Commentary Magazine


Television & Canadian Culture

Montreal is the best place in the world in which to watch television. With the aid of a community cable or rooftop antennae, Montrealers can tune in the programs not only of three Canadian networks (two English and one French), but also of three American ones from stations in northern New England. The two English Canadian networks frequently feature programs from the BBC or ITV in Britain; less frequently, the French network uses material produced in France.

The viewer's choice extends from the usual quizzes, panel games, and situation comedies to bold experiments in documentary and drama. There are productions of Molière, Sheridan, and Shakespeare—and of Albee, Pinter, and Beckett. (Nothing lights up network switchboards with indignant calls like a good sordid modern play.) On the late show recently there have been opportunities to see such films as Rashomon, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and L'Avventura, all uninterrupted and unabridged.

However, the cacophonous and kaleidoscopic airwaves of Montreal are more than a viewer's paradise: they are also an epitome of the conflicts and confusions of the country as a whole. On the one hand, Canada largely owes its existence as a sovereign state to the triumph of communications policy over geography, economics, and cultural diversity. Yet the very electronic media which make Canada possible are presently adding to the strains and tensions which endanger the confederation.

Canada, of course, is a geographical absurdity—a country of nearly four million square miles, where 80 per cent of the population lives within a strip three thousand miles long and one hundred fifty miles wide along the American border. The strip is not even continuous; the regions of Canada are cut off from one another by formidable natural barriers such as the Great Lakes, the Laurentian Shield, and the Rocky Mountains. By contrast, much of the boundary with the United States is purely arbitrary and theoretical. Like the rivers that rise in Canada and flow down across the border, Canadians themselves move north and south more easily and frequently than they move east and west. Far more Canadians have visited the United States than have visited any province other than the one in which they live. Surveys have shown that Canadians in the various regions often share more attitudes with their immediate neighbors to the south than they do with their fellow countrymen in other regions.

National unity under such circumstances can be achieved only at a price. The railways, telegraphs, highways, airways, and waterways that keep traffic and information moving from east to west have been expensive to build and maintain; often they duplicate services that might have been more cheaply and conveniently available in the United States. Wages in Canada tend to be lower and the cost of consumer goods higher than they are in the United States. But Canadians have been willing to pay this price for the maintenance of political identity, and an expanding economy has helped to make the burden tolerable.

The combination of immense capital costs and comparatively low returns has meant that government rather than private initiative dominates the communications field: through the characteristically Canadian institution of the crown corporation, the federal government owns a railway system, a major airline, a telecommunications corporation, a large film production agency, and a broadcasting system. One of the best things about Canadian public life is the imagination and efficiency with which these public enterprises have been run.

At this moment, cultural diversity is probably a greater problem to Canada than either geography or economics. If we apply to the Canadian population Karl Deutsch's definition of a “people,” which stresses “complementary habits and facilities of communication” (including shared language, memories, customs, preferences, libraries, statues, signposts, and the like) we find English and French Canadians lacking in many of the necessary common characteristics. The difference is more than a matter of mere language: as Deutsch says, the Swiss, with their four languages, are one people. The Canadians, with two, are not. Not quite, and not yet.

The French Canadians (they number about a third of the population) are descended from sixty thousand original inhabitants whose roots in France were cut off by the Conquest of 1759. Their involvement with English-speaking Canadians has been less a matter of choice than of necessity. Though French communities may be found scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the St. Lawrence valley is in the fullest sense the heartland of French Canada. The feeling of inwardness, of a shared (and tragic) history, of loyalty to a common faith and a geographical patrie or homeland is very strong among French Canadians. It has enabled them to maintain their unique identity in the face of the most formidable social and economic challenges.

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In contrast to the fierce historicism of French-Canadian society, the English-speaking majority seems to lack any roots in the past. Though there is an epic quality to the early history of English Canada (matching the heroic tragedy of the French), somehow the links which connect this period with the present seem to have been severed, and few English Canadians feel much emotional identification with the explorers, fur traders, and administrators whose courage and imagination helped to open up the northern half of this continent. Canadian history has an unaccountable reputation for dullness among high-school students. This may be in part because so many of the early heroes were, and thought themselves, Englishmen or Scotsmen rather than Canadians. In fact, Canadian history, unlike American, has been largely made by outsiders: Canadians have no self-defining Declaration of Independence or Revolutionary War; they have not fought a civil conflict in defense of their national identity. The very constitution which gave them independence was an act, not of any Canadian body, but of the British Parliament.

The ancestors of most English-speaking Canadians emigrated to Canada fairly recently. They came at different times, from different places, and for different reasons. Their descendants' loyalty is not directed to one religion, one locality, or one set of values. For them, Canada is no warm, tight patrie to be loved or hated, but almost the reverse—an emptiness so vast that the image of the humans who live in it becomes dwarfed and blurred. Their myths tend to be geographical rather than social; the national motto is not e pluribus unum or even e duobus unum, but a mari usque ad mare (“from sea to sea”—an image which is incorporated in the two vertical blue bars of the proposed new Canadian flag); visionary politicians wax eloquent not over “the Canadian way of life” but over the untapped natural resources of the northern hinterland; until recently the bleakly and inhumanly beautiful landscape of the Laurentian Shield dominated both poetry and painting in English Canada. Hugh Kenner, the waspish expatriate who wrote scornfully of a “pathological craving for identification with the subhuman,” was being only slightly unfair.

The combination of French-Canadian introspection and English-Canadian ambiguity might seem enough to daunt even the most wildly optimistic planners of a bilingual northern Utopia, but the past few generations have added a further obstacle to the realization of the Canadian dream: the border offers no defense against the overflow of American popular culture. Far more Canadians regularly read American magazines than Canadian ones; of ninety-six periodicals that sell over a hundred thousand copies a month in Canada, ninety-two are American. Nearly 40 per cent of the Canadian population lives close enough to a U.S. television station to enjoy good reception, and even on Canadian stations, American programs dominate the air during prime viewing hours. On commercial radio the hit parade is as endemic as it is in the United States.

Canadian newspapers are local enough in character, but a high proportion of their foreign news comes from such American agencies as the Associated Press and United Press International. Ann Landers, Peanuts, and Walter Lippmann are as ubiquitous in Canada as across the border. In fact, apart from the wire service of the Canadian Press, virtually all nationally syndicated newspaper features originate in the United States.

No wonder Canadian nationalism (as distinct from local patriotism) tends to be “cool.” The French feel little enthusiasm for a federal entity dominated by les anglais and the English, through long exposure to American media, are likely to know as much, or more, about American history and politics as they do about their own. This marginality is a fundamental fact about Canadian society. Nearly one in three Canadians feels so little identification with the present political establishment that he says he is ready to scrap it: a recent survey conducted by MacLean's magazine revealed that 29 per cent of the population, French and English, say they favor political union with the United States; 65 per cent were ready to contemplate economic union.

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Those who, for whatever reason, wish to resist the tendencies I have been describing must solve the problem of assisting Canadian media to flourish in competition with their wealthy and entrenched American rivals. How to do this without alienating votes or interfering with the free flow of ideas has baffled every Canadian government since the 1920's. No solution has ever been found which commands universal support in press and parliament: debates on broadcasting or publishing policy are invariably hot and ill-tempered.

For this reason, the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been for almost thirty years the most embattled of all federal agencies. The CBC was founded in 1936 to provide a national and predominantly Canadian broadcasting service to as high a percentage of the population as was technically possible—an aim beyond the resources and outside the purpose of a private commercial system. Today the Corporation owns and operates six separate radio or television network services in two different languages. Ninety-eight per cent of the population, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the forty-ninth parallel to above the Arctic Circle, lives within range of its radio service. The English television network uses the longest microwave relay system in the world to link St. John's, Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia, four thousand miles and six time zones away. The CBC's Montreal studios are said to be the world's largest center for the production of French-language TV programs, while Toronto is beginning to rival New York as the second city of North American English television. The CBC's annual budget amounted last year to over 115 million dollars, of which about 32 million came from advertising and the remainder from public funds.

These operations are carried out on behalf of a total audience not much larger than that of the New York viewing area, scattered over a territory one fifth larger than the continental USA, and in the face of strong competition for audiences and sponsors from private commercial stations whose total annual income far exceeds that of the CBC.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation conceives its mandate from Parliament to involve four objectives:

  1. To be a complete service, covering . . . the whole range of programming.
  2. To link all parts of the country . . . through the inclusion of . . . national and common interests in its program services; [and to bring] the national program service to as many Canadians as finances allow.
  3. To be predominantly Canadian in content and character . . . contributing to the development and preservation of national unity.
  4. To serve equitably the two main language groups and cultures, and the special needs of Canada's various geographical regions.

Three of the four aims are explicitly concerned with creating a sense of Canadian identity, and the fourth (the provision of a complete service) is really a means to achieve the others. Evidently the CBC considers itself an instrument for the forging and maintenance of a distinctive bilingual Canadian nationalism. So far as I know, no other broadcasting system in the Western world conceives of its function in quite these terms. The American networks certainly do not have any comparable ambition, and the various European agencies are the expressions of long-established national cultures. The closest parallel of which I am aware is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but the ABC has neither to cope with two languages nor to compete with the combined blandishments of three wealthy American networks. (It is also supported entirely by public funds.)

Can a medium of mass communication in a free society really accomplish such a purpose? There have been many attacks on the CBC for its allegedly impractical, Utopian, and paternalistic policy. Critics usually claim to speak on behalf of the great majority of Canadians (though cynics might suspect them of representing more limited interests). However, the evidence is overwhelming that Canadians in general approve of the Corporation's objectives. In 1963, the CBC commissioned an elaborate survey of “what the Canadian public thinks of the CBC.” It showed that well over 90 per cent of the population approves even the most high-minded statements of CBC purpose, and that slightly smaller majorities think the Corporation fulfills these aims well or very well (the one exception being “helping French and English Canadians to understand and learn about each other”; only 57 per cent thought the CBC did well here).

However, even the most starry-eyed CBC executive knows that program policy cannot be based on the expectations aroused by such a survey. The commercial rating systems may be very crude indicators of the real involvement between viewers and their TV sets, but they are accurate enough to indicate a depressing contrast between what viewers say and what they do. Most of us, whatever may be our theories about the immense potentialities of broadcasting, turn to television (as others turn to detective stories or science fiction) primarily for relaxation and amusement. Any realistic daily program schedule must contain a very high proportion of light entertainment, and this necessity involves the CBC in some extraordinary compromises with its own principles.

The bitter fact is that most Canadians have formed their taste in entertainment from the most popular American network shows. The only Canadian productions which attract an equal or greater audience are televised games of the National Hockey or Canadian Football Leagues. In order to hold on to its audience and prevent them from switching to rival channels, the CBC must devote most of its time during prime viewing hours to American programs. This great instrument of Canadian culture cannot plan its winter schedule until after the United States networks have announced theirs. Thanks to the CBC, the Canadian Sunday evening is dominated not by Wayne and Shuster, Festival, and Juliette, but by Disneyland, Ed Sullivan, Hazel, and Bonanza.

One does not have to subscribe to any exaggerated theory about the influence of the media to see that such a state of affairs can lead only to the slow Americanization of the Canadian audience. Opinions may differ as to the desirability of that development, but official Canada must view the tendency with concern and horror. The Board of Broadcast Governors, which regulates all broadcasting in Canada, has decreed that television stations must maintain an average 55 per cent Canadian content in their program schedules. This ruling seems ill-conceived: it makes no distinction between, say, the Beverly Hillbillies and a program like Camera Three; it raises the prospect of bad cheap Canadian programs driving viewers to American channels; and the definition of Canadian content is so hedged with qualifications that the World Series and President Johnson's acceptance speech are considered Canadian, on the grounds of strong viewer interest. Even at best, as Alan Thomas, a shrewd and witty critic has suggested, the ruling can lead to no more than a 55 per cent Canadian audience.

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The only adequate answer to the challenge of American influence would be the development of a genuine indigenous Canadian popular art. There is, for instance, no successful Canadian equivalent to such classic American TV genres as the Western or the family situation comedy. Whatever may be their artistic limitations, such dramatic stereotypes enshrine profound (if sometimes inaccurate) popular intuitions about American life. For better or for worse, Canada seems to be a land without comparable myths of its own.

The CBC has done its best to supply the lack, but with indifferent success. An attempt to wean Canadian children away from such second-hand heroes as cowboys and Davy Crockett with a million-dollar series on the life of the explorer and adventurer Pierre Radisson was one of the most disastrous projects ever undertaken by the Corporation. Even the Mounties have been more successfully exploited in the American media than they have been at home. A CBC dramatic series about a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment was less painfully inadequate than Radisson, but failed to generate the mythic intensity of a second-rate Western. It seems that even television has not succeeded in triumphing over the wilderness, the distance, and the climate to make a native Canadian popular art possible. Not in English, at any rate.

On the French TV network, though, things are so very different that when Montrealers switch from Channel 6 to Channel 2, they seem to be transported to a different city. Radio Canada has all the energy, imaginative vitality, and rapport with its audience that English-speaking producers long for. The French-Canadian community might have been specially designed to support a popular television service: it is homogeneous, large enough to provide a variety of audiences but not so large as to be formless, and it is protected from undue outside influence by the language barrier. Since the French TV network began operation, French Canada has ceased to be frightened by the bogy of assimilation—which kept her for generations in a state of defensive isolation from the world—and has begun to take an ebullient and aggressive delight in her own unique identity. It is impossible to doubt that television has played a vital part in stimulating this renaissance.

Thus the CBC's attempt to serve Canada's two cultures equitably succeeds, insofar as it does, at the expense of national unity. The more effectively it serves either community, the more it will reinforce those characteristics which set them apart from one another. Naturally, the Corporation is aware of this problem and has tried to solve it. There have been a number of rather self-conscious and embarrassed bilingual variety shows which served to dramatize rather than bridge the gulf. Dozens of programs on all four networks have undertaken the task of explaining the French and the English to one another. It is doubtful whether these have been very successful in influencing the mass of the population. There are, after all, many pitfalls in the way of mass communication. Even apart from the general tendency of the media to focus on and dramatize the conflict and violence in any situation, one is reminded of the experiment recently carried out by the BBC: a radio program of advice on traveling in France ended by discouraging more potential tourists than it encouraged because more listeners were frightened by the prospect of problems they had not expected (language, currency, etc.) than were reassured by the helpful hints. The Canadian confederation has rested for years on certain convenient mutual misunderstandings between English and French Canadians. Now that the new media are ensuring that they understand one another only too well, discord rather than harmony is the initial consequence.

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For all this, however, the CBC is one of the great forces for reason and civilization in Canada. Once we grant the fact that a native popular culture does not and probably cannot exist in English Canada, we are free to recognize that CBC program policy has been about as liberal and imaginative as one could reasonably expect of a great public communications system.

The new media have often been accused of battening parasitically upon the creative energy of real art, vulgarizing its themes, and seducing its practitioners with fame and money. This may be so in societies with a deeply rooted traditional culture, but it has not been so in Canada. With its small, dispersed population and puritan, philistine outlook, English Canada in particular had virtually no serious professional tradition of music or theater at the time that the CBC was established. Now, half a dozen cities have cadres of actors, musicians, and dancers who are able to earn a tolerable living by combining live performance with appearances on radio or TV. The Corporation's budget for serious programming in the field of the arts may be small in relation to the whole, but it is enough to insure that composers, playwrights—even poets—can hope for at least occasional commissions which involve few or no concessions to popular taste, and sometimes not even to the medium.

It is usually on radio that such minority intellectual and artistic interests are now catered to. Almost deserted by commercial sponsors and banished from the living room by the family TV, CBC network radio has become a kind of middle-brow Canadian magazine, at its best the electronic equivalent of the Atlantic Monthly or the Saturday Review. As one might deduce from its middle-class ambience, it is probably the most eloquent and influential instrument of enlightened nationalism in Canada.

Canada's marginal culture—occupying a middle ground between British and American, English and French, civilization and wilderness—appears to favor the interpretative and critical, rather than the fiercely creative, intelligence. Life in Canada inculcates a respect for the brutal, objective thusness of nature and an awareness (sometimes a wry one) of the validity of opposition to it. Canadians tend to become singers, pianists, actors, critics, and diplomats rather than composers, dramatists, poets, or political geniuses.

This is the ideal temperament for documentary, and the greatest triumphs of Canadian broadcasting, as of Canadian cinema, have been in this field. The CBC's audience has become accustomed to workmanlike documentary programs as part of the regular weekly diet on both radio and television. Occasionally, these soberly factual productions come close to the heights of poetry and truth: among the most interesting recent television successes have been One More River, a painfully vivid study of the Negro civil rights movement, and Mr. Pearson, an example of extreme cinéma vérilé in which long-distance microphones and hand-held cameras gave so frank and intimate a picture of a day in the life of the Prime Minister that it has never been shown to the general public.

Recently, the documentary spirit has been tending toward irony, another mode encouraged by Canada's comparatively helpless proximity to stronger or wealthier neighbors. The basic technique is simple—to juxtapose pictures and commentary (often by the subject himself) in order to achieve almost Swiftian satiric intensities. Recent little masterpieces have included Lonely Boy, about the Canadian pop singer Paul Anka; The Image Makers, about the public relations industry; and Lorne Greene's Bonanza, about the one-time CBC announcer and Stratford festival actor who has struck it rich as Ben Cartwright. But the chef d'oeuvre of this genre so far is undoubtedly One Time Around, in which Hugh Hefner expounds the Playboy's philosophy against a shifting background of playmates, bunnies, and penthouse parties.

Irony and parody are also the mode of the TV comedians Wayne and Shuster. Their relentless spoofing of every sacred or profane cow—from biculturalism and the Stratford Festival to cool jazz and teen-age fashions—is more obvious and less sophisticated than the documentary tradition I have described, but it probably comes closer to the expression of a native popular art than anything else on the CBC English network. The conclusion seems to be that though Canadians may lack a strong sense of their own identity, they do not allow this to inhibit them in deflating fraud or pomposity, whether it be native or foreign. In developing this genre, the CBC may, like Holden Caulfield, have found its own unique way of confronting the modern world.

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