CRTC increases commercials to boost drama

B'casters will be able to up hourly ads by 6½ minutes

TORONTO — There’s one thing everyone north of the border agrees on: There’s not much English-language Canadian drama on the tube.

There were just three Canuck-produced drama series in 2003, down from 12 in 1999. And the homegrown programming is usually overshadowed by glossier U.S. fare.

The downturn in the international market can take some of the blame as can the proliferation of channels, which has carved the license fee pie into a fraction of what it once was.

But there the consensus ends and the finger-pointing begins.

Some blame the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission, which removed broadcasters’ minimum drama requirements in 1999.

The CRTC, which regulates broadcasting in Canada, has sidestepped this accusation, but it has acknowledged the problem, and on May 6 it dangled a carrot in front of broadcasters: more ad time in exchange for more drama.

The CRTC limits the number of ad minutes per hour to 12. Broadcasters would be able to up it by 6½ minutes, and thus make more money. In return, broadcasters must increase drama budgets and ratchet up the “Canadian-ness,” as measured by a points system.

Response has been mixed.

The Canadian Assn. of Broadcasters, which lobbied the government to allow more ad time, applauded what it termed “the direct correlation between broadcast incentives and increased audiences.”

“Nice carrot, but where’s the stick?” says Steve Waddell, national exec director of the Alliance of Canadian Television and Radio Artists actors’ union. “We believe the only way that Canadian broadcasters will provide Canadian drama is by requiring them to do so.”

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting calls the solution “a good play, given the constraints the CRTC has,” says communications adviser Jim Thompson.

The not-for-profit lobby group, which defends and enhances Canadian programming, believes that increased regulation will not help. “This problem is a money problem,” Thompson says.

“These measures are trying to squeeze money out of the stone that is the system, which is to produce Canadian shows. The purse strings are held by the government.”

The CRTC is not in a hurry to do anything and is inviting comments up until June 21.

Meanwhile, Global Television announced on May 7 that the series finale of “Friends” was the highest-rated show in Toronto this season, with 5.2 million viewers.

The previous day the web, known for pumping up U.S. programming and going skinny on Canadian content, trumpeted its new season, which, according to VP Canadian production Loren Mawhinney, is designed to “deliver to viewers just what they’re asking for in a compelling, commercially robust way.”

That means a handful of new reality shows, magazine programs, docs and the return of “Train 48,” a knock-off of an improvised daily commuter “drama” from Australia.

Nary a Canadian drama in sight.