Can-Con — and the lessons of Johnny Canuck

Last time I wrote about Can-Con rules — regulations that obligate Canadian broadcasters to devote a certain (minimum) amount of their time to Canadian-made shows (or songs in the case of radio). And before we move on, I wanted to delve into that a bit more. Namely to answer the question that no doubt troubles you all:

Why am I so frickin’ cynical?

Okay…let’s step back a moment. Can-Con rules were brought in to insure Canadian artists were given a kick at the can by Canadian broadcasters who, otherwise, were all too happy to take programming direction from America (or, earlier, Britain).

(The broadcasters themselves enjoying protection from American networks, so their Can-Con obligations are, in a sense, merely supposed to be their way of paying back for these protections).

Defenders of Can-Con say it nurtures and encourages Canadian artists and entertainers, and without it, the whole industry would implode and Canadian culture would cease to exist, and Canada would be entirely swamped by American movies, music, TV, etc. As proof they point out that prior to the implementation of Canadian Content rules…there was almost no Canadian content on the air other than the CBC which, after all, counts Canadian content as kind of its raison d’etre — certainly little from the private broadcasters. Canadian artists almost invariably had to go south to America or east to Europe if they wanted any hope of a career, let alone success. The few that stayed home found their entire career just a struggle to even pay the rent. Whereas now, there are Canadian TV shows on the air, songs on the radio, and Canadian artists (actors, musicians) are world renowned, and many still operate out of Canada.

Critics of Can-Con argue it breeds mediocrity, creating an artificial cocoon where no-talent hacks are basically handed success thanks to government largesse. As proof they point out that most Canadian TV series perform less well than imported American series, and most Canadian movies bomb at the box office. Scrap Can-Con, they say, stop giving artists hand outs and then, and only then, will a truly vital and successful Canadian entertainment industry emerge, because it will be forced to truly compete with the world.

Of course, as with so many things: perception isn’t proof, and proof is hard to find — either way.

Is the fact that the Canadian music seems to be doing okay for itself, both domestically and internationally, a sign that Canadian artists with talent don’t need protection…or proof that Can-Con works, nurturing domestic artists until they can build a following?

Even today there are Canadian music acts that are genuine super stars in Canada — that have devoted fans and followers — but whose international success is less impressive. So if there was no Can-Con rules, if Canadian radio stations took all their programming cues from American Top 40, these acts probably wouldn’t have been given any air time in Canada and so would never have built a Canadian following.

Is the fact that recently we’ve seen an almost unprecedented number of Canadian drama series bring in solid, American-style ratings (Flashpoint, Saving Hope, The Listener, Combat Hospital, Republic of Doyle, Bomb Girls, Heartland, and others) an indication that success will succeed and Can-Con rules are unnecessary…or a vindication of Can-Con, because the networks probably wouldn’t have made these shows if they weren’t obligated to by the terms of their licenses? And if Can-Con was cut, or eliminated entirely, they’d pull the plug on these shows in an instant, ratings-be-damned, simply because making domestic shows is harder and more expensive than simply buying up broadcast rights to American series.

The problem with the blaming Can-Con for mediocre programs would be like blaming a produce section of a grocery store for poor fruit. The problem isn’t that there’s a section of the story reserved for fruit…the problem is when the store managers aren’t stocking it with a good selection. In other words, Can-Con doesn’t foster mediocrity…the choices made by the programmers to fulfill their Can-Con requirements foster mediocrity (if, indeed, you feel Canadian programs aren’t up to snuff).

I’ve often thought the problem with Can-Con rules is not that there’s too much of it — but not enough. If you want to talk of incentives, and market forces, the problem right now is arguably that there’s little pressure on the broadcasters to provide great Canadian programs because, if the series tank in the ratings, it’s not a big deal…because it’s such a small part of their schedule. Indeed, perhaps the problem is not that we have Can-Con and other government funding and incentives…it’s that we need to re-think and re-focus the rules and funding incentives to be more efficacious. But that’s a whole other essay!

So let’s get back to my opening point: about why am I so frickin’ cynical?

Y’see, the argument against Can-Con, against the government essentially pressuring broadcasters to make and air Canadian programs, is that it says if left to their own devices, the broadcasters would do it on their own, and do it better, and with more enthusiasm. Trust to free enterprise (they say). Big Business has all our best interests at heart.

And the problem is: I’m not sure they would, or they do

It depends on whether you believe they have integrity…or not.

I mean we all have feet of clay. Faced with the choice of making a good living, working hard, trying to produce and promote programs…or making an insane amount of money simply flying down to Hollywood once a year where a man in trench coat will slip you a brief case of DVDs under the bathroom stall partition with a written list as to when to broadcast them on what days…what do you do? Work hard, knowing the trials and tribs of success and failure, or simply have a guy slip you a bunch of ready made Hollywood series? (And, yeah, I’m sure it’s not quite like that in reality — I doubt he’d be wearing a trench coat).

No matter what you do, or how you slice it, it’s always going to be easier and cheaper for a Canadian network to buy broadcast rights to, say, CSI (which has already been made, and the American network has already done most of the marketing and promotion for it) than to make your own show, and market it, and promote it.

So now let’s take a trip back through time more than half a Century and to another creative medium entirely — comic books.

(And to be honest, my understanding of these events is based on articles and books which, themselves, were written decades after the fact, and which drew upon fading memories and sometimes second hand accounts).

In the 1930s, publishers in America and elsewhere were in the process of creating a new storytelling medium — the comic book. And it was proving enormously popular and successful. It was a hit in Canada, too, but by the time they realized its potential, Canadian publishers knew they were too late out of the gate and couldn’t possibly compete with the American product and its quickly established name recognition of Superman and Batman and others. Then something happened.


And in the name of war time conservation, frivolous items were being kept out of Canada to keep Canadian dollars home. Suddenly: no Superman, no Batman.

And a window was opened.

Canadian publishers suddenly had a hungry audience eager for a product no longer available. And Canadian comics were born. And characters like Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights suddenly became famous. The comics, in short, were a hit. They sold well, the publishers were making money, fan clubs and other extraneous marketing things were instigated. And though the comics were in black & white (for budget reasons) kids still read ‘em and, honestly, they were as good as the American stuff. Oh, sure, I don’t mean by modern standards, but compared to a lot of American comics at the time, even “big” names like Superman, Batman, etc., the writing and art was on a similar level — and better than many.

So whut happened?

Therein lies the lesson.

What happened was that although Canadian comics were booming, there was always the dark cloud on the horizon. What would happen, the publishers asked, once the American comics came back as they surely would whenever the war was over? Could the Canadians still compete? Maybe. After all, by now they’d had a few years to build up their own name recognition among readers, their own fan bases. But — maybe not.

Then, toward the end, import restrictions were loosened and the Canadian publishers had a new option. American comics still weren’t being imported…but American titles could be licensed, and the printing plates brought over, and the publishers could print facsimiles of the American titles.

So the Canadian publishers were faced with a dilemma. Keep publishing their own comics, hiring writers and artists and editors and what have you, knowing all those salaries came out of the end profits…or start printing the ready made American comics and slash their overhead and increase their profit margin overnight (and perhaps arguing if they didn’t, a rival publisher would). There was still a paper shortage, so they couldn’t do both.

And they decided to slash staff and boost their profits. The writers and artists were out on the street, the original characters retired, but the money — man, the money was good.

I think you can guess what the other shoe is, right?

War ended. Import restrictions stopped. American comics could now cross the border freely and the American publishers took back their printing plates and said to their Canadian “partners”: “Thanks, but no thanks.” And the Canadian publishers were back where they were before the war — starting from scratch and faced with the idea of competing with American comics, but with little remaining staff to put out competing products, and no longer any momentum, or “name” recognition characters already on the stands (for the young demographic audience, a character who ceased publishing a few months ago might as well be from another generation).

They had sacrificed Canadian culture and identity in the name of easy profits and, in the end, lost out on the profits, too.

Most threw in the towel and moved on to other enterprises.

(At least that’s how I understand the story).

So — who knows? Maybe history would’ve been no different. Maybe if the Canadian publishers had stuck with their Canadian properties, they still would have been obliterated once the American comics flooded back over the border, with their accompanying tie ins and marketing blitzes, from breakfast cereals to radio series. And the American comic book industry itself was volatile, suffering many devastating booms and busts in its own borders so it was an uncertain enterprise for everyone. But maybe if the Canadian publishers had stuck to their guns, when the American comics came back, they would have faced an audience that was now just as loyal to Johnny Canuck and Nelvana as they had once been to Superman and the others. Maybe Johnny Canuck would’ve got a radio series. Maybe Nelvana would’ve been featured in a cheesy 1960s cartoon series.

So when people say: we don’t need Can-Con rules forcing broadcasters to support and nurture Canadian entertainment because the executives will do it on their own. I answer: really? Really?

A few might, a few pie-eyed dreamers who believe there’s more to being in the entertainment biz than cashing a big cheque. But most, I suspect, would do the math, see the risks, the pitfalls, the struggles in trying to make domestic programs, or support domestic artists, and in contrast see how quick and easy the money is in just acting as a warehouse for entertainment from elsewhere, and would go for the easy money.

So when people assure me that, without Can-Con rules, CTV would still be making Saving Hope and Global would still support Bomb Girls, I just say two words to them: “Johnny Canuck.”

And when they say: “Who?”

I say: “Precisely.”

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