Source : Canadian Press
Still can't compete with U.S. but breakout shows, CBC committment give hope
What do a prairie gas-bar operator, a young Toronto criminal lawyer, a Canadian Idol and a bunch of trailer-park hosers have in common?
They're all subjects of Canadian TV shows that Canadians are actually watching, despite the perennial moaning within industry and arts circles that there isn't enough public funding to make domestic series good enough to compete with the well-heeled and heavily promoted product that spills across the U.S. border into our living rooms.
While Canadian television has a long way to go to match the universal appeal of our authors and music stars, there are signs that every now and then we can put something on the air that -- how shall we put it? -- doesn't suck.
From fictional Dog River, Sask., for example, came CTV's surprise sitcom hit Corner Gas with Brent Butt, snagging an incredible 1.5 million viewers out of the gate. CBC aired the suspenseful political thriller H2O starring Paul Gross, while This Is Wonderland, Cara Pifko's Osgoode Hall legal drama, caught some wind in its sails. Global TV's experiment with a weeknight supper-hour soap, Train 48, was also an example of drama on the cheap that's working without reliance on the Canadian Television Fund, the industry's chronically underfilled financial waterhole.
But the country's TV viewers were NOT tuned into one bona fide and perennial hit, namely Hockey Night in Canada, scrubbed so far because of the NHL lockout. Slawko Klymkiw, CBC's chief programmer, says blockbuster Hollywood movies have been providing solid substitute ratings but he does worry about the long-term impact if viewers find other things to do with their entertainment time.
"We're obviously doing the best we can," Klymkiw says. "We're trying to mitigate any losses we're going to take.
"Can you replace hockey with movies? No, and the sooner these guys get back, the better."
Meanwhile, even the specialty channels have been getting into the act with successful original programming, such as Showcase's runaway foul-mouthed favourite, Trailer Park Boys. And home-based reality shows seemed to be working, from CTV's Canadian Idol to the CBC's amateur hockey competition Making the Cut and its ambitious Greatest Canadian contest.
Admittedly, none can boast the production values or star power of, say, NBC's powerhouse dramas The West Wing and ER, nor can they hope to enjoy the same kind of promotional machinery grinding away.
"Where we get killed, frankly, is at the checkout counter," says Halifax-based producer Wayne Grigsby (Trudeau, Snakes & Ladders). "Check out your groceries and you'll never, ever see Canadian programming, Canadian stars on those magazines. So we're just overwhelmed."
Despite a lot of hope earlier that a new Paul Martin Liberal government might loosen the subsidy strings, it is a minority government and one that seems, not surprisingly, to be giving health care priority over culture. Grigsby sees no light at the end of the tunnel just yet.
"It looks pretty bleak," he says.
On the opposite coast, B.C. producer David Paperny (My Fabulous Gay Wedding) says he's encouraged by the appointment of former broadcaster Liza Frulla as heritage minister but concedes he's aware of Ottawa's emerging fiscal priorities.
"I don't think government support of Canadian culture is in any way dead, but I think that it . . . (will) be going through some hard times."
Wayne Clarkson, the former head of the Canadian Film Institute, doesn't mince words, either. "I think the precarious state of drama in television is evident," he said before being named the new boss at Telefilm Canada last month. "That's not just dismal thinking. It's in a precarious state."
And of course the unions have a vested interest in seeing more continuing Canadian drama on the grids. They found dark humour in the fact that Putting Canada First was the motto of the recent Canadian Association of Broadcasters convention.
"Their schedules tell a different story," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, the actors' union. "CTV has only two one-hour Canadian dramas on its schedule. Global has one -- and it's a rerun. How is this putting Canada first?"
Paperny and others say producers and broadcasters are now looking at other models besides the government handout or tax break. They are spending private-sector money more wisely, using imagination in lieu of dollars, and they are considering more international co-productions, like the CBC miniseries Sex Traffic and Human Cargo, in which more than one country can share the investment and claim domestic content.
Both Paperny and Grigsby agree with ACTRA that broadcasters still have to be pressured to put more Canadian content on their airwaves.
"CBC is the only broadcaster out there that exists primarily to reflect the Canadian experience," says Paperny. "The others are not public broadcasters, their mandate is to make money for their shareholders."
Grigsby calls for a reversal of the 1999 decision by the CRTC to relax its definition of Canadian drama content and feels a recent carrot held out by the federal regulator -- more commercial minutes per hour in exchange for more Canadian content -- isn't the answer.
"It seems like, I have to say, a fairly lame stab at solving the problem. I don't see how adding more clutter to an already cluttered universe is going to make it better."
Klymkiw says he wants to increase the number of CBC drama series but the network will take the time needed to properly develop them. Meanwhile, he cites some of the specials coming in 2005, including biographical movies about Shania Twain, Rene Levesque and the younger Pierre Trudeau.
"The huge list of things we're working on, you know, I say 'Man, is that working?' Of course it's working, it's causing people to talk.
"The CBC needs not to be cut. People have to stop cutting this institution, there's no reason to cut it. It's beginning to do everything people ask of it."
© The Canadian Press