Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Do Canadians Still Think U.S. TV is Better?

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s we could all tell a Canadian TV show from an American.  There were telling features, even to us kids; slower pace, grainy picture (which I later learned was a function of the cheaper film used), fewer scenes, over acting, under acting, less violence, fewer action scenes, small crowd scenes, buildings never burnt down or cars crashed, same actors in every series and a general feeling that a show was Canadian, even if there were no references to Canada. Regardless of what Canadian producers and broadcasters did or how much promotion Canadian shows received, they had an image problem and often found it hard to attract an audience, at least among cool kids in our neighourhood.  That has all changed, or has it?

There were some good Canadian drama and comedy in the early days of Canadian television, 1960-1990.  Wojeck, King of Kensington, The Beachcombers, Night Heat, Adderley, Sidestreet, Chautauqua Girl, Programme X, Anne of Greene Gables, Seeing Things, Quentin Durgens M.P., Empire Inc., Last Call, You’ve Come a Long Way Katie, the first Degrassi series are just a few titles that come to mind.  Some of these attracted large audiences.  Anne broke viewing records which still stand today and even shows like The Beachcombers had as many as two million viewers some nights, although the ratings were only collected a few weeks per year, not every day of the year, a practice which only started in the mid-80’s. 

Part of the problem may have been that for every quality Canadian series, there were 3 or 4 not so stellar productions that existed only to satisfy Cancon requirements.

Today’s Canadian drama and comedy appear to be just as glitzy and fast-paced as anything on American TV.  The Border, Bomb Girls, Flashpoint, Republic of Doyle are all seemingly “as good” as anything on the U.S. networks, some are being bought in New York for summer runs.  The quality is there, if not the quantity.

CMRI's Media Trends Survey has tracked usage and attitudes toward Canadian media, TV, radio and the internet, for the past ten years.  We have tried to determine whether attitudes toward Canadian TV drama and comedy changed have with the times.

For the last decade opinions about Canadian programs have been consistent.  For example, an overwhelming majority of Canadians have agreed/strongly agreed that it is important to have Canadian TV news programs.  If anything, the percentage who strongly agree has grown over the past ten years.  Only a tiny percentage of people have disagreed that Canadian TV news is important. 

However, a much larger percentage of respondents every year disagree/strongly disagree that it is important to have Canadian TV drama programs. 3 in 10 have consistently had some level of disagreement about whether Canadian TV drama is important to them. On the flip side, the percentage who strongly agree about the importance of indigenous drama is higher today than it was a decade ago.

The real test, however, is to ask people whether U.S. stations have better drama and comedy. 4 in 5 have year after year favoured U.S. stations/programs in our surveys.  Results have not changed in this entire period. So Canadian programs would appear to have an image problem, even after all these years.
And the demographics are not very encouraging.  While there is little difference between male and female attitudes toward Canadian programs, there is a difference among age groups.  Older people are more inclined to disagree that U.S. programs are better but the younger one gets, the less favourable attitudes are toward Canadian drama and comedy.
So what do we do about this situation, which seems to act as a headwind for Canadian programs?  We could shut down the CBC as Ezra Levant and Andrew Cohen seem to want, since it is the major contributor to Canadian drama and comedy and after 60 years of trying hasn’t been able to improve the image problem.  Maybe the CBC is part of the problem, without knowing it and it's time to do another study. Probable result: ban U.S. programs on CBC.  Levant and Cohen could co-chair the Royal Commission on the CBC.  Or, we could bolster the promotion budgets of Canadian programs on CBC and private broadcasters, using a fund that James Moore could create, the Moore Fund.  We might start asking Canadians to pay more for their much beloved U.S. programs and use those funds to support Canadian programs. This would allow us to produce more of our high quality Canadian drama and comedy because this may be more of a quantity rather than quality issue.

Research provides a map but can’t really tell you where the gold mine is.  So, after identifying the problem, I am turning it over to the persons I think can offer the most sage advice, TV writers and creators, who hang out here.

The 2011 survey results are from CMRI's Media Trends Survey conducted November-December 2011 among a representative national sample of approximately 900 Anglophone respondents aged 18-plus.  Margin of error +/-3.3%.  The Media Trends Survey has been conducted for ten consecutive years and has surveyed over 15,000 Canadians in total in this period. It is the only survey to have measured media use and attitudes continuously over this decade. The Media Trends Survey is not sponsored by any one industry or affiliated with a media company.  Therefore, the surveys are scrupulously designed not to bias respondents into favouring one medium or media outlet over another. 


  1. Barry, this is a fascinating post. In my opinion part of the problem is the CRTC's quantitative measurement of Canadian content hours that each outlet is required to air. Because the economics don't support spending sufficient money to create enough excellent programmes to fill the slots, there is a large percentage of low-end productions meeting CanCon minimums. Imagine, for instance, that the regulatory structure was changed to force a minimum dollar spending on Canadian productions. In that case, broadcasters would be incentivised to create fewer, highly appealing programmes. In this way, the Canadian production industry could be moved from (in many cases) creating tonnage, to creating excellent, profitable, brand equity building shows.

    What do you think?

  2. Quality is no longer about cost. How much did Blair Witch cost? Years ago I remember reading an article that was talking about the number one show in LA. It was a cable access show where a guy sat in his garage and for the first half hour answered questions about philosophy, and the second half hour was a garage sale where he'd show people's stuff and people would call in and bid on it.

    Cable access has forever been fought in Canada, by ALL the networks equally vociferously. Its so bizarre that the US has REQUIREMENTS where public airwaves must be available for those who want it, while in canada, if you want to be 'public' you have to be on a 'station'. Its this shutting out of canadians and talking down to them about 'what is their culture' that has people going to the US. If you are going to be insulted, its better that its from a stranger than somebody who supposedly cares about you.

    PS, that better not be an implication that the littlest hobo is next to the paragraph about 'bad quality shows'. I loved the Littlest Hobo, it was every bit as good as Beachcombers, and just because it wasn't on CBC is no reason to disparage it. And no mention of SCTV makes you start sounding a wee bit biased (although some of those shows you mention may not have been on CBC, thats before my time-there was really a show called "Quentin Durgens MP"-if that doesn't stand for 'military police' then wow, only in Canada!). I also used to love "Smith and Smith", Bizarre (yeah, probably for the breasts), and Snow Job. But its probably true that at that age it was pretty easy to please me. But 'quality' is easily subjective (how many people actually DESPISED 'the beachcombers'?)