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Follow the money: Canadian TV really is a racket by John Doyle

May 26, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

Bafflement. Public money spent. Appeals to the public for dollars and support. We must be talking about the Canadian TV racket.

Thing is, we’re not talking CBC here. Last week’s announcement that Bell Media and Telefilm Canada are backing Corner Gas: The Movie (coming to movie theatres, followed by TV and DVD, later this year) has stirred up everything from excitement to exasperation. CBC-type exasperation.

In the normal context of the entertainment racket (as it’s practised by our good neighbours to the south), a successful TV show spawning a theatrical movie, then airing on TV and released on DVD, would be assessed as a good business proposition and the money would come from a studio, a broadcaster and some other commercial entities. Everybody would hope to make money. It’s what successful studios and broadcasters do all the time.

Here we have Bell Media, which has loads of dough (colleague Simon Houpt tweeted that it’s a $40-billion company), getting behind a movie version of a TV show it aired. Great. Me, I look forward to admiring Lacey’s shoulders anew, and another blast of Oscar yelling, “Jackass!”

The movie’s budget is about $8.5-million. Hey, what’s that to a company that just spent a ton of money, possibly millions, at the L.A. screenings, buying up U.S. network shows to simulcast and scoop up the ad dollars?

But in this instance Bell Media is putting only about $1.5-million into the project. The company won’t discuss budget issues, but I’m told that figure is a fair estimate. The remaining money for the $8.5-million budget comes from grants, subsidies and through tax breaks. That $1.5-million seems a tad small, given that, also last week, Bell Media’s CTV announced it had acquired 11 new U.S. series for its 2014-15 prime-time lineup. That doesn’t come cheap.

Bell Media would likely say Corner Gas: The Movie is a theatrical movie, not strictly a TV show. This, I would argue, would be codswallop, or whatever they’re calling nonsense in Dog River, home to Corner Gas, these days. It is, in essence, a TV movie, getting a short theatrical run in November, a short run on pay-TV and then likely becoming a big part of CTV’s holiday program schedule.

What baffled many people was the inclusion of a crowdfunding revenue source, through Kickstarter.com, for the Corner Gas movie. Most people think of Kickstarter as a resource for indie productions, not for projects already backed by millions in public funding and financial backing from a major broadcaster. It seemed like asking for more, more, more.

As Virginia Thompson, the movie’s producer, told me: “This is about the fans [of Corner Gas] getting the chance to be involved in the movie. It’s not much about the money; it’s about a connection with the movie that has real, tangible value.” Thus, people who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign – which raised more than $125,000 in two days, after setting a goal of $100,000 in 30 days – can be listed in the credits, name a character, be part of background scenes or help host a screening.

I get it – the Kickstarter campaign is less about trawling for dollars than it is about bonding with the hard-core fans. It’s a public-relations manoeuvre.

It’s all useful and illuminating, this bafflement and the arguments about how Corner Gas: The Movie is funded.

The broad story of Canadian TV, as it is understood by many, is that the CBC gets about $1-billion from the public to fund its endeavours and commercial broadcasters get little or nothing while taking risks to deliver any Canadian content.

It ain’t so. The Corner Gas movie fandango underlines a point made by CBC president Hubert Lacroix recently. On CBC Radio’s As It Happens, he said, “There is no such thing as a private broadcaster in this country.” What he meant was his further assertion – which is that private broadcasters, “directly, indirectly, through subsidies and tax credits, get about $900-million to $1-billion, in all sorts of support, every year. That’s about the budget we, the CBC, have.”

And the lesson learned is that Canadian TV really is a racket. It’s your tax dollars at work, here, there and everywhere, not just in supporting the CBC. Remember that when commercial broadcasters complain about the CBC’s subsidy. Remember that when CBC says it no longer has the funding to fulfill its mandate.

Canadian commercial TV – nice work if you can get it.

© Globe and Mail