No sex please, we’re American

PERHAPS there is no better example of the underlying differences between Canadian and Americans than a comparison between Canadian Idol ...

PERHAPS there is no better example of the underlying differences between Canadian and Americans than a comparison between Canadian Idol and its U.S. sister.

There is, of course, a great deal of similarity between American Idol and Canadian Idol, including overall format and the fact that both are monster hits in their respective countries. The most recent run of Canadian Idol has been the top-rated show in Canada this summer, regularly attracting audiences in the 2-million range. Meanwhile, American Idol was the number one show in the U.S. last season.

But the shows diverge tellingly in how they reflect the sensibilities of their respective audiences. For example, instead of holding less talented performers up to ridicule, Canadian Idol last year had a special edition in which singers who were not going to make the cut were flown in, made up, dressed and allowed to perform and complete the full Idol experience.

Such observable differences can be found up and down the dial on Canadian TV, not only in terms of domestic production but also in the kinds of U.S. shows acquired by major Canadian broadcasters.

Susanne Boyce, president of programming for CTV, says her network believes Canadian viewers look for quality shows that are smart and well written. Whether reality, comedy, or drama – the quality shows have staying power.

‘I think there’s a variety of quality reality as well. Our first Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had a good-natured feel. Nobody dies,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t touch Extreme Makeover, The Swan, or Fear Factor. They don’t fit our channel. Nip/Tuck, which is a show that pushes the envelope, has dramatic tension, humour. Again the writing and producing is superb.’

Boyce says choosing the right programming is part instinct mixed with respect for the viewers.

Canadians, for example, are more open to sex and explicit language if it’s in context, Boyce says, pointing out that CTV has been running The Sopranos unedited for four years, while the U.S. still won’t air it unedited on conventional television.

Ellen Baine, VP of programming for CHUM Television, says conventional broadcasters have to increasingly think like specialty channels, because viewers watch the specific stations they believe will have the type of programming that appeals to them.

Programmers really have to know their audience, says Baine, but even when you do choose the right made-in-America program for your audience, Canadian broadcasters are at the mercy of U.S. networks that will yank it quickly if it doesn’t do well with their viewers.

The flap about Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, and the full-frontal attack on broadcast ‘indecency’ it spawned, is a clear illustration of how divergent attitudes and values are north and south of the border. These differences were top-of-mind for Canadian television programmers during this year’s L.A. Screenings.

Baine says violence definitely bothers Canadians more than sex or nudity. ‘I think Canadians have a more European sense than an American sense. People [in the U.S.] are still influenced by the whole stupid Janet Jackson thing. In Canada it’s not a big deal. We know women have nipples, apparently in the U.S. they didn’t.’

Boobgate also lent support to the theory of Michael Adams’ prize-winning 2003 book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values – that Canadians are growing farther apart from American values, not closer.

Adams, president of the Toronto-based Environics Group of research and communications companies, says Canadians are much less uptight about sexuality, more egalitarian, and more open to same-sex marriage than Americans. He says that has a lot to with the influence of Christian fundamentalists, one-third of the U.S. population.

‘We’re more socially liberal… and are much more concerned about crimes that have victims,’ says Adams. ‘They are the gun culture with a second amendment they interpret as ‘everyone should be able to own a .357 Magnum.’ We think it’s not just people, but people with guns that kill people.’

Adams says when it comes to humour, Canadians are closer to the Brits and enjoy a smarter, more ironic type of humor. With Americans, it’s more slapstick.

Susan Boyce agrees. She says that in the case of comedy shows, Canadians like sophistication, subtlety and good-natured rather than mean-spirited situations.

‘Corner Gas is in the tradition of Bob Newhart – good-natured, very smart. You don’t have to hit people over the head with the comedy,’ she says.

Slawko Klymkiw, executive director of network programming for CBC Television, says sitcoms are generally also harder to develop in Canada. It is a genre that has been honed in the U.S., where shows have the luxury of 20 to 30 writers and a huge amount of money. Thus, sketch comedies, rather than sitcoms, have been a successful Canadian alternative, including the long-running Air Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Klymkiw adds that there are two areas in which Canadians watch more Canadian-made television: news and public affairs, and big event programming, such as sports – hockey and the Olympics for the most part.

Those are driven by a national sensibility about supporting one’s country or local team.

‘Other areas are remarkably more competitive,’ says Klymkiw, ‘One of the great and important struggles we’ve all had and continue to have in Canadian television, not simply at the CBC, is the struggle to produce drama at a level that competes significantly well with the U.S.’ *

A version of this story appeared in Strategy Media.