Twenty-five years ago, during an era otherwise known as the heyday of network television, a British academic named Richard Collins delved into the tortured Canadian psyche and found us to be a seriously insecure people. Mostly, our cultural elites had one huge chip on the shoulder.
"In Canada, there is a pervasive belief that in the leisure habits of its population lies the key to the continued existence of the Canadian state; that Canadian television audiences' viewing of non-Canadian television drama is a deeply destabilizing political force," Prof. Collins wrote in his resulting book, Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case of Canadian Television.
That book was written almost two decades after the creation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission with a mandate to foster the development of a domestic television production industry and, with it, produce an antidote to English Canadian addiction to American TV.
As it nears its 50th birthday, the CRTC can claim some success. The domestic production industry is flourishing. Rules requiring domestic broadcasters to devote a majority of airtime to domestic content has provided jobs for thousands of talented and untalented actors, writers, producers and directors. Their salaries are partly funded by governments and by cable and satellite TV providers, who hand a percentage of your subscription fees to the Canada Media Fund. The CMF doles out almost $400-million annually to make Canadian shows, such as 19-2 or Working the Engels.
You're not alone if you've never heard of, much less seen, either of these shows, which run on Bravo and Global TV, respectively. And this is where the CRTC has utterly failed in fulfilling its mandate. For better or worse, domestic content rules have not altered English Canadian viewing habits. For every domestically produced popular or critical success, there are dozens of ratings and critical duds. Cancon may have worked as an industrial policy; as a cultural one, it has not.
Is our identity as a nation any more threatened for it? When Prof. Collins wrote his book, debates about "Canadian identity" or lack thereof were a staple of the mainstream media. Today, we almost never talk about it. We don't need to. As Canadians, we're secure enough in who we are, and what kind of country we want, that we don't need mediocre TV dramas – ironically copied from American formulas – to exist as a distinct people.
Not that we ever did. That has always been a trope used by those who've lived off the generous subsidization of domestic programming. Slapping a "Canadian" label on a TV show has been a ticket to the high life for a small elite who couldn't make it in Los Angeles. There is a strong argument for public support for Canadian programming that is culturally important but commercially dubious. But the current scam has endured too long.
The advent of Netflix-type services would eventually doom this production model anyway. But CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais is speeding up the process and doing Canadian culture a big favour with decisions that loosen Cancon rules and allow cable and satellite subscribers to pick and pay for only the channels they want.
Over time, pick-and-pay will mean lower cable bills. Bell, Rogers and other providers will see average revenue per subscriber decline (which they'll likely make up for by charging more for Internet services). Less revenue on the cable side means less money for the CMF and subsidies for Canadian programming. Producers will need to look more to international sales to fund their shows. Pick-and-pay will also lead to the death of some specialty channels. The end result should be a shift from quantity to quality – although Mr. Blais could better accomplish this by lowering prime-time Cancon quotas, too.
Setting a TV show in Toronto or Vancouver does not make it Canadian if it looks (or tries to look) American in every other way. What makes a show distinctly Canadian is the attitude and vibe it projects. Niche dramas such as Toronto-made Orphan Black, an international co-production that runs on Space here and BBC America in the United States, are already showing the way – commercially and culturally.
"To be honest, we don't want to say we're American and alienate the Canadians, or say we're Canadian and alienate the Americans," Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett told Entertainment Weekly last year. "We like the strong international flavour we have, too. It's something we throw our arms around and embrace wholeheartedly."
And just what could be more Canadian than that?