You say quality, I say qualit … eh?

When the CRTC talks about creating more quality TV, when John Doyle talks about a golden age of TV, when Jesse Brown says Canadian TV has a quality problem, when I say there are quality Canadian shows no one talks about … are we all talking about the same thing? The short answer is no. The long answer is noooooooo, so be skeptical about all discussions on quality in Canadian TV.

With recent changes designed to focus broadcasters on bigger budget and less obviously Canadian primetime drama at the expense of other types of Canadian programming, it seems the CRTC is defining quality as big budget dramas that will sell to the international market — while also name-checking shows such as Reign and Beauty and the Beast which do have US broadcasters and have no visible Canadianness, but which are neither ratings behemoths nor critically acclaimed.

You know what doesn’t guarantee quality? A bigger budget. You know who buys international shows? Netflix. You know what buyer of international shows the Canadian TV industry thinks is the devil, and which buyer of international shows’ testimony the CRTC struck entirely from the TalkTV record ? Netflix.

John Doyle is looking for shows critics and a cult audience can salivate over, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Yet in a country where we have less than a handful of professional critics, 1/10 the population of the US and non-existent marketing budgets, our critical acclaim can often be distilled to “John Doyle likes it” and our audience buzz to “no one’s heard of it because it’s on a pay cable channel 10 people subscribe to.”

I think we’ve had shows that stand up as golden: Slings and Arrows, to go further back in time than I’d like, but also Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, Strange Empire, Less Than Kind, Intelligence, Blackstone, Hard Rock Medical, Call Me Fitz, 19-2. But all those choices are subjective, as in “Diane thinks they’re good.”

If we’re talking about what the Canadian TV industry should aspire to, the only way I can define quality  is “shows Canadians want to watch.” What US, UK or Norwegian show has become popular with international audiences without being successful at home?

So by the “good ratings for that particular network” metric, the only quality metric that matters, Canadian TV is doing well lately. In the last few months, the top 30 has included Murdoch Mysteries, The Book of Negroes, Rick Mercer Report, Motive, Saving Hope, Masterchef Canada, not to mention all the hockey and news I don’t care about. Bitten is among Space’s most popular shows — more so than critical darling Orphan Black, in fact. 19-2 is doing well for Bravo. Trailer Park Boys is getting its second Netflix-only season.

Few of those popular shows are personal favourites, but I’m not advocating for DianeTV: I’m advocating for a strong Canadian TV industry.

The industry needs to take more risks, to aspire to better, to have original content as a business imperative. There is much, much room for improvement. I’m just not sure the CRTC’s definition of quality — or any other definition that isn’t about what audiences actually watch — is useful.


8 thoughts on “You say quality, I say qualit … eh?”

  1. I agree that we should be making tv first and foremost for ourselves (Canadians) first; There are 5 Canadian shows I think are really good quality that I really like right now: Vikings, Orphan Black, X Company, Hard Rock Medical and 19-2. I also watch an assortment of others including Young Drunk Punk, Reign, Heartland, Remedy, Saving Hope, Mohawk Girls, Strange Empire, Continuum, Degrassi, Blackstone and Bitten. In my opinion, Canadian tv has never been better and Negative Nellies can go eat prairie oysters.

  2. In the light of day, I think this very simple, very clear-headed and frustrated article nails it even better.

    And there’s a lot here that has to do with a certain kind of statistical sampling theory, too.

    When you do a polling survey, the theory is if you get around a thousand random people in demographics that reflect the larger population, you can extrapolate from that group an accurate snapshot of the larger population’s views (accurate within a MOE, 19 times out of 20, etc.)

    The problem whenever we talk about Canadian TV is that there just isn’t enough data on either fork to reach an accurate consensus point.

    Every critic is going to approach their job from some level of idosyncracy & personal taste, but when you have 50 or 100 people reviewing show, it’s easier to line up a “consensus take” on what is great. (And it makes the outlier contrarian views better and more refreshing reading, too.)

    And when you have 80 or 100 shows produced every year, no one show is asked to carry the flag for an entire industry on its back.

    When the numbers are 1/10th of that, the data becomes “noisy.” A critic who has some kind of weird biases can claim –without a lot of refutation – anything they want.

    And a show — even one like Corner Gas or Flashpoint, that was a huge success at home, can be claimed to be anything – failure, generic, cornball, “too American” – depending on what the writer wants to bring to it.

    Add to this a cultural reality that there is always a constituency that is invested in seeing or claiming that TV here is a failure, because it fits into their political (and often, but not always, anti-CBC crusade.)

    What that means for someone like me is that we never really get to engage on the honest conversation about where our TV is going, because we either have to existentially defend our right to exist, or refute 20, 25-year old attitudes. The people who proudly claim not to have a TV don’t lead the discussion of ‘quality tv’ in the USA, but there’s inordinate attention given here to ‘haters’ of Canadian TV who haven’t really watched it in 20 years.

    And again, here’s where TV-Eh? and some of the other online journalists who write about Canadian TV have really started to make an impact and change the discussion.

    First, Diane’s critical approach — and you can see it in this article — not claiming personal taste as objective taste. You always know what she thinks, but there’s a balance to it that defeats some of the “over noise” that would otherwise be smoothed out by having 30, 40, or more reviews coming at a show.

    Second, this site has drummed up a destination for Canadian TV fans to go to get information on these shows, and provide a counter-narrative to the noisy “it all sucks” types. The audience has been woefully absent from the Canadian TV discussion. It’s far harder to ignore when you see on Twitter or social media people going legit berzerk over Murdoch, or XCompany, or 19-2 or Heartland. (The gap between audience love for Heartland alone and the careless, callous things written about it in the press could be someone’s Canadian studies Cultural MA Thesis)

    And look at, for instance, frequent commenter Ally here. A mom, not someone from one of the big Canadian cities…this is exactly the kind of person we never hear from in Canadian TV. The CRTC doesn’t hear from her, creators don’t, newspaper editors don’t….I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but I wish there were 10 or 12 more Allys giving a raw perspective on Canadian shows here. We need to hear more of that.

    When I, or my colleagues watch TV, we do it a bit differently. I have the shows I watch because I love them, of course. But when other shows are popular or lauded, I watch them too, with an eye toward trying to understand, “the people who like this show — why do they love it? What can I learn from this from a craft point of view, or from an audience point of view?”

    I crave an opportunity to do more of that, and to not always have to start from the equivalent conversational point of having to explain why the world isn’t flat.

    That’s why – even though – strike that —I’d say BECAUSE I don’t always agree with what Diane, Greg, Anthony on the podcast or the rest of the team at TV-eh says — it’s essential reading. It’s a place from which the REAL, progressive discussion about Canadian TV can start.

    So thanks. Best. DMc

  3. I started my frequenting of tv sites around 10 year ago when I was watching the Aussie tv drama, McLeod’s Daughters. I had discovered it by chance on Vision TV and fell in love with it. However, I really wanted to talk to people about it but no one else watched it so I went online and found a huge message board for the show with members from all over the world, including many from Canada. When that show finished, I started frequenting other boards,including Dead Things on Sticks and TV Eh, among others. It was so interesting talking and reading about Canadian TV. I only wish the topic could get the kind of traffic U.S. tv shows get. I frequent U.S. tv sites like TVLine, TVBytheNumbers and Deadline and I like the debates/responses that go on in the comments sections (minus the trolls). I post comments so often on TV Eh because it is my hope that it encourages more people to post comments. Canadian TV needs this public forum because it provides a voice to the non-critics. I’m not putting down critics at all, but the problem we get when the only critiques we get about Canadian shows are from 50+ middle-class men from Toronto is that is does the country’s tv industry a disservice. It’s like how the Emmy Awards get a lot of flack for not being representative of real viewers’ preferences of which series should get nominated.

  4. I do believe we both over praise and over criticize Canadian TV but I will say that the last two shows I worked on that garnered a large audience [1 mill +] had an engaged, interested fan base who looked forward to each new episode. So every once in a while we do something right and do garner an audience of laudable size

  5. BTW – My wife and I are HUGE fans of BC music band Spirit of the West since 1988, who’s John Mann, sadly now deteriorating from Alzheimers and booked for one last farewell ‘tour’ this summer, did some acting in Canadian TV, including appearances on “Intelligence”. One time we got to get a really good bone tingling chat with John after a gig in Toronto while we got our picture taken with him, my wife’s favourite facebook profile pic, and he asked if we’d seen him on that show and we said YES WE LOVED YOU ON THAT SHOW – CRIMINAL THAT IT WAS CANCELLED !

    And he said – you know why it was cancelled, eh – John belts it out on stage but when talking he’s a lot quieter :-)

    and we said YES WE KNOW – the venue was still very very noisy even after the show and we old farts tend to yell a lot to hear ourselves –

    and he said anyways even though we said we knew why –

    “the Americans ordered it cancelled because of what the show was saying about them.”

    mann, i wish i had my camera on video recording …….

    That – in a nutshell – is, always has been, always will be, the biggest toughest battle worst enemy of ‘Canadian TV’.

    2nd would be Canadians for letting it happen, and those brainwashed and literally ‘mesmerized’ by the ‘American Propaganda Machine’

    After reading this article and the comments I feel little sheepish and regret now for my comment to another article I made earlier tonite. This article and commentors really impress me for the ‘real engagements’, and real positives for ‘Canadian TV’. I have tried since a long time ago, LONG TIME ago, since even before the World Wide Web, to engage others in discussing Canadian TV shows on other sites, forums, and was always disappointed. A few sites like TV, Eh have tried to get going but fell flat. TV, Eh seems to be succeeding, at least far better than previous attempts by others, and growing too, which is to be immensely impressed by and applauded. The ‘situation’ has definitely improved and changed a lot from my generation to younger generations today.

    But the ‘American’ elephant is still in our bedroom, occupying the whole space, still squatting on our collective chests, crushing the crap out of everything ‘Canadian’.

    Most Canadians who care about Canadian TV, imho, are woefully ignorant of how the industry works in Canada.

    Example, I’ve seen criticisms that Orphan Black is paid for by BBC America.

    Um, no, it isn’t.

    It’s paid for by Canadians, thru tax credits and grants and sponsorships and et cetera, because it qualifies as ‘Canadian Content’.

    Which by regulations dictated by Americans just as easily applies to Canadians doing a show about “The FBI”, or Strange Empire, or Book of Negros, and an endless list of others that are really ‘American’ stories.

    BBC America agreed to distribute Orphan Black, which is a really big deal just for that alone, that’s the ‘equity’ they bring to the table, and for that, they get a huge chunk of that Canadian money.

    Ever since, the ‘Canadian References’ in the show have disappeared, but, the show still qualifies as ‘Canadian Content’ for the tax credits, etc.

    Which is why so many Canadian productions are not really Canadian, they are either generic, or ‘Americanized’, yet still qualify as ‘Canadian Content’ for the tax credits, etc.

    That’s how the Canadian Industry works.

    Anybody who knows anything about the tv, movie industry, knows that productions are most often made or broken in the ‘editing room’. Usually, Canadian productions have enough money to shoot the production, but, not to edit it properly. Unless, they can please the Americans.

    The result is that at the end of the day, very little funding remains for Canadian productions with ‘Canadian References’ that are finished and polished to a degree that most people, even Canadians, want to watch.

    The ‘American Elephant in the Canadian bedroom’ always prevails.

    That’s my three cents, or five cents these days rounded up, to this discussion, which today is worth 30 percents less than it was before Xmas 2014, because of ‘you know who …. ‘


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