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Canadian Content Rules Or, Why Bryan Adams Isn't Canadian Content

Depending upon one's motives, education, occupation, or the prevailing wind, CanCon can be: (a) a much-needed shield against the US entertainment hegemony; (b) a necessary evil to preserve Canadian identity; (c) an intolerable restriction on creativity; or (d) utterly absurd.
Elisabeth Hurst

Issue #57, October 2001

Canadian Content: Also CanCon — the percentage of Canadian subjects, values, and themes in an artistic or cultural artifact; a controversial and sometimes successful combination of Canadian policies, rules, and laws that attempt to, among other things:

(a) encourage Canadian cultural expression in all its diversity by setting standards for access to tax credits and direct funding, including employing Canadians in key creative positions, using a Canadian central story or subject, and setting the story in Canadian locations;
(b) ensure Canadians have access to their own cultural products by setting standards and minimum percentages for distribution by television and radio broadcasters, and the stations carried by cable companies;
(c) develop a sustainable, competitive environment in Canada for the production and distribution of Canadian content in all media, including film, radio, television, publishing, video and sound recording, and multimedia.

All the important things in my pre-teen life changed when my family emigrated from England to Canada in 1973. Cars tried to run me down from the opposite direction when I crossed the road. My school had boys and girls in the same classrooms, who were still learning things I already knew, even though I'd been bumped up a year ahead of everyone my age. The television had over twenty channels instead of just four, but none of my favorite shows were anywhere on the dial. Even Alias Smith & Jones, my favorite US television show when I lived in England was off the air.

Instead, the airwaves were filled with never before seen sports and television shows. Everything was new, even the reruns. If our parents had let us, my brothers and I would have spent hours sitting in front of the television, pressing button after button on the old cable box, just enjoying the novelty of flipping from one channel to the next. I remember watching The Magician and The Brady Bunch instead of Dr. Who and The Tomorrow People, American Bandstand instead of Top of the Pops. All shows made in the US.

I watched Hockey Night in Canada, but that was under protest and only because my father and brothers were suffering from sports withdrawal. I don't remember watching any other Canadian television, even The Beachcombers which was so popular that it ran for twenty seasons. If you'd asked me, I would have complained with everyone else my age that Canadian television was hokey, uncool, and just plain bad. Not that I could have named a single show.

That attitude was prevalent in the early 70s, and the Canadian government's answer was CanCon. It promised tax credits and funding for those who produced television shows with the right kind of Canadian content (no news, game shows or pornography need apply). CanCon also guaranteed a broadcast slot for at least some of that Canadian content by making minimum CanCon programming a requirement of broadcast licenses.

My teenage reaction was laced with sarcasm. Wasn't it so nice of the government to make sure that so much Canadian programming was available for me not to watch? My friends and I complained to anyone who would listen. It was just not fair. We wanted to watch the good stuff, and everyone knew that US television was better.

We weren't alone. Everyone had an opinion about CanCon back then. Everyone still has an opinion. Depending upon one's motives, education, occupation, or the prevailing wind, CanCon can be: (a) a much-needed shield against the US entertainment hegemony; (b) a necessary evil to preserve Canadian identity; (c) an intolerable restriction on creativity; or (d) utterly absurd.

Today, being a generally awkward and thoughtful type, I choose option (e) all of the above.

Canadian content does have a place on our television dial. We're bombarded by US television. It comes across the border on US stations carried by our cable and direct satellite companies, or on Canadian stations that prefer to fill their time slots with cheaper, more popular US offerings. Unfortunately, US television shows, no matter how good, miss some basic truths about life in Canada. I'm not talking about our socialist attitudes towards government, universal health care, or the somewhat weird notion that curling is a sport. US television takes place in a world so similar to our own, in some cases being filmed just down the street, that it's easy to miss the differences. Because US television is ubiquitous and popular, some Canadians know more about the way things work in the US than in their own country.

For example, a few Canadians sitting in holding cells or jails get extremely upset when their lawyer tells them their cases won't be thrown out because the police didn't read them their rights or give them the opportunity to take the Fifth. Everyone knows that's what's supposed to happen. After all, the very same thing occurred last week on NYPD Blue, Law & Order, or one of innumerable other US police and lawyer shows. Not in Canada, it doesn't. We don't have a Miranda warning or a Constitution with a Fifth Amendment.

Even more insidious, less easy to identify, and potentially more dangerous is the prevailing and assumed attitude about medical care in US medical shows. The assumption behind all of these shows is that the poor (working or not) will not get the same medical coverage as everyone else. We have to work hard in Canada to make sure that this attitude doesn't stop people from asking for the medical help that they're entitled to receive.

For example, I recently saw this attitude in action in an old ER rerun on a cable channel. In that episode, Dr. Romano was refusing to allow Dr. Benton to use hospital facilities to help a young girl without medical coverage get free plastic surgery to repair horrendous scars on her face. Benton had arranged everything, including donated time from all surgery personnel, and was being refused operating room time. My instinctive reaction was "huh?" Why shouldn't she get the reconstructive surgery she so clearly needs? In Canada, while a low-income person probably wouldn't get access to a free nose job or tummy tuck, reconstructive surgery after serious injury is available and covered by government health care and available to everyone, rich or poor.

Just making sure that Canadian television shows get produced isn't enough. Canadian film, music, and television industries cannot compete on a level playing field with their US counterparts. US producers can spread the costs over a wider audience, so they can easily undersell their Canadian competition. Canada may have more landmass, but its population is too small to provide a large enough economic and audience base. While the Canadian television schedules have long been filled with cheaper, first-run US imports, Canadian producers have found it historically difficult to spread their costs out by selling to US distributors. This is slowly changing as more and more US specialty channels look north of the border to fill their schedules, but they tend to pick up series that have already run their course on Canadian television.

Looking at CanCon from a different angle, there are clear restrictions on creativity. CanCon and its point system force artists and producers to fit their creations into specific guidelines. If you want your television show to qualify as Canadian content, you need to create something in a desirable genre, spend your money and make your decisions in Canada, and obtain a minimum of 6 points on the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (CAVCO) scale. If you want tax credits, then your choice of genres goes down. If you want funding from the Canadian Television Fund, add three more essential requirements, including obtaining all 10 points on the CAVCO scale.

The CAVCO scale has little to do with the content of your television show. CAVCO is concerned with making sure that the producers are Canadian; that the majority of the production and post-production costs are incurred in Canada; and that the director, highest paid actor(s), screenwriter, and other key creative personnel are Canadian.

Using these criteria to screen programming results in a group of bureaucrats and corporate types deciding whether something created by a Canadian is Canadian enough to qualify under CanCon. Unfortunately, bureaucracy has no sense of humor and no flexibility. What you can end up with is a decision that Bryan Adams, a singer born and bred in Canada, isn't Canadian content. His 1991 album Waking Up the Neighbours and its international chart-topping single (Everything I Do) I Do It For You from Robin Hood,Prince of Thieves were shut out of the Canadian music awards and the extra radio airplay granted to Canadian content, because he'd co-written and co-produced it with a non-Canadian, John Lange.

There are no points on any CanCon scale for cultural or artistic merit. Your television show doesn't have to be good. It just has to meet their criteria for Canadian content. For all that government agencies like Heritage Canada and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) talk about the need to preserve Canadian values and nurture Canadian identity, I frequently get the impression that CanCon is focused on the industry and creating jobs. Why should a science fiction show set in an imaginary world produced by Canadians be certified Canadian content when a documentary about the Prime Ministers of Canada produced by non-Canadians is not eligible for such certification?

Some people argue that we don't need to work so hard to preserve the employment of Canadians in the television and film industries. Lots of television series are and have been filmed in Canada. Just looking at Toronto and Vancouver locations, the list includes: Stargate, Wiseguy, The X-Files, The A Team, 21 Jump Street, Earth: Final Conflict, Lexx, Highlander: The Series, Forever Knight, Due South, MacGyver, Queer as Folk, The Sentinel, and Relic Hunter.

tv picture!Then again, televisions shows such as The X-Files, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy, and Stargate purvey a uniquely American perspective on the world from a location that was frequently just down the street from where I lived or worked. When that happens, it's easy to blur the lines between what's Canadian and what's American.

Not that being certified Canadian content saves a show from this potential source of confusion. Due South, for example, did most of its filming in and around the Toronto area. However, these Toronto locations were intended to be somewhere in Chicago. Inevitably, this show, which met all the qualifications for CanCon, funding, and tax credits, showcased those very same laws that caused legal misunderstandings among Canadian viewers. To add insult to injury, Toronto needed its own "wardrobe" to play Chicago believably. Streetcars had to stop while the cameras ran, often making me late for work.

Then, there was the graffiti and the garbage. Much of Toronto was apparently too clean to be Chicago. This meant that some Canadian values disappeared as the exasperated crew hired security guards to protect the garbage from well-meaning pedestrians who insisted on picking it up and putting it in garbage cans. Can you imagine it? A security guard (no gun please, this is, after all, Canada) going up to a good citizen, attempting to keep a straight face while saying, "Step away from the garbage."

Now it's 2001, and I'm living and working in the US. There are over a hundred stations available, but none of my favorite Canadian television shows are anywhere on the dial. Strangely enough, in the US, I've discovered a tendency to be more forgiving of Canada's foibles. Whatever my problems with CanCon, I find myself defending it vociferously when I talk to my American friends. My misgivings disappear. Instead, I wax poetic about a government policy that is so even-handed that it funds both 100 Huntley Street (a conservative Christian talk show) and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, one of the most vicious and hysterically funny hours of political satire on any television station anywhere in the world.

For all CanCon's absurdities and problems, the Canadian television industry has improved immeasurably in both quantity and quality since 1973. From 1997 to 1999, when I lived in Vancouver, I could hardly watch US television because I spent so much time videotaping Canadian shows for my American friends. So, CanCon has had its successes.

I'm not comfortable sitting back and letting the faceless bureaucrats and industry types that sit on the various CanCon boards, commissions, and committees decide what is or is not an acceptable expression of Canadian national identity, culture, and values. On the other hand, if Canadians work at CanCon, maybe some day I'll turn on my television in the US and see a Canadian television show that represents my vision of Canadian culture and values.

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Elisabeth Hurst is a British Canadian living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. She still has favourite US television shows, but wishes that a US cable company would pick up This Hour Has 22 Minutes or one of her other favourite Canadian shows.

Copyright © 2001 by Elisabeth Hurst. All rights reserved.