I posted this link on the TV, Eh? site, but thought I’d write out some thoughts around it since it’s been quite a weekend for Canadian TV posts around here (sorry Americans!) and I keep thinking about DMc’s post on Canadian taste vs. American taste. The question he poses – “why don’t the networks try making more homegrown hits that appeal to Canadian sensibilities, rather than aping U.S. formulas” – keeps popping up since I started paying attention to my own country’s TV landscape. It’s easy enough to criticize what does make it on the air up here, but how can the Canadian industry produce more shows the public might actually want to see?[EDIT: And if I’d waited 2 hours to write this, I would have had the benefit of reading his post on how to fix things first. This is written pre-DMc-brilliance, because I’d given up on his procrastinating butt … I mean, busy schedule.]
There’s obviously no magic formula to producing only hits – if there was, the big bucks of the American system would have discovered it by now – but how can we get to a point where we have more than one scripted Canadian show in our top 30? More that can beat out American powerhouses like … Jeopardy? (But on a positive note, that one Canadian show, Corner Gas, is just a shade under Lost on the top 30 – that’s either not too shabby for Corner Gas, or bad news for Lost.)
Anyway, the link is to 24 Hour’s video interview of Chris Haddock, creator of Intelligence and Da Vinci’s Inquest, talking about his new show, but also the differences between the Canadian and American industries. I’d asked him the same question, and he mentioned some of the same things, but we were interrupted by filming and production questions while he was answering and he had to go off and, you know, do his job. With 24 Hours, he gets into the reasons Canadian TV doesn’t often resonate with Canadians, and in his opinion, it comes down to giving the creative reins to the budget crunchers rather than the writers.
Haddock, who also created the CBS show The Handler, says he has more more creative autonomy in Canada than the US, with less network interference and more freedom in language and subject matter. He points to the US hesitancy to critique American society, such as the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted, saying that atmosphere “makes performers and artists timid,” and concerned about the political slant of a character or story.
In Canada, however, he says there’s less attention paid to entertainment in general – we don’t support or promote our entertainment industry. “That’s not nature of Canadian industry and maybe not the nature of the Canadian personality, really, to hype itself beyond existence,” he comments.
Contrast that to the US networks, where “if you walk into the room with a good idea, they really back you. … If this is a goldmine, let’s dig.”
Haddock, who is one of our country’s most successful TV producer/writers, believes it’s harder in Canada to gain the confidence of networks, and says “artists don’t really have the upper hand here. Up here it’s been a battle for me for the networks to acknowledge that the writers are the creator of the product, that it’s not the line producer. The mentality up here is it’s the number crunchers who should be running the show. I really think that way of thinking has hurt Canadian entertainment. We’ve produced some really good stuff, but we’ve produced our fair share of real dreck.”
He quotes the Canadian audience as saying “Canadian TV doesn’t interest me” or “It looks so Canadian” – that sounds awfully familiar to me, too. He continues, “well, the reason it looks that way is the line producer has cheapened out on it” and the Canadian industry “hasn’t yet released the reins to writers and creative people.”
Haddock alludes to the fact that the success of Da Vinci’s Inquest in the US right now, while great, comes too late to bring attention to the show in Canada. I know CTV’s Whistler was launched on the US’s N network at the same time as its Canadian launch, and Degrassi‘s sixth season is even airing in the US before Canada. Riding on the American publicity machine’s coattails seems to be a fair attempt to reduce Canadian TV’s publicity woes, though of course it’s still a crapshoot if a show’s going to catch on or get any PR muscle behind it there.
Plus, focusing on the US market too much gives me a flashback to my frustration at the Banff World Television Festival, listening to Wayne Clarkson of Telefilm talk about the need to make shows that aren’t too Canadian so we can sell them to foreign markets … and specifically mentioning Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys as possibly too Canadian, shows that are successes in Canada and have had foreign distribution success.
It seems like a lot of people in the industry have either given up on the Canadian audience, or don’t want to acknowledge that a large proportion of the Canadian audience has given up on them. Maybe we need a Canadian TV industry 12-step program, where they learn that acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving the problem. They can say there’s no quality issue to worry about, but ask Joe Blow on the street and you’ll hear a very different answer. They can say Joe Blow is wrong, but the audience has a funny way of deciding for itself what’s good.
That’s not Haddock’s point, or MO. His shows wear their setting and Canadian sensibility on their sleeve. No one could accuse Da Vinci’s or Intelligence of not being obviously Canadian, or of mimicking American hits, or pandering to a foreign market. He’s very open about his attempts to make commercial shows, but he’s making them in the context of a non-cable network that lets you say “fuck” in primetime and that isn’t going to balk at a drug dealer being a protagonist or at the expression of ideas that go against the grain.
Whatever it is that makes us Canadians different from Americans might help make Canadians embrace our shows, and it might even be what makes foreign markets embrace them, too. We can’t compete in budget or publicity with American shows. But Degrassi is constantly praised in the US as being more real, more gritty than American versions of teen shows. Same with Da Vinci – it’s not style over substance, or increasing shock value, like many US crime procedurals. It’s marketing 101 – what’s different about your product is your selling point.
Connecting both of Haddock’s points, perhaps the creative freedom we have in Canada – as long as that freedom isn’t cheapened by poor production values – is something that can find a large audience in Canada and also find a significant niche audience in other markets like the US. Audiences who don’t subscribe to HBO or Showtime might feel starved for these kinds of shows that aren’t mirror images of what they can get on their own networks, shows with a slightly different point of view. Maybe a show like Intelligence where there is no heroic Jack Bauer to save the day against the villains, but instead backstabbing, opportunistic spies pitting wits against cunning, sympathetic gangsters.
The CP reporter asked me the question about how the industry can make better shows, and printed a bit of my attempt to dodge it. My answer was vaguely about giving creative people the reins, too. Still, I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the industry to know what that means. Assuming the pot of money available to Canadian programming isn’t going to increase, do we give more money to each show and make fewer? But even big-budget American shows have to make hard decisions about how to spend that budget – is the answer giving the creative people, rather than the financial people, final say in how the budget is allocated? Smarter development, so we’re making shows we can afford to do well? I have no real idea of how development even works here, but are there ways to do that better?
As usual, I have no answers, just questions. I guess this is where I remind you that I’m not part of the industry, I’m a TV fan. I’m the audience, and my friends and coworkers and relatives are the audience. And I’m telling you, among all the other issues, there is an issue of quality. We’ve got shows like Intelligence to prove we can make great shows, and creators like Chris Haddock telling us how we might be able to make more, but is anyone listening?