Opinion: Mixed signals from the CRTC

tim southam (extreme close-up)

In its October 2013 preamble to the Let’s Talk TV hearings that resulted in the Commission’s recently published guidelines, the CRTC stated: “We want to put Canadians at the centre of their television system to ensure that as a content creator, you have opportunities… to produce content for Canadians and international audiences.”

On March 12, after delivering a compelling analysis of our age of borderless media abundance, much of which is worthy of support, the CRTC came to a bewildering conclusion: Canadian television will no longer need to be made by Canadians.

Well, apparently not.

Under the Commission’s guidelines for two pilot projects, all that will be required for high profile dramatic series, along with a minimum overall spend on Canadian costs, is that the production company, the writer and one lead performer be Canadian.

Eliminating the director and key creatives from Canadian content requirements betrays a profound misunderstanding of how storytelling on the screen actually happens. It speaks to a conception of filmmaking where the voice of the production stops at the financing and the printed word. It suggests that directors and their key creative teams in no way inform a film’s voice or identity, and therefore that their nationality scarcely matters.

Yet this marshalling of national talent is precisely how unique international hits get made in our compelling golden age of television.

In his March 12 address, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais raised the example of non-U.S. shows which have become international hits, the kinds of hits he feels we should be making here in Canada, like the U.K.’s Downton Abbey or Denmark’s Borgen. With few exceptions the directors and key creatives on both of those productions and many other hits like them are nationals from the shows’ countries of origin. They are in fact what makes these shows unique in a hugely crowded market.

The CRTC is proposing quite a different approach for Canadian productions: unlike shows like Downton Abbey or Borgen, the Commission is proposing that the next great Canadian hits be outsourced.

Canadian directors and key creatives work constantly on the A-list shows the CRTC aspires to have Canada make more often: hit shows like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Orphan Black, Breaking Bad, Bates Motel, Arrow, Continuum, The Blacklist, 19-2, Fargo, The Strain, Call Me Fitz, Person of Interest, Nouvelle address, Motive, The Walking Dead, Lost, Rescue Me, The Odd Squad, Rookie Blue, The Returned, Law and Order, Being Human, CSI, 24, Durham County, The Wire, Vikings, Flashpoint, House, The Borgias, Bones, Smallville and Falling Skies. It is stunning that the CRTC plans to bypass the Canadian storytellers who shine so brightly and so often on these major shows.

In its March 12 address, the CRTC articulated an exciting plan to equip Canadian production companies and Canadian scripts with the robust public investments and marketing tools they need to conquer the internet age of abundance. Alas in the same breath, with two pilot projects the Commission relegated Canadian directors, their creative teams and all but one actor to the sidelines.

It makes enormous sense for the Commission to get behind Canadian storytelling. It makes no sense at all for its key pilot projects to bypass the Canadian storytellers.