Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Canadian TV Conundrum

"How can I help save Bomb Girls?" asks an earnest lady at the streetcar stop.
My advice?"You can't!" And then I board the vehicle.
Because the newly cancelled Bomb Girls is only the latest casualty in the Canadian TV wars.
Think Intelligence. Think This Is Wonderland. Think Godiva's. Think The Border. Think Power Play. Think The Eleventh Hour.
All these proudly Canadian TV dramas crashed and burned although ratings were OK if hardly dazzling.
But none of them could be peddled to a major American network for big bucks.
And so the Canadian networks reluctantly had to cancel them.
Many of these dramas never even got a run on DVD and are considered "lost" at the present time.
It's the same story year after year.
And it is happening because the Canadian TV system is the only one in the world that discriminates against home grown product.
It wasn't always like this.
In 1984 I wrote a TV column for The Toronto Star that noted the Canadian TV spectrum had produced a record 11 domestic hour long dramas that season.
When the dust cleared on E.N.G. and Road To Avonlea were left.
 Included were such hits as ENG, Road To Avonlea.
So what happened?
The commercial networks successfully lobbied the CRTC to drop its insistence on a quota for scripted dramas. The promise was made the same number of dramas would continue.
But the next season Canadian content consisted of cheaply made reality series and documentaries.
And Canadian TV drama has never been the same.
In fact the state of Canadian content has deteriorated with the whole sale use of simulcasting which means a Canadian web buys a U.S. show at a fairly inexpensive price and then runs it exactly the same time as its U.S. counterpart.
By CRTC mandate satellite companies must black out the incoming American signal and substitute the Canadian one giving each imported show a double bang in the ratings which no Canadian show can ever equal.
Every American show has buckets of prepaid publicity including magazine covers and filmed interviews while Canadian producers tell me they really have to hustle to get any mention in the local press.
It's an unfair advantage on all levels. A Canadian drama usually runs for 13 weeks compared to 22 weeks for the American competition.
Budgets are usually half of an American show and the shooting schedule isn't as long either.
And yet Canadians will still flock to a  quality Canadian show if offered half a chance.
These days there's a new breed of "hybrids" out there: a Canadian made show that craftily disguises its origins so it can be sold to the States.
And I have nothing against such hybrids as Rookie Blue which also score on U.S. TV.
The trouble here is a fine show like Combat Hospital was a summer hit on Global but didn't fare as well in the U.S. So it was dumped.
Also, the Canadian broadcaster usually has to simulcast it against the American run and thus has no say in the scheduling.
I've already been asked if CBC might pick up Bomb Girls. But remember CBC already picked up Citytv's Murdoch Mysteries (which continues to draw over 1 million viewers a year).
And don't forget because of simulcasting virtually all Canadian TV movies have been dumped.
Veteran producer Laszlo Barna told me his TV movie on Don Cherry only managed a sale to one foreign broadcast: in Findland!
And his TV movie life of Jack Layton this season? Barna told me he's not even bothering to order up an international print for possible sale abroad.
Canadian TV drama has never been in as desperate shape as it is today.
One solution has CRTC forcing the broadcasters to spend as much on their Canadian content as they toss away on U.S. series which we can already receive from American border stations.
Another solution involves severely limiting the number of hours a Canadian network can simulcast. Last fall Global simulcast 161/2 hours of U.S. imports in its 18 hours of weekly prime time.
I'm saying it's time the CRTC start standing up for Canadians who want to watch Canadian stories on Canadian TV.

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