Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Crisis Of Canadian TV

Somewhere along the way Canadian TV lost its way. Let me explain the problem: there are more available TV channels than ever before.
So explain to me why Canadians are watching fewer Canadian shows than at any time in the 55 year history of TV in Canada?
Way back in 1977 my predecessor at the Toronto Star as TV Critic, Jack Miller, caused a firestorm by carefully reading the ratings books for an entire month. He concluded the average Toronto viewer was spending less time than ever watching home grown TV, specifically Miller said it was less than 10 per cent of prime time viewing devoted to Canadian material. The rest of the time viewers spent watching American imports.
Questions were asked by Ottawa politicians. Toronto TV actors screamed bloody murder (they agreed with Miller and wanted increased funding to fight the barbarians at the gate). But nothing much happened to change the situation.
All these years later and the situation has deteriorated. The blame falls on the federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which licenses the stations and networks.
Over the years it allowed the private networks to slide out of their Canadian content regulations, specifically dumping most Canadian drama series for cheaply made (if worthwhile) documentaries.
Now we have reached the stage where both CTV and Global TV are hemorragging badly. And yet when you look at the schedules what are they but made-in-Manhattan schedules?
CTV and Global run most of their U.S. imports at the same time as the U.S. networks. that way they get to simulcast their shows (another CRTC invention). The incoming American signal (in Toronto it's from Buffalo stations) is deleted and the Canadian one substituted.
Huge audiences result in some cases --a CSI on CTV still gets over 3 million viewers, a figure no Canadian drama can hope to match. So Canadian shows generally get the left over time slots.
One time CTV's Yvan Fecan ran three well made Canadian hour dramas back to back on Saturday nights: Power Play, The City and Cold Squad. And nobody watched. In 1992 I counted 11 quality hour long Canadian dramas (including Wind At My Back, Due South) on the Canadian TV network schedules.
These days the pickings are slim. Current ratings hits include the half hour CTV sitcom Corner Gas (in its last season), CBC's The Border and Global's The Best Years. But after these gems, what?
The TV universe is changing and CTV and Global must return to their Canadian roots to survive. Splurging on U.S. imports just doesn't make it anymore. Many of the big ticket items like 24 and Gray's Anatomy have experienced huge ratings erosions. And that decline seems certain to accelerate with all the cable channels out there to entice viewers away from conventional TV.
By becoming more Canadian CTV and Global can avert this slide. The successes over the years of ENG, Due South, Road To Avonlea, DeGrassi  demonstrate Canadians are eager to watch shows about themselves if only given half a chance.

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