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Excerpt from Programming Reality: Perspectives on English-Canadian Television edited by Zoë Druickand Aspa Kotsopoulos

From the Introduction by Zoë Druick and Aspa Kotsopoulos

Programming Reality: Perspectives on English-Canadian Television is a collection of original interdisciplinary articles that explores the television that has thrived in the Canadian regulatory and cultural context: namely, programs that straddle the border between reality and fiction. Predating the current interest in reality television, these hybrid realisms have been a part of the medium since its inception. Seen through a wider lens, the current proliferation of shows grouped under the category of reality-based programming provides an opportunity to reconsider the complex mediation of reality that television performs within the Canadian context. Each of the contributions to this collection is also a reminder of the significant relationship of television to nation building in Canada—to the imaginative work involved in thinking through the relations that constitute nations, citizens, and communities.

Historically, a strong communications perspective has informed the study of English-language Canadian television, with few exceptions.(1) When communications scholars have turned their attention to Canadian television, they have most often done so from the perspective of state regulation and international dependency, the result of a strong tradition of political economy.(2) By contrast, television studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have long combined perspectives drawn from political economy and cultural history with audience studies and analyses of television content.(3) But a fresh chapter in Canadian television studies is now being written. New publications examining the content that emerges from the political-economic context shaping television production in Canada are appearing in greater numbers than ever.(4) Programming Reality is a part of this emerging trend.

The collection focuses on English-language Canadian television because the imperatives guiding this programming’s texts are markedly different from those of their French-language counterparts. A look at the weekly ratings tells the story: where the top twenty shows in English-language Canada are usually made in the US with the occasional exception, the top twenty programs in Quebec are French-language ones made in Canada. From the perspectives gathered in this volume, a detailed picture therefore emerges regarding the cultural and political-economic specificities that inform the imaginative work of television production for English-speaking Canada.(5)

From the Massey Commission (1951) to the establishment of the Canadian Television Fund (1998), the Canadian state, much like other small-market nations, has associated television with policies of nation building. In Documentary Television in Canada, David Hogarth notes that the high point of Canadian television regulatory ambition occurred between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, when the CBC held sway over a clearly defined public broadcasting sector.(6) As contributions to this volume by Hogarth, Aspa Kotsopoulos, Mary Jane Miller, and Jen VanderBurgh indicate, CBC dramas and docudramas achieve a certain maturity during this period, striving to interpret citizenship issues to a broad national audience.

The early 1980s mark a neo-liberal ideological shift, signified in part by an increased policy emphasis on globalizing Canada’s media industries and cultural output, which profoundly altered the role of the CBC. These policy objectives, outlined in the mandate of the 1982 Federal Cultural Policy Review commissioned by the Liberal government, were introduced the following year in a document titled Towards A New National Broadcasting Policy.()7 Marc Raboy notes that the purpose of the report was to enhance the private sectors ability to create high-quality television that Canadians would watch and that could be exported globally, and says the report “endorsed a new economistic thrust and made recommendations to shift the emphasis in public funding from the CBC to the private sector.”(8)

Following up on the report’s recommendations, in 1984 the Conservative government inaugurated a series of budget cuts to the public sector, including the CBC, as well as a new set of directions in Canadian television policy. As a result, the CBC began eliminating its in-house production in 1984 and changed from a producer to a patron of Canadian programming. Thanks to these policy initiatives, including the 1983 creation of the Canadian Broadcast Program Development Fund—part of the transformation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation into Telefilm Canada in 1984—which gave direct subsidies to independent television producers, Canadian productions experienced growth.

In the mid-1980s, the CBC also instituted a five-year plan to “Canadianize” its schedule as a means to set itself apart from the private broadcasters and their Americanized schedules.(9) A 1994 decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) reaffirmed this mandate in a review of the CBC’s licence.(10) By providing services and programming that the private Canadian broadcasters did not, the argument went, the CBC would make itself relevant to Canadians as a public broadcaster connecting the regions, reflecting the nation, and serving its citizens. A number of the contributions to this volume speak to the CBC’s renewed commitment to Canadianization through programs such as “Canada: A People’s History” (Dick), “The Greatest Canadian” (Rak), and the “hockeymentary phenomenon” (Foster).