TV, eh? interview with Peter Keleghan, Part 2: How To Make Canadian Television Better


By Diane Wild

Actor Peter Keleghan (18 to Life) has been vocal about the need for a strong homegrown television industry throughout his career. He offered his thoughts during a panel session at this year’s Banff World Television Festival, and expanded on them in our interview the following day (see Part 1 here).

“The good news is I’m doing this,” he told me about his advocacy efforts, which have included lobbying for stronger Canadian content regulations, speaking out against censorship and cuts to the arts, negotiating union contracts, and helping found a credit union for TV and film professionals. “The bad news is my father-in-law started doing it in 1965.”

(Married to actress Leah Pinsent, Keleghan’s famous father-in-law is Gordon Pinsent, who had his own things to say about the state of the industry in our recent interview.)

“My wife once wrote a letter to a newspaper asking ‘How do you think Americans would feel if 80 percent of their television was Canadian?'” Keleghan said. “There was a response: ‘How would Americans feel? The same way Canadians feel if they’re forced to watch Canadian television.'”

He doesn’t argue with the idea that there is a quality problem in Canadian television. Neither does he accept that the Canadian industry doesn’t have the talent to make great television.

“Any success in artistic vision comes with a unified voice. David Chase, Matt Weiner, Steve Smith, Rick Mercer, Ken Finkelman. It’s set up to fail because when you put that much money into it you have so many executives reaching into it from arms length. Look at anything successful and I’ll almost guarantee someone was given carte blanche to do what they wanted to do how they wanted to do it.”

Look at many Canadian shows today – Shattered with its reported five showrunners in 13 episodes, and The Listener with a rumoured seven – and it would appear the someone in charge is often not one with a unified artistic vision.

“We can and should make it better. And we can make it better given the dollars and the opportunity to do it.”

He pointed to the 1999 CRTC decision that eliminated the rule forcing private broadcasters to spend a minimum amount on Canadian dramatic programming, causing the production of dramas and comedies to plummet … along with the opinion of Canadians who found it harder to find quality Canadian shows.

“How do you combat the stigma?” Keleghan asked. “Money. Opportunity. Throw enough stuff on the wall and something will stick, given the right opportunity to stick. The US has more money to throw against the wall. We throw three things up and we have to go with our three things. They throw 12 things up and they can afford to go with three things.”

“We don’t have a Branglina. We don’t have a Clint Eastwood. Hollywood was smart; they started creating a mythology around their industry 100 years ago. And they have a population base and a financial structure that allow them to do it,” Keleghan pointed out.

He believes the Canadian television model, with funding and tax incentives simply for producing shows, eliminates the incentive for broadcasters to consider the quality of those shows along with their timeslots and marketing campaigns.

“We’re giving carrots to producers and private networks to put stuff on the air before it’s any kind of success.”

Instead, he’d like to see a business model based on performance. “The US government said we need X amount of fuel-efficient cars by X date and then you will get the subsidies. Car companies said no, but they did it anyway, because they had to. If you tell the private networks by X date you have to have X amount of people watching X number of Canadian shows in primetime, then they’re the smart ones in figuring how to get it done. And they can get it done. They will invest more money because they will end up making more money. They will make better shows, and they will advertise them and put them in primetime.”

As for the need for carrots at all? “You put a dollar into the television industry and it provides exponentially more money into the economy,” Keleghan said. “Yet people still call what they give to the steel industry subsidies and what they give to us handouts.”

“The government is allowing culture to be in the hands of big business. It’s like allowing a corporation to have free reign over something that should be a right of Canadians. The CRTC and the airwaves belong to us, but they’re being used in a protected way for them. They can make money without any kind of foreign interference, and yet they do not serve a common good for us. They serve a good for the corporation, which is to make money. What they’re bringing in is this lowest common denominator of stuff for Americans and Canadians. They make money hand over fist and we don’t have anything to reflect ourselves or be proud of.”

As the fall season approaches, the number of new Canadian dramas or comedies on CTV and Global can be counted on one hand. In fact: on one finger (that would be Shattered on Global, which premieres Wednesday at 10 pm and has suffered from a dismal marketing campaign). Yet both have splashy campaigns for new programming they’ve purchased from American networks.

“It doesn’t reflect who and what we are in this country,” Keleghan said about the American programming that dominates our airwaves, and that most Canadians can also see on American channels.

“Who and what we are is hugely important and any government with a vision knows that. Are we a country that just cares about right wing money business values? I don’t think so. Our history is much different than that.”

“We’re not curing cancer. We’re entertainment. We don’t appear on the political radar that much. The reverse of that is you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. If we just become an extra state of the union, what happens to the country when we lose the touchstones that reflect ourselves? The bigger picture is that it is a form of censorship if we don’t allow any kind of the Canadian product in the mix with American product.”

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Diane Wild

Diane is the founder of TV, eh? She loves books, movies, TV, science, space, traveling, theatre, art, cats, and drinking multiple beverages at the same time.
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