John Doyle: Canadian TV is a Place of Squalor and Neglect

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A squall of knowledge recently struck the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In a speech, Jean-Pierre Blais declared that he is pretty sick of broadcast executives appearing in front of the CRTC to moan that the “cupboards are bare.”

He was speaking in particular about the issue of local TV news coverage, a task that Canadian commercial broadcasters don’t want to fulfill. “Local television news is failing us. But it need not. The system sits at a position of strength,” Blais said.

Then came the kicker: “I listened as Canadians spoke with intelligence and passion, while corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies.”

I’m surprised it took him so long to recognize that Canadian TV execs are extremely rich and don’t care much about fulfilling their mandated obligations to the Canadian culture. It’s a lucrative racket. If we see television as a landscape filled with a variety of buildings and edifices, then Canadian commercial TV execs are slum landlords, getting rich by bilking pitiful tenants. What they own and manage, in terms of Canadian content, is a place of squalor and neglect. A slum.

The Canadian Screen Awards rolled out two weeks ago and, as usual, the coverage consisted mainly of anxious, admonitory opinions about too many awards, too few outstanding TV series and the ceaseless toil of getting Canadians to pay attention.

I watched the CSA gala on TV, a bit jet-lagged, but I’m pretty sure I smelled desperation. We make so little TV of true value or excellence that the exposure of all that mediocrity made the CSA gala a gloomy sight to behold.

The circumstance of the series that won Best Performance in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series proved to be a salutatory example of the meaningless nature of it all. The nominees were This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Second City Project, Sunnyside and The Rick Mercer Report. Amazingly and deservedly, Sunnyside won.

A nifty mix of sketch comedy and sitcom, Sunnyside deftly satirized the sort of neighbourhood that most urbanites in Canada recognize – the reluctantly gentrified down-at-heel ‘hood, teeming with both hosers and yummy mommies with their Cadillac baby strollers.

A delightful, slyly biting comedy, it was made in Winnipeg for Rogers, airing on City channels, and the budget appeared to be about $50 an episode. The small cast, Patrice Goodman, Pat Thornton, Kathleen Phillips, Rob Norman, Kevin Vidal and Alice Moran, played multiple roles with aplomb.

Last week, Rogers cancelled Sunnyside. The Rogers statement mentioned “fiercely original comedy,” “immense talent” and “this unique Canadian production.” It was, bizarrely, the language of exultation. And yet, the series, after 13 episodes, is gone, terminated.

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