Canadian Drama Panorama

Today’s most interesting TV article (via McGrath) is Jason Anderson’s piece on the state of Canadian television drama.


The article looks at the question of whether Flashpoint and other U.S.-style (and U.S.-funded) co-productions are our future, or just a writers’-strike-inspired fluke, but it also goes into the history of Anglo-Canadian TV drama shows, broadcasting, and, most intriguing to me, regulation. As the article notes, today there is a lot more CanCon on networks like CTV than there once used to be, and that’s a result of the CRTC playing hardball and forcing them to open up the airwaves to Canadian shows. (I don’t want to go into the argument over how much regulation is too much; what isn’t in much dispute is that absent strong regulation, there would be almost no Canadian programming on CTV or Global, because that’s the way things stood before regulations got tighter.) In 1999, regulations were loosened to allow cheaper programming to qualify as CanCon, and the number of Canadian drama series instantly plummeted, but cable picked up a bit of the slack because “the CRTC and the Canadian Television (now Media) Fund compelled the specialty, pay, and cable networks to spend more on domestic production.”

The fact that Canadian scripted TV needs government support to survive doesn’t bother me ideologically. Most TV around the world needs government support (show business even gets plenty of less-visible subsidies in the States). And as the article notes toward the end, our regulatory/funding regime isn’t as strong as it is in other countries that have better TV:

“It’s an eternally complex business,” says Miller. “To me, the most basic point of all is that there is no stable, multi-year funding. That’s what the CBC has requested for the past 60 or 70 years, and it’s never gotten it, and that’s unique in public broadcasting around the world.” According to a 2006 study, the BBC — which Peter Grant rightly calls “the envy of all public broadcasters around the world” — receives approximately $124 per citizen for its services; the CBC gets $33.

Of course there are plenty of other reasons why the BBC has better TV drama than we do, not all of them related to money (after all, the BBC used to have its greatest successes with really cheaply-produced, videotaped dramas that they literally taped over after they aired).

The article also includes some hand-wringing over what constitutes “Canadian-ness” in a show: Flashpoint creator Mark Ellis argues that it has “Canadian Values,” while TV authority Professor Mary Jane Miller worrying that procedural shows aren’t Canadian enough because they solve too many problems with guns. You’ll notice that the creators of really first-rate dramas mentioned in the article — Intelligence and Slings and Arrows — don’t seem to worry overly about proving that their shows are truly Canadian; it’s hard enough for a creator to make a show that is truly his or hers. (I’m not specifically targeting or even thinking of Flashpoint by saying this, but if a show is trying to express Canadian values, that could be a sign that it’s not really expressing its creator’s values, which are much more interesting to see reflected in a TV series.)

And, to return to the historical issue, I find it striking that the basic formula for a procedural’s opening scene, as accurately described in the opening paragraph of the article, is virtually the same formula that such shows have used for more than 50 years. There are two things that have changed: one, the scene is now before the opening credits instead of after it, and two, characters from the main cast are more likely to appear in the opening scene (whereas 25 years ago, this scene would have been totally focused on the guest characters, like those little opening vignettes on The A-Team where the villains menace the Special Guest Victims while the regular cast members take day off). But the rule that a show needs to start with a scene of violence or tension and hook the viewer instantly, and only then start to explain exactly what’s going on, is still pretty much intact. Crime shows have changed less than any other kind of show except sitcoms.