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This article was published 6/7/2003 (6408 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bouchard's handlers had good reason to be worried. La Petite Vie, an absurd weekly satire of Quebec domestic life, was regularly watched by more than four million Quebecers. And it started a mere half-hour before the polls closed. That morning, Bouchard's strategists sent out an urgent memo warning volunteers to steer Quebecers away from their couches and toward the ballot box.
It's remarkable enough that a sitcom centred around two ridiculous characters -- "Moman", played by a man clad in a never-ending series of lurid bonnet-and-nightgown combinations, and "Popa Ti-Me", a Fidel Castro look-a-like -- had the power to potentially influence the outcome of a provincial election. But even more remarkable is that Bouchard's strategists so fully understood the tight relationship between Quebecers and their TVs, and they feared it. "We have to assure ourselves that 'fans' of Ti-Me and company will go to vote," read their pre-election memo.
Since the CBC first began broadcasting in French in 1952, Quebecers have regularly become obsessed with their home-grown TV programs, and especially their low-budget "téléromans" -- dramatic serials featuring the tireless trio of love, sex and treachery. Amazingly, the top 10 Quebec TV shows are all written and created by Quebecers.
By comparison, and despite millions invested by cultural agencies in 'distinctly Canadian' programming, almost three-quarters of all English-Canadian prime-time TV shows are American. And who can blame us for watching? With a few notable and recent exceptions, anglo-Canadians have had to put up with a long history of dull and earnest programming. The words "Canadian drama" conjure up images of quaint 19th-century country settings or, alternatively, cool urban hipsters who just never seem hip, or real.
While Quebecers see themselves reflected in the magic box, it's hard to figure out just where the characters on English TV are from. They rarely act or speak like anyone I know. Wooden and passionless, they are inhabitants of the unique planet that is Canadian drama. There are, of course, exceptions -- Da Vinci's Inquest, Due South, Blue Murder, and some great movies of the week -- but they are few and far between.
So it isn't surprising that English-Canadian TV is in a state of crisis. Again. Four reports have been released this year alone to probe its afflictions. But while the number of dramas produced in English Canada is steadily declining, the Quebec industry is incredibly healthy, churning out two-and-a-half times as many series per capita as the American networks. Why is the Quebec television industry booming while English Canada's is wilting?
The simple, but inaccurate, explanation is language. The Quebec industry has a captive audience, so the argument goes, while English productions have to compete with American television programs with their higher budgets and bigger stars. Yet while Quebecers regularly watch American movies dubbed into French, big-budget American TV series dubbed into English aren't popular here, especially in prime time. In fact, a long-running Quebec series, Chambre en Ville, made for roughly $100,000 per episode, consistently beat dubbed versions of Dallas and Dynasty in the ratings.
One fundamental reason for the success of Quebec TV lies in the province's history. Television came on the scene at the right time in this province, and blossomed. Its presence in living-rooms coincided with the start of a major cultural revolution. In the early 1950s, Quebec's artists and intellectuals were frustrated with the repression of both the Duplessis government and the Catholic Church. They needed an outlet, and television provided it.
Within the confines of the Radio Canada building, these young creators were protected from the scrutiny of the province's religious and political elite. This 'revolutionary' class used television as a way to communicate a radical message: Quebec had to change and enter the modern world. Because their vision of a new Quebec was a populist one, their goal from the start was mass appeal. And their preferred tool was drama.
Just two years after Radio Canada started broadcasting in French, Quebec writers had already created five original dramatic series. Thus began a tradition in Quebec that consistently produces drama of high quality; television is the preferred means of expression for many of the province's most talented and inventive minds. Rather than view TV as low-brow -- which has been the historical tendency in English-Canadian literary circles -- Quebec creators recognize the ability of television to affect millions. In Quebec, television drama is viewed as an ouvre, or a work of art. Well-known novelists and screenwriters frequently write téléromans. Imagine Margaret Atwood trying her hand at a soap.
At the same time as Quebecers were developing their own unique form of television drama, English-Canadians were being seduced by Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason. When the CBC first went to air, thousands of Canadians had already been setting their aerials to receive signals from the American networks. English CBC decided to focus on news and current affairs rather than drama.
While Quebec intellectuals and artists were embracing television, it was almost as if Canada's cultural mandarins pointedly ignored it. The 1951 Massey commission report on culture -- set up to figure out how to protect Canadians from an onslaught of American mass culture -- gave television only cursory recognition. In the view of Vincent Massey, popular culture was something to avoid, not encourage.
Massey's report has been called one of the most important cultural documents in Canadian history. Unfortunately, he framed support for the arts in essentially political terms, a legacy we suffer with to this day. Massey's recommendations influenced the development of most of Canada's cultural funding agencies, including Telefilm and the CBC, which support TV drama. And he wasn't one to support art for its own sake: art existed to promote Canadian unity. And Massey's method of creating Canadian culture was top-down.
The heavy involvement of government agencies in Canadian drama -- and their strict application of Canadian-content rules -- is one of the major reasons why the vitality of Canadian communities rarely comes through on our TV screens. Canadian-content rules inevitably produce works that don't quite ring true. And paper-pushers tend to dilute exciting ideas.
Of course, these same government institutions also fund French drama. But on the French side of places such as Telefilm, there isn't a problem with defining 'Quebec content' because the society is smaller and bound by a common history and language.
Another major challenge for the English-Canadian television industry is straight economics: commercial broadcasters generally aren't interested in supporting new ideas because they make more money with American programs. For networks such as Global and CTV, it is far cheaper to run U.S.-made dramas than to create our own originals. A new report by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.Canadian says broadcasters lose an average of $125,000 on every hour of Canadian drama shown, but make a net profit of $275,000 for each broadcast hour of American-made drama.
Not so in Quebec: French broadcasters make a profit of $40,000 per hour on their own dramas, compared to $10,000 for American drama. Because Quebec broadcasters are starved for content, numerous original series get produced every year.
This high volume of programs fuels a pop-culture star system that in turn supports the television industry. In Quebec, there are dozens of newspapers, magazines and other TV shows devoted exclusively to following local stars. It is this star system, flourishing for decades in Quebec, that is the key to the success of the Quebec television industry, according to screenwriter Guy Fournier, who was commissioned by the CRTC and Telefilm to report on how the Quebec experience might be pertinent to English-language television.
Among recommendations in a report released last month, Fournier, president of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in Quebec, said English Canada needs to create its own star system. And how can this be achieved? Not with more government money, he says. The existing funds should instead be spent on many cheap shows, as it is in Quebec. In English Canada, too much money is invested in a few big projects produced by a few major producers, he says.
Fournier is quick to stress that low-budget doesn't necessarily mean low-quality. The sitcom Un gars et une fille, which was probably made for about $150,000 per episode, was popular in both Quebec and around the world. These type of innovative, inexpensive shows are necessary to give Canadian actors exposure and Canadian writers practice, Fournier believes. Stars should be on TV every day, not a few times a year. And writers should be writing all the time. The same goes for directors. Fournier believes this type of exposure is much more important than 'building' an audience.
Fournier agrees that broadcasters should be forced to support Canadian content, but says the rules about what that means need to be loosed up. And the heavy bureaucracy at places such as the Canadian Television Fund must be streamlined so it is easier to get projects off the ground.
Yet, perhaps the most interesting and important recommendation Fournier makes to English Canada is that it must have faith in its artists. To build a TV star system -- or a strong and distinct culture, for that matter -- a society must believe in its creators. French-Canadians have a much deeper respect for all forms of artistic expression than we do in English Canada. They encourage and adore their talent. Perhaps this is because Quebecers are keenly aware of their cultural vulnerability. And perhaps we aren't sufficiently aware of ours.
Sure, regulations about Canadian content are important to protect our cultural sovereignty. But ultimately, we have to nurture and respect our creators. This is what will help our television industry to develop and thrive.
Patricia Bailey is a Montreal-based freelance writer and former Manitoban.