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CRTC takes issue with Oprah’s teaching credentials

In honour of the school year kicking off next week, here's a pop quiz on the Canadian TV business.

Which of the following shows currently on the schedule of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network Canada are classified as "educational": 1) The to-catch-a-killer documentary series Murder She Solved; 2) the cooking show Simple Fresh Delicious; 3) the reality show Million Dollar Neighbourhood; 4) The Oprah Winfrey celebrity chat show Oprah's Master Class, which features intimate one-on-one interviews with folks such as Jon Bon Jovi, Morgan Freeman, and Cindy Crawford?

Sorry, it's a trick question: They're all educational. That is, if you buy the argument of the channel's owner.

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Last March, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission slapped down OWN, telling the Corus Entertainment Inc.-owned channel that not enough programming fit its educational mandate. That may have seemed peculiar to most of OWN's six-million-plus subscribers, who tune in to shows such as How to Look Good Naked Canada and Life With LaToya for fun and relaxation rather than to get a lecture.

But lectures are what the CRTC expected back in 1996, when it granted a licence for a national channel called Canadian Learning Television. CLT, majority-owned by CHUM Ltd., pledged to air "a full spectrum of basic, credit-based, skills-related and life-enhancing programs, in co-operation with colleges, universities and training institutions throughout the country."

Its motto was "Television That Teaches," and its first chief executive officer was Ron Keast, a PhD whose doctoral thesis, according to an online biography, was titled The Effects of the Technique and Technology of Communications on Religion in the West.

By dint of CLT's earnest pledges, it was granted a Category A licence that forced every cable and satellite TV company to offer it to subscribers.

But in the way these things often go, that licence was so valuable that, in March, 2008, Corus paid about $73-million to scoop up CLT and rebrand it as Viva, a channel for women. Three years later, it was rebranded as OWN. These days, it's not as profitable as it used to be – the channel's pretax margin slipped to 25.6 per cent in 2012, from 44.1 per cent in 2006, according to documents filed with the CRTC – but it still made more than $7-million last year.

Then it hit a snag. The CRTC, which has been pushing its weight around since Jean-Pierre Blais took over its chairmanship last summer, called Corus executives onto the carpet last fall for failing to adhere to OWN's educational mandate.

The commission noted it had been telling Corus for years that too much of OWN's programming was of the life-enhancing variety and not enough of the skills-related genre. In March, the commission slapped down the company, issuing a so-called mandatory order that requires the channel to shape up or risk flunking.

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But Corus has responded with filings that suggest just about any TV program can qualify as educational – if only because it can be used in a classroom to teach people how to, er, make a TV program.

You don't think Oprah Behind the Scenes, a one-hour reality show that lets viewers eavesdrop on production meetings for Oprah's old daytime talk show, and gives us celebrities such Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts kibitzing with staff backstage, is educational? Go to the back of the class, because Corus filings say the show sheds light on the business of show business. Indeed, Corus says the program is accredited for use by Hamilton's Mohawk College. Ditto for Oprah's Master Class, which can apparently be used to teach about Media Career Discovery.

Not all of the OWN shows are used to teach people about show business.

What Would You Do?, a hidden camera show that puts regular people into unusual situations to test their character, can be used to teach laws and ethics. It, too, is accredited by Mohawk College.

The reality TV show Remedy Me, which, as the OWN website description states, "enters the lives of two different people suffering from the same disagreeable and often embarrassing ailment – from gas and hemorrhoids to restless leg syndrome and PMS" – is apparently used by Calgary's Mount Royal University in its HLTH 4462: Integrative Health Practices in Nursing course.

Most of the OWN shows that Corus argues are educational, though, are in the media genre, used in places such as Toronto-based Humber College's School of Media Studies, where the instructor uses one of his own TV productions, the half-hour cooking show He Said, She Said, to teach students about all the behind-the-scenes tricks of putting on that kind of show, from food styling to the best way to capture "two-way banter."

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It's educational, as far as it goes, I guess. So why does it feel as if we're all being schooled?

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More


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