A squall of knowledge recently struck the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In a speech, Jean-Pierre Blais declared that he is pretty sick of broadcast executives appearing in front of the CRTC to moan that the "cupboards are bare."
He was speaking in particular about the issue of local TV news coverage, a task that Canadian commercial broadcasters don't want to fulfill. "Local television news is failing us. But it need not. The system sits at a position of strength," Blais said.
Then came the kicker: "I listened as Canadians spoke with intelligence and passion, while corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies."
I'm surprised it took him so long to recognize that Canadian TV execs are extremely rich and don't care much about fulfilling their mandated obligations to the Canadian culture. It's a lucrative racket. If we see television as a landscape filled with a variety of buildings and edifices, then Canadian commercial TV execs are slum landlords, getting rich by bilking pitiful tenants. What they own and manage, in terms of Canadian content, is a place of squalor and neglect. A slum.
The Canadian Screen Awards rolled out two weeks ago and, as usual, the coverage consisted mainly of anxious, admonitory opinions about too many awards, too few outstanding TV series and the ceaseless toil of getting Canadians to pay attention.
I watched the CSA gala on TV, a bit jet-lagged, but I'm pretty sure I smelled desperation. We make so little TV of true value or excellence that the exposure of all that mediocrity made the CSA gala a gloomy sight to behold.
The circumstance of the series that won Best Performance in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series proved to be a salutatory example of the meaningless nature of it all. The nominees were This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Second City Project, Sunnyside and The Rick Mercer Report. Amazingly and deservedly, Sunnyside won.
A nifty mix of sketch comedy and sitcom, Sunnyside deftly satirized the sort of neighbourhood that most urbanites in Canada recognize – the reluctantly gentrified down-at-heel 'hood, teeming with both hosers and yummy mommies with their Cadillac baby strollers.
A delightful, slyly biting comedy, it was made in Winnipeg for Rogers, airing on City channels, and the budget appeared to be about $50 an episode. The small cast, Patrice Goodman, Pat Thornton, Kathleen Phillips, Rob Norman, Kevin Vidal and Alice Moran, played multiple roles with aplomb.
Last week, Rogers cancelled Sunnyside. The Rogers statement mentioned "fiercely original comedy," "immense talent" and "this unique Canadian production." It was, bizarrely, the language of exultation. And yet, the series, after 13 episodes, is gone, terminated.
According to the Rogers statement, "the series was unable to connect with the audience it needed to continue." In TV exec talk, and by any standards, this is gibberish. Two short runs of a few episodes – initially and cynically airing against ratings monster The Big Bang Theory in a suicide time slot – and you're toast.
First, the cancellation underlines the utter redundancy of the Canadian Screen Awards. But more important, there's this question – how can Canadian TV ever create anything that might remotely enter the canon of this new golden age of TV when what is called "fiercely original" and "unique Canadian production" by the broadcaster, is tossed away by the same broadcaster? Riddle me that.
It is now almost three years since I first asked, "Where is Canada in the golden age of TV?" The answer was, pretty much nowhere. That column outraged many in the creative end of the industry and some are still angry about it. I blamed the lack of excellence, in part, on an acceptance of mediocrity and a delusional, inside-the-business culture of self-congratulation for making second-rate TV. Nothing has changed.
The cynicism evident in the cancellation of Sunnyside and its ludicrously difficult time slot is not limited to commercial Canadian TV. The CBC's cancellation of Strange Empire last year reeked of cynical risk aversion. This from a public broadcaster, no less, that promised to make CBC-TV the home of serious-minded, provocative, cable-quality programming.
We make a lot of TV in Canada. Some things we do very well. We are adept at making clever reality-TV series that transcend format to have emotional impact. We make great documentaries. But that's not enough. Each year, as the creative excellence from U.S. cable and other countries becomes more evident, Canadian TV looks ever more inferior.
One supposes that the cynicism from executives here goes so far as to assume that with a lot of excellence available from many countries on many platforms, why bother committing to "fiercely original" and "unique Canadian production"?
From the vantage point of those luxury yachts and private helicopters, those cynical slum landlords look down at us and laugh. What a racket.