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.