TV, eh?

Canadian TV writer Denis McGrath laments the current state of the TV biz up there:

The business model here — buy U.S. shows at dumped fire sale prices, and show 'em at the same time while you paste on your commercials — was always a far more fragile model than the one in the USA. But as the model that made their piggyback-industry possible crumbles, all the signs point toward the mandarins here taking in exactly the wrong lessons, and doubling down on a dying strategy.

As I have mentioned in past posts, Canada isn't particularly well-known for the quality of their home-grown, episodic dramas. But that doesn't mean they aren't producing a lot of them — the problem is, many are American shows that are merely shot in Canada for the tax breaks. Or, as blogger Will Dixon pointed out:

[…]as far as 'defining' us, service producing US programming is certainly high on the list of things we do as an industry…and the Stargates' definitely fall into that category (which is kind of an unfair rap against them because even though the vast majority of cast, crew, writers, showrunners are Canadian, it's primary investors and broadcasters have been American – MGM and US's Showtime and then SciFi channel). Thus, most people up here don't perceive them as distinctly 'Canadian' shows.

STARGATE, THE X FILES, THE COMMISH, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, PSYCH, and SMALLVILLE (and the first season of MONK) are just a few of the many American shows that have been out-sourced to Canada. Although the shows were shot entirely in Canada, and 95% of the cast and crew were Canadian, nobody considers them Canadian series…because they were created, developed, and financed in the United States, where they had their initial airings. 

The unfortunate truth is that without American out-sourcing of TV production to Canada, the TV industry up there would be hardly an industry at all…and that's not good for the future of Canadian TV.

4 thoughts on “TV, eh?”

  1. Ironically, Lee, the bulk of that post was pointing to Heather Havrilesky’s diagnosis of what was wrong with American television.
    I can’t help but feel every time that you write about Canadian TV that you sort of miss the point.
    First, you can’t compare BSG and the other Vancouver-shot shows you describe with Stargate. Service productions are just that. They’re no different than shows that shoot in North Carolina or Prague — it’s below the line crew work. The creative is not there. With Stargate, financing might be American, but the creative team is Canadians. They’re the ones directing, and in the story room. They’re running the show.
    The single greatest thing that holds back Canadian drama television is industrial dumping. There is no incentive for Canadian private nets to make shows because they can buy U.S. ones cheaper. And I’m not talking the great shows that should be on everywhere — I’m talking the 3 eps and out dreck that disappears from the schedule every year here. England doesn’t buy those shows, and neither does Germany. They wait til they see if the show has legs.
    But because Canada can buy them, show them at the same time as U.S. nets, insert their own ads, and piggyback on U.S. promotion, for years now there’s been an extra pot of money coming to these marginal shows from Canada. Meanwhile, Canadian networks spend only what they absolutely have to on originals and not a penny more. And then they don’t promote them and run them Saturday at 10pm. That does not promote the growth of an industry.
    It’s a fairly recent thing that anyone here has made the stand of trying to stay here to do good work, anyway. We’ve always been migrants — we come down here and pass among you. (I say we here, but I’m essentially bifurcated. I was born in NY.)
    With all that stacked against us, though, and against all the other odds, we’re making headway. I’ve seen three drama series in the last year out of Canada that I enjoyed as much as anything I’ve seen from the USA: I just finished a show on preview discs called ZOS, that’s about UN Peacekeepers in Bosnia. It’s a black, black comedy and it’s from a very different perspective than any American treatment of the subject. It also has tight writing and great characters. Durham County was a teriffic limited series starring Hugh Dillon from Flashpoint, and it’s currently shooting a second season. And Slings & Arrows has been raved about by the New York Times and is currently on the Sundance Channel.
    Before you dismiss the entire industry, or listen exclusively to your colonized-Canadian commenters, you kind of have to see those shows. The narrative line you’re pushing here is simply not up to date.

  2. Denis,
    You’re right — I am three or four years out-of-date when it comes to Canadian programs. (The last time I worked in Canada was on MISSING for two seasons, which we shot in Toronto). And I have heard good things about FLASHPOINT, INTELLIGENCE and THE BORDER, though I haven’t seen them yet…
    STARGATE may be all Canadian now but, if I am not mistaken, it didn’t start out that way. The original STARGATE, as I recall, was co-created, co-exec produced, and written by an American, starred an American, was produced by an American studio (MGM) and was broadcast on Showtime. The franchise has evolved into an all-Canadian production since then.
    I certainly don’t mean to “dismiss the entire industry.” I have worked on three series in Canada and worked with amazingly talented producers, writers, actors and crews. And while I worked on those shows, it wasn’t the Americans I heard dismissing the Canadian TV industry — it was the Canadians (the writers in particular).
    But you have to admit that so far, no home-grown Canadian drama series has made an impact outside of Canada (FLASHPOINT may prove to be the exception) while countless U.S. and British shows have become world-wide successes.
    (As much as I would like to see more Canadian dramas, the shows don’t export well, at least not to America. As far as I know, nobody in the U.S. has broadcast INTELLIGENCE, THE BORDER, and ZOS …and only a tiny number are even aware of SLINGS AND ARROWS on Sundance, which is a niche cable network here. You would be hard-pressed to find Americans who can even name one Canadian show that they’ve watched…while they could probably name dozens of British dramas, going back to forty years to the days of THE AVENGERS and THE SAINT)

  3. At least part of that is because of a generalized paternal and patronizing view of the business from “our betters” in L.A. Jack Valenti famously didn’t mince words at describing Canada as part o the U.S. domestic box office.
    And on the TV side, to be as elliptical as possible about it, shows that would have been subject to a format sale deal if they came from the UK have just been ripped off and copied outright for American TV — I don’t want to open a can of worms, but we’re talking “settled out of court” stuff.
    Does the product need to improve? In many cases, yes. But the last four years has had a lot of new developments. And the climate before that wasn’t exactly condusive to crossing over.
    Americans have a bit of an awe thing going on with the UK. Anglophilia’s hard wired. While Canada? Hell, I live in Canada and I barely ever think about it.


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