By Frank Moher
Once again, I find myself obliged to apologize for one of my fellow western Canadians. I used to have to do this a lot, back in the days when the Reform Party was still the Reform Party. For instance, you had your Stockwell Day believing the earth is only three weeks old, or whatever it was he believed. Then every once in a while one of its MPs would haul off and slur gays or Indians or whatever, and one would have to explain to the Eastern relatives that, yes, we really do have an unfortunate number of dinosaurs out here. (Which, come to think of it, lends credence to Mr. Day’s theory that the earth is only three weeks old, but let’s leave that for another time.)
The latest caveman to emerge into the sunlight is Jim Shaw, CEO of Shaw Communications Inc., the Calgary-based cable/digital/satellite/internet behemoth. Last year Shaw, along with Quebecor, pulled its $60-million per year funding to the $287-million Canadian Television Fund, claiming that it was a boondoggle that made shows nobody wanted to watch. That led to an independent review of the CTF, and to the hearings that concluded last week.
Actually, Mr. Shaw, like Puxatawney Phil at about the same time, emerged only briefly. When he found out that CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein wouldn’t be attending the hearings, he stamped his foot and declared that he wouldn’t either, thereupon retreating to his caveman lair in a cloud of vapours, possibly muttering dark imprecations about “socialists” and “lousy easterners.”
That left poor Ken Stein, a Shaw senior vice-president, to carry the bucket, and get pummeled at the hearings by the people — writers, actors, producers — who actually create programming, as opposed to digging holes in the ground and laying cable in order to profit off it.
Shaw’s biggest problem in stirring these waters is timing: Canadian television has never been better or more successful than it is right now. Earlier this month, going up against the Grammy Awards, the CTV original movie Mayerthorpe drew an average 1.3 million viewers and some good reviews: John Doyle in The Globe and Mail called it “a fine Canadian production about one of the most notorious crimes in recent Canadian history.” Doyle is not known for coddling Canadian shows. Mayerthorpe had CTF money in it.
I’m not a big fan of CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” — in particular, its lighting style seems to have been co-opted from the 1970s — but a lot of people are: it’s been known to creep up over the million-viewer mark too. And golly, even Americans like it. “Slings and Arrows” has been seen and praised all over the world. “Corner Gas” is a Canadian sit-com that’s actually funny. Those of you who remember “The Trouble With Tracy” and “Mosquito Lake” will know that was a long time coming.
And this isn’t just a lucky streak. The late, lamented “Da Vinci’s Inquest” was one of the best Canadian series ever made, and drew enough viewers to last seven seasons. It’s currently airing in over 20 major American markets, and in the UK too.
Some of these shows have CTF money in them, some don’t. But Jim Shaw’s anachronistic plaint that “if it’s Canadian, it can’t be good” is just embarrassing.
His problem, of course, is that these shows don’t draw American Idol-size numbers. But that’s what happens when you live in a small market next to the biggest market in the world. Reality, alas, isn’t negotiable. I suspect his real concern is with the numbers on his bottom line. Quebecor, to its credit, at least proposed turning over its money to a fund for the creation of original programming in Quebec. Did Shaw similarly propose using its money to create new western Canadian programming? No. Instead, its chief executive scold says customers would receive a rebate. Something tells me we might not see all of it.
Yes, I’m a Shaw customer. Cable, digital, HDTV, internet — in fact, I’m about to upload this blog using Shaw’s pipes. So here’s what you can do for me as a customer, Mr. Shaw: keep my share of that $60-million you fork over annually, all $2 of it or whatever, and continue forwarding it to the Canadian Television Fund. To me, that’s good value for money. And please stop embarrassing western Canadians in Ottawa. I’m running out of excuses to offer my Eastern relatives.