When the SCTV sketch comedy show moved to the CBC, the network said it needed to fill in the half-hour with another two minutes of programming, which would also have to feature distinctly Canadian material. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas indignantly rose to the challenge by creating The Great White North. Bob and Doug McKenzie, a pair of tuque and parka-clad, beer-drinking hosers, sat in front of a map of Canada and talked about nothing in particular.
Surprisingly, Bob and Doug became the most popular segment on SCTV, hosting events across Canada, cutting a comedy album and even starring in a feature film. However, the characters weren't well-liked among the SCTV cast, some of whom thought they supported the American stereotype of Canadians as well-insulated hicks. Try to create something distinctly Canadian, and you rarely satisfy everybody.
Well, the latest round in the struggle to create and preserve the Canadian media industry revolves around satellite-broadcast subscription services.
This summer, the CRTC granted broadcast licenses to the Canadian branches of the US-based satellite radio services XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. The broadcasters must have thought the struggle was over. Their satellite signals already reached most of the population of Canada, and all they had to do was buy advertising and get their receivers in stores in time for holiday shopping. Canadians would soon be listening to largely commercial-free music in dozens of specialty channels for a monthly subscription fee.
The hitch was a protest filled by Canadian media corporation CHUM. CHUM had proposed its own digital subscription audio service, which would be broadcast from terrestrial stations. It would also be wholly Canadian-owned and meet or exceed the CRTC's mandated 35 percent Canadian content.
CHUM protested because Sirius' and XM's signals came from satellites and were ruled as exempt from the CanCon regulation. It wouldn't be competitive with the other services.
The CRTC stood firm and the satellite services officially launched in Canada. Each of them carried ten percent Canadian-produced channels of music, news and talk, as well as contributing money to Canadian artist development.
New technologies, such as satellite radio, digital audio over cable and streaming Internet radio, promise to change the way people get their music, news and talk. In the new media world, are Canadian content rules still relevant? Are they the only thing protecting us from American media domination, or are they more trouble than they're worth?
The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission says the purpose of CanCon is twofold. Culturally, it creates a venue for the exposure of Canadian voices and talents. Economically, it supports the Canadian music industry; providing jobs and generating revue.
The struggle to get Canadian voices heard in the mediasphere began in the early days of radio. Even when the CBC launched in 1936, it had to fill out its 18-hour broadcast day with a few hours of American programming. There was no Canadian music industry to speak of, and Canadians who did attain fame either left for the US or were wooed there.
In the early 60s, the Board of Broadcast Governors, the CRTC's predecessor, was supposed to encourage the use of Canadian talent. Standard Radio offered to hire Canadian musicians and press records as part of its FM broadcast license applications. Instead of only playing live musicians during the evening, competing against television, the records would be played all day. The Canadian Talent Library still needed expertise and equipment on loan from RCA in the US to make the albums, but its recordings of Canadian artists were heard across Canada, the US and the UK.
Starting in 1971, the CRTC required that commercial radio broadcasters must make 30 percent, increased to 35 percent in 1999, of their selections Canadian, as determined by the so-called MAPL system. MAPL is short for Music, Artist, Production, Lyrics; generally, as long as at least two of those four aspects were done by a Canadian, it was CanCon.
The CanCon policy has been criticized greatly over the years, particularly in several cases of the CRTC denying CanCon status from certain works of internationally known Canadian artists, such as rocker Bryan Adams in 1992, and adult contemporary singer Celine Dion in 1999. A few years later, a different set of critics scourged the Commission for bending the MAPL rules so that songs made by artists who live abroad and work with non-Canadian producers, like Shania Twain, count as CanCon.
Do Canadian content regulations actually help the Canadian artists? Particularly the ones who don't have the international success, such as the Vancouver-based "psychedelic Western noir" indie band Coal?
Nicole Steen, Coal's lead vocalist, says that "Regulating Canadian content is sort of a necessary evil."
"Because the US market is so strong, also the British market as well, I do think that Canadians have to have a fighting chance, just because it does seem that broadcasters don't want to give Canadian artists, or at least independent and up and coming artists a chance, until they've actually done something in the states."
Marcus Rogers, Coal's bassist and a producer of independent music videos, agrees. "I think it should be maintained, honestly. Although I like free enterprise, I think that we get drowned in signals from the US media, which is a massive corporation, in a sense. But they're not going to cater to our interests. They're just going to shovel the same material into our market that they use in their market. They don't do it to be anti-Canadian. It's business to them."
"Because of CanCon," Rogers says, "Coal received the opportunity to have some exposure in Canada. Without CanCon, the broadcasters in Canada may not have played us. I don't think they play Canadian artists out of patriotism. I think they play everything for money."
Despite criticisms, the consensus among Canadian artists, broadcasters and distributors favours of keeping CanCon. One of the few voices calling for its abolishment is the conservative Fraser Institute. An August 1998 report argued against it in terms of free markets and freedom of expression. The report recommended that the regulations on TV programs and radio selections be abolished and CanCon be moved onto a pay broadcast and that Canadian programming include flags that show how much government money went into subsidizing it.
Gregg Terrence, the president and one of the founders of Indie Pool, an organization that represents independent Canadian artists, also supports CanCon, but with reservations.
"We feel that Canadian content is a good thing, that it was good for Canada, that we should keep Canadian content rules, but that they are no longer effective, because you do not hear Broken Social Scene and you do not hear Feist and you don't hear Metric very much. Radio is not really participating in the breaking of artists the way it used to. That is the whole idea behind CanCon, not just to pad the revenues and profits and spins of successful artists."
Most of the CRTC mandated 35 percent is filled with massively popular, international artists -- the likes of Nickelback, Shania Twain and Avril Lavigne - who don't need the support. Emerging Canadian artists are left out in the cold. His solution is CanCon Pro, short for Progressive, a credit system for Canadian broadcasters, while leaving CanCon at 35 percent. Stations would receive smaller credits for international artists and bigger credits for emerging artists. This would encourage broadcasters to seek out and break new talent.
Indiepool publicly supported satellite radio, saying it would help Canadian artists even without Canadian content rules. "Certainly, subscription models are much better for emerging artists than advertising models, when it comes to radio," says Terrence. "Advertisers want familiarity, repetition. Subscription models, being Internet radio or satellite radio, must push the boundaries of what they play, and it helps emerging artists because they go much deeper into catalog."
Terrence sees the CRTC's decision regarding satellite broadcasters as a workable (one might almost say, distinctively Canadian) compromise. "If you're listening to music online, there's no Canadian content rules so there's zero control over the Internet, because it's an uncontrollable outside source. Satellite radio was a quasi-controllable outside source, so they got quasi-Canadian content out of it. When it comes to terrestrial radio, there's more ability to control those streams, so you should extract as much Canadian content as you can."
Prior to the official announcement of licensing in the summer of 2005, there was already a grey market for XM and Sirius receivers in Canada, estimated in the tens of thousands and paid via US billing addresses. The satellite signals already covered much of Canada. The CRTC could either partially regulate it or drive it underground.
A famous Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, described media in terms of hot and cold. A hot medium, like film or radio, delivers the message directly to the viewer. A cold medium, such as reading, requires more audience participation to fill in the missing parts of the message.
The last decade has seen many media cool down. DVDs and personal video recorders like TiVo allow the viewer much greater control over what they see, not only timeshifting programming but skipping over commercials. Portable music players and satellite radio provides vastly greater choice than broadcast radio. The citywide wireless networks being built in some American and Canadian cities could deliver thousands of streaming audio channels to handheld devices.
With people having more and more control over their media intake, the idea that the state can impose control over that becomes implausible. The generation raised on iPods and TiVo will have even less patience for restrictions on what they read, see and hear. They will be accustomed to a vast variety of media choices, and they will "hunt and gather" for what they want, content restrictions be damned.
Both the CRTC and the broadcasting industry knows that media rules are changing. This spring, the CRTC will hold its first Commercial Radio Policy Review since 1998, with an official Public Notice sometime in the new year. This review will reevaluate CanCon and Canadian Talent Development, especially in light of new technologies. The CRTC turned down two requests from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters for a delay, so the industry can "assess developments in digital radio, in order to devise and propose a coherent and cohesive plan to ensure a successful digital transition for commercial radio."
In public speeches, CRTC officials have spoken of increasing CanCon from 35 percent to 40 percent, and also to support a greater variety of Canadian music.
Canada is in the unusual position of "sleeping next to the elephant": being the neighbor of the United States, perhaps the world's biggest producer of media and with whom we share a language. That reality has shaped Canada's media policy and industry ever since it became apparent that radio waves don't stop at the border.
Even our nation's geography works against the traveling artist, as Rogers observes: "Canada's a tough place to sell in. Geographically it's enormous, population-wise it's minuscule. Just shipping your stuff in Canada, or traveling in Canada, all these things are not that profitable. So, it's the geography and the population density. In Vancouver, it's almost hopeless. I don't mean to be negative, but now they want a couple of thousand bucks for a band to go over the border. Big tax in the union fees, and you don't get it back. And driving east, that's a couple of thousand bucks too."
If the Canadian music industry needs support, there are other ways to do it than restricting what companies broadcast and what people hear. Both satellite broadcasters agreed to pay a percentage of their gross service revenues towards Canadian Talent Development: six percent from Canadian Satellite Radio, and five percent from Sirius with the possibility of more if certain conditions are met.
Peter Tupper is a Vancouver writer.