Quality, quantity and creative questions for the CRTC

Originally published in Reel West Magazine:

If Jean-Pierre Blais were a television writer instead of the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), every show he wrote would be gold. Apparently.

Earlier this year he summarized the findings of the Talk TV hearing in an “Age of Abundance” – his more charitable description of today’s “peak TV,” FX CEO John Landgraf’s epithet for what he sees as a content bubble where “this is simply too much television.”

Blais is nothing if not optimistic, though. He thinks he has found a way to make less, better. From his speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa as released to the media:

“We want creators and distributors to choose quality over quantity. Such an approach creates a virtuous cycle where the industry invests to create better programs, which in turn bring more value into the system, which in turn generates more money to re-invest in content made by Canadians. More importantly, it creates an environment where Canadians want to watch content made by our creators – not because it is forced upon them, but because it’s good. Indeed, because it is great.”

Isn’t that cute? It’s like it’s never occurred to him that you don’t get quality without quantity. That if you look at the most successful television industry in the world, an average of about 65 percent of new shows are cancelled in their first year.

Plus, how do you measure quality? Are we talking low-rated The Wire, one of the best TV shows of all time, or are we talking high-rated NCIS that appears on few best lists?

However you define it, it seems evident that quality TV is a by-product of the mass production of TV. Since it’s not evident to Blais, for one, science can provide the evidence.

Writer Jonah Lehrer — whose interests lie in the areas of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities — pointed to a recent experiment published in Frontiers in Psychology: “Quantity yields quality when it comes to creativity.”

The psychologists and neuroscientists involved gave their subjects a graphic and told them to write down as many things as they could that the drawing suggested to them, with the answers scored for their creativity. The researchers gave each subject intelligence and personality tests and measured their cortex, and after all their sciencing, they concluded that the quantity of ideas was related to the creativity of the ideas – those who came up with the most ideas also had better ideas.

Earlier, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton had proposed the equal odds rule: “the relationship between the number of hits and the total number of works produced in a given time period is positive, linear, stochastic, and stable.”

The people with the best ideas have the most ideas … as well as some of the worst ideas. Deadwood and John From Cincinnati came from the same brain, as Lehrer points out. Pablo Picasso created more than 20,000 works of art. Hollywood’s Golden Age was also one of the most prolific periods for studios, who created a lot of dross along with the gold.

The CRTC’s Blais points to successful international dramas such as Australia’s The Code, the UK’s Downton Abbey, and Denmark’s Borgen and The Killing as proof that brilliant content could happen here. He doesn’t mention the terrible shows those countries produce because, being terrible, they haven’t made their way to Canada. He does mention, but doesn’t connect dots, that Canadian shows such as Slings and Arrows, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries are mentioned worldwide as quality shows.

Just as the quality problem as identified by Blais misses the mark, so too do the CRTC’s Talk TV solutions. Blais proposes making more adaptations of Canadian literary hits, because you can never go wrong with a literary adaptation, apparently. Should we break it to him that for every Book of Negroes that garners huge ratings is a Best Laid Plans that doesn’t? Another Talk TV pilot project is to prioritize high-budget dramas – high enough to exceed Downton Abbey and Borgen’s budgets.

In Canada, as broadcasters merge we have a smaller quantity of broadcasters buying shows and therefore a smaller quantity of shows. As CBC cuts their season orders we have a smaller quantity of episodes of each show. Never mind that the Canadian content quotas currently in existence already allow Global to have no scripted Canadian shows for half the year. How can our regulator think quantity is even a factor in our industry?

Lehrer sums up the research on creativity like this: “high levels of creative output are often a prerequisite for creative success. Put another way, throwing shit at the wall is how you figure out what sticks. More shit, more sticks.”

There’s a strange arrogance to the Talk TV conclusions: Blais seems to think Canadian TV can beat the quality odds that plague every other creative endeavour. He’s wrong.


7 thoughts on “Quality, quantity and creative questions for the CRTC”

  1. While this writer has a point, Blais isn’t entirely wrong either. Quantity means that there will be more but more isn’t necessarily good. Having to hit quotas could actually encourage laziness as people just put out the bare minimum to meet the levels they are forced too. This in turn makes it harder for quality to break out the sea of weakness around it.

    Blais’s theory is by pooling more resources into fewer projects those projects have a better chance of making an impact, and people won’t be lazy because they have no backup project to hide behind so what they put out is expected to be strong with all the resources it gets. The fact is US shows would crush us in the fall so winter and spring is a better bet for Canadian TV anyway.

    Now, quality in art is subjective. If you want something to be watched a lot and be profitable, procedurals like NCIS are your way to go. If you want accolades and prestige you need smaller but meaningful shows like Orphan Black. You want initial buzz you need a big concept like the upcoming The Expanse. Buzz, prestige and high viewership is hard to do all at once unless your Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.

    1. It’s definitely a problem that Blais doesn’t clearly define what he means by quality. But making a crappy show is usually just as hard as making a good show, and no one actually sets out to make a bad show. Canadian networks already make few shows – expecting they’ll make better ones if they make even less for more money each isn’t born out by looking at other successful tv industries.

  2. True, though the quota system isn’t helping quantity either. How many times a day does Comedy Network replay 10 year old highlights from Just for Laughs? Or Corner Gas or The Red Green show? These were funny shows and the audience was there for The Corner Gas Movie, but they just replay them to be as lazy as possible to hit the old quotas.

    A typical assumption for a project in really any industry is more money=more quality. Trying to enforce quantity hasn’t worked so the new rules here seem to be an attempt to get the networks to put their money where there mouth is for what they do produce. More money might also bring in more co-production partners which would help a show find an audience elsewhere. I don’t know if this will work but with Pick & Pay coming soon, the daytime quotas gone, the Superbowl ad rights about to be challenged etc., things will be unstable for a while before we start to see the dust settle and that’s not even taking the chaos in the US of The Big Four vs. AMC/HBO/Showtime/Netflix/Prime into account. What happens there will impact up here no matter the result.

    Speaking of elsewhere, since the networks here value being sold to the US for repeats and simulcasts, you would think something that has an established format and displays Canada proudly like The Amazing Race Canada would be an easy sell for summer filler to say CBS, home of the US Race. I genuinely wonder if that was even attempted.

  3. ——
    Speaking of elsewhere, since the networks here value being sold to the US for repeats and simulcasts, you would think something that has an established format and displays Canada proudly like The Amazing Race Canada would be an easy sell for summer filler to say CBS, home of the US Race. I genuinely wonder if that was even attempted.
    In a world of non-starters, this is just about the non-startiest thing ever said. The U.S., as overdog culture, has zero interest in seeing things that is even slightly not like them. Execs there actually do freak out over the colour of the money, the ‘Canadian accents’ on drama shows — and don’t even talk about putting a lawyer in a robe. There is zero value or zero market for Americans watching people from Calgary or Winnipeg competing for anything. They simply don’t care. It’s like asking, why don’t they show CFL games? Because they don’t care. It’s foreign. And the vast, vast majority of the public is simply not interested. Canadian format buys might make some money selling to overseas homes, and might run on some fringe channel in the USA for 5 cents an ep. But a sale to a US Network, even in summer? Never. In. A. Million. Years.

    It’s also not “the quota system” that is to blame for all those repeats. It’s the way it’s implemented. Without more of an emphasis of actually having to play new production in prime slots, everyone fills their quotas with fringe and cheap old shows at off times. This is like saying that Hybrid standards don’t work because Volkswagen pulled that chicanery to game the tests. It has nothing to do with the quota. It has to do with how the system is abused.

    Was are about to see a profound change with Pick and Pay, and the biggest dereliction of his duty is that Mr. Blais has consistently plunged headlong into these half-baked experiments with absolutely no conception or interest in the damage that’s likely to be done. The CRTC practically destroyed Canadian TV once already, in 1999. Seems like they’re itching to do it again.

    And it won’t be long before we see a few of those higher-budget failures. They’re coming.

  4. Hm. I know Orphan Black has to hide the Canadianisms but you would think a show like TAR which promotes other cultures around the world wouldn’t really have an issue here. I know it the past the US networks have imported a few shows like Rookie Blue.

    The quota is in part to blame. Since the telcoms have used US shows as prime-time for decades they’d kick and scream if they were told to cut down on that and the majority of the public would just switch to a US feed anyway. But if all the public sees on CanCon is cheap and/or old filler then it just feeds into the notion Canadian TV cannot be any good.

    The status quo isn’t working anymore and the general public has no real problem with Pick & Pay, most probably support it once they understand it. Change is bound to happen no matter what a regulator tries to do. Change itself can be good or bad. Will their be big budget flops? Sure, their is at least one or two every few months in movies. Could their be some hits? Hopefully.

  5. Some insightful points made by all here! And a relief to hear some WGC voices that are aware of the particulars of that incessant guessing game with our CRTC re: future standards on production. I do believe, however, that we have some challenges here on an entirely different “platform”, if you will: the challenge is, as someone has already thoughtfully pointed out here, one of interpreting “quality”, but *before* becoming, typically, titillated by the busyness of quantity.

    This is a troublesome pitch, primarily, for its dependance on optimism, consultation, and, indeed, even altruism. We don’t know what quality is here anymore (and I direct these thoughts, humbly, toward English-Canadian TV creation only). These matters are profoundly contemplative, but both the nature of those involved in TV production, and subsequently, the nature of the shows produced, do not allow for much thought. In fact, even now, typing out this reply, I can imagine how this post might be read, at best, as superfluous, and, at worst, as malarky and madness– the latter appellations applied with the working-class Canadian adage that “experience is the best gauge of truth” and, I can assure you, my experience in Canadian TV is limited. So, what the hell do I know? (Bear with this age-old discipline of Dialogue and Rhetoric. The length of argument, apparently, stimulates thought and care…according to them Greeks.)

    One element of this humble proposal of *rethinking how to think* about “quality” is that of consultation. Not symposia, not reports, not dialectics based entirely on dichotomous, Cartesian discussion (i.e. that’s wrong, this is right); but instead, a consultation that allows all our ideas, as creators, to inform not a new direction, but a new, deeper understanding of how to define “quality” for us in English-Canadian TV. It’s as though one might be compelled (don’t freak out here, — be cool–, this is a hypothetical to underline a point) to, not unlike something as remote to us as the cod fisheries, call a moratorium on TV production, while we all consult through diverse venues on what we mean when we say “quality in TV production.” We don’t know at all. And that includes me. Nonetheless, I have an idea…

    Without referencing Aristotle here (as I am fully aware, and have been at the butt end of this, that there is a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in Canadian TV– a ripple effect of our general ethos as a nation), I do believe that quality indeed can be *discovered* through quantity; but I also *believe* that quality can be *unearthed* through much, much better Development (confessedly, that’s the Aristotle bit– developing art). Proposing a rethinking of English-Canadian TV involves deeper consultations with creators (see above) and far more comprehensive Development of properties before they see any production at all.

    So, let’s pretend, (again hypothetical here), that there is lots and lots of Development. Should we ask , with regards the word “quality”, if the Development is any good? There might be quite a quantity of Development, but do we really know what to do when we develop a story, an implicitly artistic pursuit? Now I will pull out that annoying experience card (and it just simply is not the best gauge of truth) — but this is to tell a story, so let this be a metaphor for this story about “Development” and “Quality.”

    Once upon a time, a few years back, I had a show in Development with the CBC: everyone was nice…well, that’s about it. No one knew how to speak to the (proposed) quality of the possible show. No one. Everyone claimed they knew, but very simply put, no one had the *skills* to speak about what makes a story palatable to what makes a show even compelling. No one. Who possesses the skills that can deepen the quality of a story? Where does one, as a skill and not from a résumé, gain the knowledge of how to develop the art of a story? Where is this quality of Development?

    We don’t know how to develop stories anymore. Where we need quantity is in thoughtfulness, consultation, and caring discussion within the discipline of Story Development. Slow down everything! Humbly, let’s learn what quality is as creators, and apply that *knowledge* to our attempts at Development *before* “rushing” to principal photography. There needs to be more– get ready!– faith in creators. And there needs to be more resources in Development. (Good Lord! We had so few on our show.)

    So, Mr. Blais may have opened up the possibility for consultation on this highly artistic matter named “quality.” Maybe it’s our responsibility to truly wonder what this word is and remove ourselves from this addiction as Canadians and consumers to “keep busy.” Death to our TV. Long live our TV.

    Be well.

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