Saturday, February 17, 2007

Television: Art or Commodity?

"You people in the arts have got to decide if you’re a business or a charity. If you’re a business, make your market and sell your product. If you’re a charity, go to the government - that’s where the big money is." - Slings & Arrows

There has been much talk lately about how to pay for Canadian television. It’s not a new debate, but it has been brought into the spotlight recently because Shaw Communications and Quebecor have suddenly decided to renege on their CRTC obligations and withhold payments to the Canadian Television Fund (happily, Quebecor recently changed its mind).

Their main complaints about the CTF seem to be that a) most of this money is spent on productions that end up on the CBC, and b) the shows which are subsidized in this way are shows that, according to Jim Shaw, "nobody watches". Shaw’s prime example of this trend seems to be ‘Trailer Park Boys’ which does nothing to bolster his argument. As for most CTF productions ending up on the CBC, this is hardly surprising since they are responsible for the vast bulk of Canadian content currently being aired.

Beyond this specific crisis, the current debate goes to the heart of how we perceive television.

My favorite cabal of Canadian television bloggers (McGrath, Henshaw, Dixon et al) has spent the last few weeks arguing the relative merits of public funding vs. private funding vs. the open market, and the quality and ‘entertainment value’ of shows resulting from these various models, mostly in the pages of ‘Dead Things On Sticks’. I have spoken my piece in response to several of these posts and have so far avoided being banished or flamed into oblivion, for which I am grateful. However, I’m getting the impression that there is a fundamental difference of opinion at work here that needs to be addressed.

With many of these posts, as with Jim Shaw's comments, the underlying assumption seems to be, "if these shows were any damned good, people would watch them". This is basic economics: if you give people the choice between a quality product and a piece of crap, if properly informed they will chose the quality product. This assumption was highlighted in one response which likened the Canadian television industry to the U.S. auto industry, in that it has been protected from open competition for so long that it has resulted in a grossly inferior product.

There are two false assumptions here. I’ve already addressed the inferior product part in my response. The second is that the market operates on cars and entertainment in the same way: if it’s good, people will watch it. Unfortunately, this also assumes the corollary: if it’s crap, nobody will watch it. I think I can dispute that with one word:


A cursory glance at the Top Ten movies at the box office this week - or any week - will dissuade anyone of the notion that quality sells when it comes to entertainment. The same can be said for the top rated TV shows. This is not to say that good shows are never successful or that bad shows never fail. Only that quality, however we chose to define it, has little or nothing to do with how popular a television show will be.

More often than not, the majority of people will chose to watch shows that are comfortable. Shows that follow a familiar pattern, like a sitcom or a police procedural. Shows that do not challenge their opinions or values or make them unhappy. I don’t think this is elitism - it is simply an observation of human nature.

People will sometimes watch other kinds of television shows. Shows that break out of the box. Shows that make them think. Shows that surprise or even offend. Sometimes enough people watch these shows that they manage to survive and even prosper on network television, like ‘Lost’ or ‘Heroes’ or ‘24’. In most cases, however, such shows are relegated to pay cable channels like HBO or Showcase, where only those who can afford to pay can watch them.

The problem has always been that Canada has a tenth of the population of the U.S. and therefore a tenth of the money (or less) to throw into television production. Scripted television is very expensive and ratings-based advertising dollars just aren’t enough in this country for anything other than megahits. This leaves us with two options. Produce a small number of safe, conventional shows that have a better than even chance of appealing to the majority and therefore paying their own way through advertising dollars alone, or…

Subsidize. Through tax dollars, through the CTF, by any means necessary.

If you view television as a commodity, this option is heresy. TV is product. Period. If it doesn’t sell, it’s crap and doesn’t deserve to be on the air.

If, however, you view television as a performing art like, say, theatre or dance, then this is the obvious solution. The arts, especially the performing arts, have always been subsidized for the simple reason that popular (read: profitable) does not always equal good. In fact, hardly ever. For art to do its job as art it has to be allowed to make people uncomfortable, and that’s not the best way to sell tickets.

We aren’t used to thinking of television as art because most of us aren’t old enough to remember when it was an extension of radio, which in turn was an extension of the theatre. It was a lot easier to see the connection back in the golden days of Chayevsky and Sterling when most television shows were performed live on a studio set.

Unfortunately, the current American system has gotten us so used to the idea of television as billboard that we no longer expect art, let alone demand it. We accept that the majority should rule as to what gets aired and what doesn’t. We accept that mediocrity is the will of the people.

"Television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well be the basic theater of our century." - Paddy Chayevsky

It’s a new century now, and with it comes new technologies and new delivery systems that will likely make the network broadcast model of television as obsolete as the all-powerful corporate sponsorships of the fifties. I like to think that this will be good for television, and for Canadian television in particular, because it will allow unique, interesting shows to reach a small but appreciative audience that won't have to pay through the nose to access them.

I just hope that Canada will still have something unique and interesting to offer when that happy day arrives.

(Next time: How Television Can Save the World)


  1. Good stuff...I like to use 'CSI Miami' as an example of a show that's pedestrian and simple and safe but a lot of people in Canada (or everywhere for that matter) like to watch it...and I wouldn't define it as a quality show, but its certainly successful.

  2. Quality television does not translate into viewing nembers. Never has, and probably never will. I believe that there should be a place for quality television, and that place should be the CBC. A commercial free, half funded by the government and half funded by the Canadian people, much like PBS seems to be in the states. Let CTV, GLobal etc... fight it out for viewer numbers and let the CBC maintain our cultural identity and give us one place free of american productions.

    Hold on, I need to go clap myself silly.... this could never happen... you need for canadians to care before anything can be done.

  3. We aren’t used to thinking of television as art because most of us aren’t old enough to remember when it was an extension of radio, which in turn was an extension of the theatre. It was a lot easier to see the connection back in the golden days of Chayevsky and Sterling when most television shows were performed live on a studio set.

    I'm sorry Jennifer but your reasoning is flawed here, based on the asumption that tv historically flows back to theater. It doesn't. It flows back to vaudeville and sideshows.

    It flows back to circus tents that would roam the country with nickelodeon machines in them showing the first movies.

    Also, you can make a lot of niche television if you finance it properly (product placement and proper advertising to name but two) to appeal to a bunch of narrow interests. The trick is to think of it as a crafted product that can be placed in a variety of media formats and available to the viewer whenever the mood strikes.

    The fact is that government subsidizing tv doesn't build a self-sustaining industry. It susbsidizes welfare.

  4. I have nothing coherent to add to the argument about Canadian television.

    I just want to say that if Mr. Murphy manages to win that Oscar he's nominated for, and I ever see "Coming Soon on DVD, "Norbit" starring Oscar Winner Eddie Murphy" I will dig my eyes out with a spoon.