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John Doyle: Whither Canadian culture: Where’s the quality?

In the matter of Canadian culture, we are eternally fixated on rational approaches and consensus. That's a problem. Since we already have an eternal identity problem, rational approaches are, essentially, mere time-wasting.

Last week, I was off work, sick for a few days. It was an odd experience to morph from being jet-lagged after returning from Ireland to being a feverish, hacking, coughing mess. But it was the ideal state of mind to pay loose attention to a hearing of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, and the Department of Canadian Heritage's ongoing roadshow of "consultations" about "Canadian Content in a Digital World."

Yes, deeply surreal, both of them. Mind-bending and frustrating to absorb.

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Part of the frustration is the gnawing sense that a year after the Liberal government was elected with a solid majority, not much is actually happening. Especially in the area of arts and culture. There is a lot of conversation and consultation going on and you get the sense it will go on forever and ever.

What's exceptionally frustrating, especially in the matter of television in Canadian culture, is the lack of emphasis on quality. Said it before and saying it again: We make an awful lot of TV in this country and we are, frankly, accepting of a great deal of mediocrity. Money is thrown at all manner of drivel.

The Minister of Heritage, Mélanie Joly, is big on conversations about arts and culture. But quality and excellence don't enter into it. There's a roadshow travelling the country in which people can have a grand chinwag about arts and culture. Chinwags are great if you don't actually have a plan to do anything. Instead of chinwags, what's needed is a statement that we make exceptional, world-class provocative and serious-minded TV in Canada. That statement is best made by actually doing it.

The Minister's plan is captured in this statement from her department: "Our government believes in the value of the arts and culture to Canada's society and economy. That's why, in Budget 2016, we invested $1.9-billion in the arts and culture. We are asking Canadians to work with us to build a new model that reflects a broad consensus – a social contract – of how we support the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content in the digital world."

Thing is, we already create and export Canadian content. The TV industry is a vast, multibillion-dollar business. As for "discovery," that's a universal problem for anyone searching for content they want in a digital world. What's missing, from the landscape the Minister surveys, is excellence. And the audience, internationally, has a habit of finding and seeking out excellent, critically-acclaimed content.

The digital world is, of course, vastly important in the rise of television to its leading role in serious-minded contemporary storytelling. Technology played a vital role in the emergence of this golden age of television. But the Minister is either confused or ignorant about the situation in Canada. Speaking recently to Evan Solomon in CTV's Question Period, Joly dealt with the matter of Netflix and obligations that might be put on streaming services to either pay taxes or contribute to the funding of Canadian content.

The Minister asserted that foreign streaming companies, including Hulu and Amazon, are "part of our ecosystem" and are "used and liked by Canadians." She said, "We want to make sure that, while we know that they're using a large part of our spectrum, that we can have a conversation with them to see how they can participate."

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Nonsense. Neither Hulu nor Amazon Prime streaming service are available in Canada, let alone "used and liked by Canadians." It's illegal to access them. That's why shows made by Hulu and Amazon are bought by, and aired on, Canadian specialty cable channels.

In the matter of the CBC, nobody has a clue about what is going on and nobody can agree about the CBC's mandate in the digital age. Senior CBC executives spoke to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last week and faced the usual sniping from Conservative MPs and grumpy questions from others.

What one gleaned from the encounter is that the CBC feels it is perfectly entitled to fully embrace the digital, online world. This means it is in competition with private, commercial media for online eyeballs. But it is far too late to put that online genie back in the bottle. CBC's challenge is do something useful in digital and, so far, it has largely failed. A vast amount of CBC's online activities appear to be devoted to promoting CBC TV content. Bizarrely, for a national, publicly-funded outfit, it barely acknowledges that other outlets exist. It is the most self-obsessed online outlet of all.

I'm sure CBC sees this as a rational approach – using its resources in promoting itself. But, like the Heritage Minister's ongoing, endless chinwag about Canadian culture, it is all too rational and self-serving. Culture-by-consensus tends to lead to mediocrity and smugness. And, in television, where excellence is sorely lacking, this is especially true. So, before there's more conversation and before more argument about the CBC's mandate, can we agree on what's lacking? What's lacking is Canadian TV worthy of being included in this extraordinary period of television excellence.

Next time I'm off sick, I'm going to binge on Netflix, just like everybody else. Seems rational.

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