After waiting forever despite being one of only two people on the list, the library finally delivered my copy of Canadian Television Today by Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan.
It’s rather blandly typeset, on too wide a measure, in some kind of new recherché typeface I cannot identify. Mieka West took the time to select full ligature activation in InDesign, but nobody took the time to copy-edit the book, which even gets proper names wrong (“Caplan-Savageau”). And while the authors claim to do something most Canadian(-)TV critics will not – discuss the actual shows – they really don’t.
The thesis of the book is that, while Canada officially embraces multiculturalism, the entire dialogue about Canadian TV is really a dialogue about American TV and our reaction to it. Instead of talking more about global coproductions and, in essence, aligning our axis with Europe (Australia and the like are never mentioned), all we talk about is how many Canadian replacements for American networks we license (“America-plus”) and how many raw American signals we keep out of the country (“America-minus”).
(I’m not sure I have that exactly right. The useless index does not state what page those terms appear on, and after looking at every page I can’t find it again in the mass of overly regular type. A name that appears once and is of interest only to her and her mother, Melissa Auf der Mar, is indexed, while another term that appears once and is of interest every year, Super Bowl, is unindexed.)
While Canadian TV commentators want a greater number of highbrow or middlebrow TV shows, which somehow suits their own self-images, those shows are really not very popular, and because of changes in CRTC rules, broadcasters have stopped making them. The cultural elite clamours for TV shows that nobody watches and nobody wants to make. (I wager they don’t watch them, either.) Yet, the authors state, there is very little discussion of the American TV shows shot in Canada, almost all of which are lowbrow.
The Canadian TV the elites want what nobody else does. The elites never talk about the Canadian-made TV we do have. (I wonder, though: It’s OK for intellectuals to watch Battlestar Galactica, right? But never Stargate Atlantis.)
The authors cite Will Straw (“Dilemmas of Definition”):
The essentialist model, which valiantly struggles to produce a list of universal characteristics that succinctly and definitively create the essence of Canada, is rapidly losing ground in the wake of increasing multiculturalism…. The compensatory model is a much more interesting argument. It simply states that what Canadian culture most often provides are those things that other cultures do not…. From this standpoint, Canadian identity is defined by a fervent desire to be not-American…. Richard Collins defines this as the Beethoven–versus–Aaron Spelling dilemma.
The authors mock the CRTC for allowing Al-Jazeera onto Canadian airwaves under conditions they knew nobody could comply with, while eventually allowing the equally biased Fox News on the grounds that it never covers Canada. Except that two weeks after approving the channel’s carriage, there was Ann Coulter insulting us. And it was certainly an odd precedent to approve a channel for Canadians that ostensibly never talks about Canada. Usually when we want to do that, we authorize a parallel service here that becomes a licence to print money. (The authors report that 1,200 people wrote in to support Al-Jazeera’s licensing compared to 500 opposed. If you’re interested in conspiracy theories about Jewish media control, here it’s really true: Jewish lobby groups got their way in effectively excluding an Arab television station.)
The CRTC, moreover, limits the number of “third”-language channels permitted in Canada, and even those that are authorized are nearly impossible to subscribe to unless you live in a big city. Ostensibly we want to limit “foreign” domination of the airwaves. That really means “American,” but sometimes the word is interpreted literally, and other axes are shut out. Unless of course you want to use a grey-market satellite dish, which the Supremes definitively ruled were illegal. Canada is a multicultural country, yet while you may buy any book, record, or movie you wish, you may not watch any network you wish.
Community television stations? Well, they aren’t much good either, since, by insisting they be hyper-local, by definition you preclude the possibility of doing anything local across different cities. Italian-Canadians, to take an example, have to duplicate their shows in every city. Oh, and if you have any training at all you can’t run your own program (a “fetishization of amateurism”).
I suppose if I wanted a link from the Tea Makers, I could summarize the book’s many pages of CBC coverage, chiefly of the 2004 elimination of local newscasts and of The Greatest Canadian. You will relish the book’s lavish evisceration of Ben Mulroney and Canadian Idol.
As I read all that, I kept wondering why The One wasn’t mentioned (aired too late?), and why Strombo’s many failures never seem to stick. No one has prominently noted that Strombo completely sold himself out to host what would become the worst-rated début in American television history. Apart from changing his wardrobe and removing his embedded hardware, George Stroumboulopoulos even agreed to amputate 16 letters from his name and be officially known solely as “George S.” And by all measures (I do mean all), The Hour is just as much a failure.
What passes for celebrities in Canada, like Strombo, are beloved by the Canadian elite who program the CBC and write for the papers. (Or, again like Strombo, they are actually despised by that same group even if they’re too chickenshit to say so.) And these demicelebrities continue to have flourishing careers, sometimes abetted by interviewing each other. Why, just last week, Jian Ghomeshi had a very special, very exclusive sit-down with Don McKellar, whom we scarcely ever hear from or about.
Canadian TV, summed up in a single sentence: “hat Human Cargo offers is the unsmiling, straightforward and sincere version of a myth of Canada that may well be desirable but comes with so much elitist baggage that it needs to be taken down a peg or two by also embracing Trailer Park Boys” – who, from all appearances, do their own captioning.