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Television And The Decline Of English Canada

Posted on July 30, 2002 and read 17,363 times

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The following is a presentation given, at the University of Montreal and Simon Fraser University, to the Spry Foundation (as in CBC co-founder Graham Spry). The speech was presented by Daryl Duke, the Emmy Award-winning director and founder of Vancouver’s CKVU-TV who was recently inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame.

My questions involve a search for English Canada. What kind of society do we want? An American one? Or one based on a sensibility of our own? Is our TV to be of our own making? Or one produced elsewhere and imported? It seems, from what I see on the air or read in the papers, that broadcasting is deemed to have very little to do with our country or how we run and shape it. We’ve put ourselves in the hands of men who have no answers to these questions and who seem content that broadcasting be simply a matter for business judgments. Yet if we’re to have a country distinct in content as well as geography, answers must be found. Broadcasting and our lives must be joined.

I wonder how often we’ve been told that we must ‘globalize’. Since the days of Brian Mulroney, the mantra ‘go global’ has been repeated over and over. It is one often used to find fault with the Canadian work force—we’re not global enough. What is totally ignored by our TV is that we are global. We have been for a long time. We have a wonderfully diverse population, yet the rich variety of our peoples is notably absent from our TV screens.

After 50 years in the business, I’ve never come to terms with this dichotomy. We have a global population, but the content of our TV remains as white as the Brady Bunch. We should be creating exciting, experimental, groundbreaking, cross-cultural TV. But we are not.

Is our TV, public and private, too commercial? Is it too centralized in Toronto? Is it too tightly controlled by a few corporations, a few moguls? Is it just too much a white man’s medium?

‘Can the disappearance of an unimportant nation be worthy of serious grief?’ This was the question asked in a short but famous book, Lament for a Nation, published in the ‘60s by the philosopher and University of Toronto professor George Grant. Grant was condemning Canada’s business class. He saw its desire for continentalism as our country’s undoing.

For most of my adult life, I was cocooned from such worries by the preoccupations of being a director and producer. Even Grant’s statement about Canada’s business class ‘never letting love of country stand in the way of making a profit,’ failed to ring alarm bells. It wasn’t until I was a broadcaster owning and running CKVU that I saw that what Grant had written could come true. I realized that we’re putting our minds, our spirits and our culture in the hands of men who don’t care how they make a profit. Five or six media moguls own everything in our cable and broadcasting systems. Almost all controlled from Toronto. The publicists and journalists say Canadians are going to be beneficiaries of the Information Age. But if one looks at the program schedules, filled with US shows and the cheap derivative output of these broadcasting barons, it seems more that we are victims of a state-endorsed media coup.

Canadian broadcasting is crucial, not just for those of us in the business, but for all Canadians. Our access to avenues of public discourse, our access to information, to entertainment and culture, to contact with our past, to dialogue with each other, are all enormously altered or even closed off by the nature of the broadcast institutions we have put in place in Canada.

There is no more urgent debate than the one about media. Yet, in English Canada, such debate barely exists. We face a seriously diminished and increasingly ineffective CBC. The silence on this subject is almost total. The self-aggrandizing actions of media corporations such as CTV, Canwest Global and Rogers Communications are enormous in terms of their impact on our country, but where is the outcry?

With the concentration of ownership, the centralization of broadcast operations and the extreme commercialization infecting every aspect of broadcasting, there has been a staggering loss of control over content—the content of our lives, the content of our nation. By ‘content’ I mean program content that gives us the ability to know who we are, where we came from, what are the values which make us distinct from other societies, and what we need to know and experience in order to be fully-engaged citizens living fully-engaged lives, politically, economically, culturally, regionally.

Who’s calling the shots about what we see and know? Have we handed rights of information and culture over to the Aspers of Canwest Global, who now have access to 75% of the Canadian audience? To Ivan Fecan of CTV, whose stations and specialty channels now reach a similar number? To Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications, given by the CRTC 44% of English-language cable homes and an open ticket to ‘multi-cultural programming’? Even our public broadcaster, the CBC is in the hands of a secret, patronage appointment system that sees the Prime Minister install the CBC President and its board of directors. What are all these channels—private or publicly-owned or controlled by a small group of media bosses, doing to us? What is their impact? And is our trust in these men justified?

Is it enough to have great productions? To be able in Canada to make a fine feature film like The Red Violin, or to see each week a top-rated Da Vinci’s Inquest? Or is there something deeper in the system of Canadian TV that makes me say, as one could in so many countries, ‘We know what we see, we just don’t know what we don’t see’?

Today, despite all the hardware, the studios cameras, the control rooms full of snazzy equipment…despite the satellites, the armies of TV and film crews stretched out from coast to coast… the glitzy award shows, the week-end conferences of entertainment lawyers, accountants and network development officers…despite all the investment from federal and provincial governments and all the tax benefits which flow to private corporations, I find that the broadcast system in English Canada has three dominant features: censorship, racism and an appalling lack of innovation. These aspects of our TV are very real and are the work of finite men leading our broadcast institutions and making finite decisions for which they are never called to account.

Censorship, racism, and lack of innovation are connected, not just by attitudes, but also by content: program content, how it is defined and in whose hands that definition lies. A definition that is crucial to what we know and to how we perceive the world. Under the control of commercial broadcasters in the private sector, or career bureaucrats at the CBC, ‘content’ is defined in evermore narrow circles until we look on it in one way—commercial or newsworthy, popular, acceptable, giving the audience what it wants, good for ratings.

These definitions create an impassable wall, so that the rich material of our history, our culture, our entertainment, our diversity in drama, in music, all remain outside our viewing. Without realizing it, the control of the content of our society, the story of our lives, is turned completely over to others. A few network heads in Toronto. A couple of department heads at the CBC. Producing not what should be the most exciting expressions of our society, but something false and not our own. Our children know spectacle as the Super Bowl half-time ceremony. They never see the magnificence of a well-staged opera or the beauty of a ballet performed by Canadian dancers. Our television drama is commercial. It never presents the classical works of any country, seldom inspires pity or terror or offers sustenance against the confusing and horrific events we see on the news. The stories of the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia—where many of our citizens come from—are never tackled.

To take an example from long ago, I remember when the Beatles first arrived in the US in 1962 and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. At that time, the #1 album by far—into the millions—was James Brown’s. But he wasn’t on American TV because he was black. At that time, I was producing the Steve Allen Show. When I brought on Aretha Franklin, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, the audience didn’t know them. Here was content defined by racial attitudes. The American audience could say: ‘We know what we see, we don’t know what we don’t see.’

In Canada, how much content are we denied? The CBC names a radio station after Glenn Gould. But who are the classical pianists of today? We have no way of knowing. How much of the world do we never see because our broadcasting officials lag far behind in taste, desire and connection with our regions? How much of our content never sees the light of a studio, so that we live in ignorance? Despite all the stations, specialty channels, networks and tax dollars given directly or indirectly to home-grown media moguls who really only want to import Malcolm in the Middle or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

We’re told that we live in a multi-lingual digital universe and, with TV and the Internet, our informational choices are assured. We’re told that the times have changed. That there’s something quaint in fussing about the public’s rights in broadcasting. Graham Spry, through his life-long dedication to public broadcasting, believed that Canadians should be treated as citizens, not objects of commercial interests. Some would say that this belief has no place in this glossy new world, absorbed as it is with terms such as ‘convergence’, ‘new media’, ‘the need to compete internationally’, or ‘the need for Canada to be a world player’. These terms are con jobs, used by media companies to avoid their obligation to our spirit, to the vision of our people, to the content of our lives.

In 1961, Spry wrote: ‘It is outrageous that we should turn over 75% of the Canadian audience to sheer profit-making, primarily for the purpose of selling American cars, cosmetics and detergents, and that the money-makers will be under no obligation to serve educational purposes, help remote areas or do anything that will not add to their profits.’

Those words could have been addressed to any recent CRTC hearing, as Canada’s small group of large media corporations went about acquiring almost total control of our society’s broadcast assets. For 75%-80% is exactly the size of the Canadian audience that Canwest Global and CTV now command. We should see that these corporations are held, as Spry suggested, to a higher standard.

Yet what has happened to the Canadian sensibility? That populist regard for the value and purpose of entertainment and information? The fundamental certainty of Canada’s cultural integrity? Has it been lost? Or has it gone by design and purposeful neglect? Have government and business conspired to destroy it?

As the press decries the tumbling audience figures for CBC programs, I feel that Canadians haven’t left the CBC, but that the CBC has left Canadians. One need only travel the streets of Toronto or Vancouver to discover that the people of Canada are not represented by the public network to which all citizens pay taxes, and from which all expect a new kind of content to engage their lives. The CBC has been destroyed as an intellectual and creative force in this country. With contemptible abandon, the Chretien government has forced the CBC to humiliate itself, ridding its ranks of our best and brightest. The CBC has become little more than a compliant government agency. It now needs close to $500 million a year in commercial revenue just to meet its most basic obligations. So much for independence from government and business. We should ask: Can a network putting out little else but mainstream news, commercial drama and sports be considered a public network programming in the public interest?

Canada requires extraordinary, affirmative action in order to continue to know itself and define itself as a society to its own citizens, especially in a world increasingly dominated by giant multi-media companies. French Canada recognizes this fact, with special funding and cultural initiatives—federal and provincial—to protect and enhance language and culture. It is English Canada’s culture that’s at risk. It may be more threatened than Quebec’s and may, in fact, require even more protection and enhancement.

We’ve been encouraged to regard English Canada as having a culture little different from that of America’s. A CBC executive once told me that a common view in Ottawa was that the role of English CBC is merely to ‘augment’ the programs that English Canadians watch from the US. This is a view long and strongly encouraged by the private broadcasters of English Canada, who wish to be left alone to fill their hours with US shows. I ask: If they’re so ready to ignore the values which protect Canadians, why are they so ready to take Canadian funding and tax credits in support of their commercial programming?

Though he runs almost nothing but American shows, Canwest Global president Leonard Asper tells us that there has never been such diversity on the air. Government cabinet ministers bask in the glow of each new communications venture. While Heritage Minister Sheila Copps appears in the front row of every award show telecast from Toronto, it was her cabinet that most ruthlessly cut the CBC budget.

Over and over, we are told that we’ve never had it so good. But are we the beneficiaries of a wonderful new communications world? Or the victims of a slick pattern of state-supported broadcast funding and commercial station ownership that keeps citizens out of reach of the nation’s studios and cameras?

I’ve spent long periods of time away from Canada. In countries where it was obvious that the media was heavily controlled, I still saw societies of great definition, where even in the midst of repression there was joy of character and culture. To come home and open the pages of the Globe and Mail, to see Peter Mansbridge and The National, or yet another episode of the The Road to Avonlea, was to see a country boring itself to death.

Canadian shows were less and less watched. We were told that we had no stars, no culture. Every new TV license handed out to a Canadian media company only seemed to increase the viewing of US programs. While technically a country where the media is free, I would return from each stint abroad to find society in English Canada sorely in need of a new script, a new set of myths by which our people could live and contemplate the future. French Canada had its scenario in place. It respected its artists, its movies were watched. English Canada was living a state-sanctioned lie, a falsehood that couldn’t be sustained by the jingoism of a July 1st special from Ottawa.

It’s no wonder that we worry that this astounding medium of television is now owned by a small handful of men who make their profits from imported shows that say nothing to our hearts and spirits. Surely it is time for us to ignite the edifice of Canadian broadcasting. To insist that Jean Chretien end the patronage appointment process which runs the CBC and the CRTC, and end this interlocking web of business, government and funding. It’s time for a strong and independent CRTC; time to get the liberal fundraisers and old party friends off the CBC board. Time for a public hearing process so we would know where a new CBC president stands on issues important to Canadians—prior to his or her appointment. Time for the very structure of the CBC to be changed. For CBC funding to be restored. For regional broadcasting to be restored. So that places like Vancouver can have their own airtime and budget autonomy.

“The media is corporate Canada, corporate Canada is the media.” I hope these will not be the words engraved on the tombstone of English Canada’s sensibility.

This article is from Blitz Magazine which focuses on media communications in BC and the US Pacific coast. Its readership of 50,000 people does it justice since it has very good articles and unlike other marketing/communications magazines its focus is on the industry and not the politics behind it. You’ll find good material on anything from sports radio marketing to digital TV advertising to Canadian media. The best part is always the column by editor Louise Aird, which is filled with uncensored and refreshing points of view.




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