viewers with a diversity of programming while protecting each channel from competition so it would be successful enough to fund some Canadian content. (C Channel, an earlier Canadian arts channel launched as a pay TV service, quickly went bust in the 1980s.)

The extent to which channels can deviate has been much debated in recent years as the CRTC moves slowly toward a system that would permit viewers to cherry-pick their cable channels. The regulator has permitted competition in the two of the most popular areas, news and sports, but continues to protect all the other genres, including drama. That issue is expected to be reviewed before 2014.

As required by its licence, Bravo does continue to pay money into BravoFact, a foundation that funds short films that currently appear online.

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