As social media chatted happily this week about Tatiana Maslany's much deserved Emmy for playing multiple clones on the sci-fi series Orphan Black, I began thinking about the ship of Theseus. The vessel in question was an ancient Greek ship kept afloat for generations by the replacement of any rotting plank and it is famous as a philosophical paradox: If every plank has been replaced, is it still the same ship?
Say you replaced the remarkable Maslany with an American actress, would Orphan Black still be a Canadian show? Say you replaced both her and her co-star, Jordan Gavaris, another Canadian actor? What about if you hired Hollywood directors and writers? At what point, if all the members of the artistic team are foreign, can we still consider a show shot in Toronto by a Canadian crew to be Canadian?
Television shows are judged to be Canadian – and thus get access to crucial funding and tax credits – according to a point system administered by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and last month, on a sleepy August afternoon, the CRTC quietly announced that it was giving producers more "flexibility" to hire non-Canadians.
Previously, you needed eight Canadian points to gain access to independent production funds. (Those pots of money, along with the publicly administered Canadian Media Fund, are filled with the levies that the CRTC applies to the revenues of companies such as Shaw, Rogers and Bell in exchange for letting them operate in a protected market.) Now, the CRTC has decided that you need only six points; a director or writer counts for two points and the two lead performers count for one each. Potentially, you could hire yourself two Hollywood stars and still get access to the fund.
And Maslany, even before she won her Emmy for the Canadian show that airs on BBC America in the United States, is Exhibit A in the case against this bad decision. If Orphan Black had been launched under this new rule, chances are that the promising young Canadian would not have been cast; the producers would have figured that a recognizable American actor would help sell their show abroad or the networks would have figured that an American would help sell it to audiences. Yet another Hollywood star would have shone more or less brightly in the firmament and one Canadian career might never have been launched.
Media producers had told the CRTC that they need to be able to hire more foreigners in key creative roles and the CRTC listened, buying the dubious argument that, in a globalized, digitized, multiplatform world, Canadians need outside help to create work they can sell abroad. The truth is that the producers want to bring more foreign co-producers or broadcast partners on board and know that they have a better chance if they hand over a certain degree of creative control in the form of jobs for directors, writers and actors. But at a certain point you have to wonder, how many planks can you replace with foreign talent and still call it a Canadian ship?
Not surprisingly, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and the Writers Guild of Canada, which represent actors and screenwriters, are outraged at a decision that will affect members' livelihoods. The CRTC often seems to pay a great deal more attention to the health of the broadcast industry than to the health of individual creators, and yet it is these creators who invent the content. Canada needs healthy media industries for the same economic reasons it needs healthy automotive or financial-services industries, but it needs artists if it wants a creative soul.
The six-point decision is typical of the way the CRTC is now chipping away at Canadian-content regulations without presenting any coherent vision of how Canadian programming is going to thrive if the so-called walled garden is no longer sustainable. Last year, one of the decisions that came out of the Let's Talk TV hearings was a cut to Canadian-content requirements in daytime television.
When commissioner Jean-Pierre Blais, mainly known for his crowd-pleasing pick-and-pay-TV decision, finishes his term in 2017, maybe the Liberals can finally appoint someone who will address the hard questions and seek alternative regulations and supports. Of course, the larger decisions lie with the Liberal government itself as Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly begins a series of meetings with the cultural industries in Vancouver next week. So far, her office has been sending mixed signals about what it thinks the problems are and whom it should be consulting. Time is pressing, but at least she can save herself one meeting: TV producers would only suggest you should now cut the required points to four.