As Seen on TV   1 comment


The Canadian TV universe is as different from the American as Jupiter is to Venus.

Cable TV is a weird hodgepodge consisting mostly of Canadian and American networks or channels interspersed with odd imports.  Even basic cable subscribers get a lot of channels thanks to timeshifting – a concept rarely seen in the United States taken to an extreme in British Columbia.  Our combined digital and basic cable package with HD tier includes stations from across Canada plus Detroit and Rochester, New York.  On top of that, we get nearly all stations, including independents and smaller networks, broadcasting out of the Seattle/Tacoma/Bellingham, Washington market.

The Canadian TV universe has a single common denominator – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).  Even in the most remote corner of this vast country, the government-owned CBC (a Crown Corporation operating most similarly to the U.S. Post Office) is the one network everyone can get.  Until the 1960s when the first privately-owned networks appeared on the dial it was the only network anyone could get.

CTV and Global are the CBC’s main competitors amongst Canadian networks along with smaller or regional networks such as CityTV.

Despite its Crown Corporation status, the CBC bears little resemblance to PBS in the United States, except for being chronically cash-strapped and loathed by political right-wingers.  Being government-owned means having a unique mandate:  CBC programming should contain 60% Cancon, shorthand for Canadian content, over the course of its broadcasting day.

How one defines Cancon is spotty and a hot topic for debate.  As production costs rise and its budget allocations stagnate or fall, forcing the CBC to acquire programs produced outside the country meeting the conventional definition loosely if at all.  Jeopardy’s tenuous Can Con link is its host Alex Trebek (a Canadian) and the odd daily Canadian category or question.  The network’s decision to air The Simpsons met with derision from critics despite the show’s plethora of wry dialog regularly poking fun at Canada.

Private networks are also bound by a Can Con mandate:  60% of  overall programming must be Canadian produced, 50% between 6 p.m. and midnight.  The mandate leaves a big loophole; it doesn’t fully specify times of day when Cancon must air.  As a result, CTV and Global tend to exile most Canadian productions from prime time slots, opting to run current American-produced shows for which they buy exclusive Canadian broadcasting rights.

This is why I don’t watch much on CTV and Global.  I can see the same American programs during their first run on Seattle or Detroit-based network affiliates.

Americans scanning the Canadian TV universe will find a handful of American cable channels like NatGeo or NFL Network picked up directly from the States.  More often, they will find a Canadian counterpart such as Teletoon, Canada’s version of the Cartoon Network.  Like CTV and Global, counterparts are bound by Can Con rules, varying by license agreement.  Even CMT Canada (Country Music Television) doesn’t get a pass.

Canadian content, programming and network audience focus are a fascinating peek into the Canadian psyche and value system that a typical American might find baffling.  A special dispensation recently granted Canadian radio stations the right to resume playing the unedited classic Dire Straits song Money For Nothing, censored in early 2011 for gratuitously dropping The Other F-Bomb.  Meanwhile, the CBC – the national network – will air Brokeback Mountain unedited during prime time without conflict.  It’s a real head-scratcher.

Imagine these flying on the American TV radar:

  • Omni Network:  Fluency in Farsi, Chinese, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi are helpful aids for watching news reports when you can’t catch the one in English.  Syndicated shows consisting of a mix of Canadian and imported entertainment in English round out the schedule.
  • Vision TV:   A mix of religion and entertainment with a twist, often irreverently and hilariously so.  All of Canada’s active religious traditions get a seat at this table.  A typical evening on Vision might feature an hour-long Kenneth Copeland sermon, The Benny Hill Show, the Irish-produced comedy Father Ted (a sitcom about priests exiled by their bishop to a remote Irish island for committing the sin of being bad priests), Islam 101, Buddhist Dharma, capped by Michael Palin’s film The Missionary ( a comedy about a clergyman assigned by his bishop to minister to prostitutes).  It’s exactly the kind of stuff that makes the heads of the conservative Christians dominating other American and Canadian religious networks explode, despite the network’s policy of selling time slots to Evangelical Christian televangelists.  Given my druthers, I’d dump every religious channel from our dial.  Vision stays right there.
  • Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN):  Seen in a few U.S. markets with large Native American populations, APTN’s programming is devoted to shows about all aboriginal peoples of the world.  A typical day at APTN might air a block of cartoons illustrating traditional stories of the spirit world, news reports about issues of importance to indigenous peoples, episodes of Northern Exposure and North of 60 (two groundbreaking shows for their positive portrayals of First Nations characters), and history or nature documentaries from a First Peoples’ point of view.
  • Teletoon Retro dedicates itself 24/7 to airing classic animated cartoon shows dating from the 1950s through 1990s including Casper and Friends, Little Lulu, Inspector Gadget, Spiderman, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Hour and most of Hanna-Barbera’s greatest hits (Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, et al).  While not high on weirdness, it’s a big hit at our house.  We had nothing like it in Minnesota.
  • Multicultural programming doesn’t begin and end with the Omni Network:  Optional tiers offer a bucketful of French-language programming or a bevy of foreign-language channels in Polish, Russian, German, Italian, Greek, Tagalog, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Hindi and English.

Within channels or networks, Canadian programming gets even stranger:

  • The Rick Mercer Report (CBC):  Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the Rick Mercer of the U.S.  Mercer has been poking fun at current events, politics and public figures longer beginning with his tenure on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and extending to his own show, which debuted in 2004.  His satires and rants are funny and spot-on.  Although Mercer could do a serious interview or news show if he put his mind to it, he’d rather not.  Allowing the revered Canadian historian Pierre Berton to demonstrate how to roll a joint or skinny dipping with Liberal MP Bob Rae is a whole lot funnier and more effective.  Part of every show is dedicated to interesting people or places across Canada and participating in unusual activities – like going to the tailor with Don Cherry (see Coach’s Corner, below) or visiting the Royal Canadian Mint.
  • Coach’s Corner (segment of Hockey Night in Canada – CBC):  Former Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry (aka “Grapes”), a disciple of Rock ’em, Sock ’em hockey is the kind of guy you either love or hate.  He is easily the most bombastic presence on the Canadian TV dial.  His knowledge of hockey is rivaled by few and his tips for young players are helpful in understanding the game.  But if Cherry offered to be my wardrobe consultant, I’d run away very quickly.  He ought to change his nickname to “Drapes”.
  • George Strombolopolous Tonight (CBC):  An excellent interviewer, Strombo is a hipper, less buttoned down version of Dick Cavett covering personalities and current events.  With an entire alphabet’s worth of letters to his name, I’m convinced he couldn’t get a similar job in the States.  (The one he had, literally The One, bombed.)
  • Sporting events (any):  Remember Boobgate?  Canadians laughed at Americans offended by Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”  Canadian broadcasters don’t avert cameras from the occasional streaker dashing across football fields or hockey rinks – getting  ‘up close and personal’ is far more entertaining and amusing.
  • Artzooka! (CBC):  A chorus of children’s voices screaming this title at the top of the morning is guaranteed to wake you when the alarm clock won’t.  The eyes of Canadian moms glaze over whenever energetic 20-something host Jeremie whisks out papier-mache and paint for art and craft projects geared to the younger set.  Artzooka! is endlessly fun and creative, a veritable treasure trove for project ideas, frequently offering inspiration for turning ordinary household items into art.
  • Republic of Doyle (CBC):  The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. meets Newfoundland in this comedy-drama about a father-son pair of private investigators.  St. John’s provides abundant on-location eye candy.  Characterizations, scenery, local lingo and music (including theme by Great Big Sea, a Newfie band) reflect Newfoundland’s unique culture. Oh yeah!
  • Canada’s Worst Handyman/Canada’s Worst Driver  (Discovery Channel – Canada):  Five Tim Taylors doing exactly what they tell you not to do on Ask This Old House and the DIY Network meet professional contractors who try to set them straight (often with little success) in this reality show.  (May I nominate everyone who worked on my house, please?)  Suffice it to say you don’t want these folks changing your light bulbs.  Those bad drivers ought to move to British Columbia and put an ‘L’ (learner) magnet on their car before someone really gets hurt.
  • Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC):  Islam meets small-town Saskatchewan in this remarkably accurate sitcom about a mosque operating in the basement of a local church and its tiny congregation’s relationships with the larger non-Muslim community.  Richly drawn character portrayals on both sides of the religious divide reflect realities of perceptions about Muslims, the diversity of Islamic practice and belief and surrounding cultural and political issues.
  • Hockey:  It’s everywhere during the NHL season.  Get used to it.
  • Steven and Chris (CBC):  Add one part Martha Stewart and one part Regis and Kelly and you almost get Steven and Chris, who dish fashion, health, beauty and relationship advice, and ‘home arts’ projects presented with irreverence and wry repartee.  What’s the catch?  Chris is a man!  They’re queer, they’re here and airing on Canada’s national network where they are a hit with female audiences.  Adding a dash of Queer Eye For the Straight Guy completes this recipe.

Canadian programming in some ways is not sanitized for your protection.  Most of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words can be said on Canadian TV, though I’m still waiting for C-bomb and MF-bomb droppings to fall during prime time.  Contextual nudity, T & A and sex are okay; gratuitous is not.

Judging by levels of violence seen on TV, it appears Sam Peckenpah’s work does not influence most Canadian TV directors.  Television shows contain little live-action splat factor.  Falling to the ground in the throes of death is not a regular part of the TV thespian’s repertoire.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad TV world out here.

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Posted September 3, 2011 by noslenca9300 in British Columbia, Canada

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One response to “As Seen on TV

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  1. I find myself coming back to your web-site only because you have lots of awesome insights and also you happen to be at this a while, which is very impressive and tells me you know your stuff.

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