Yank TV rules Canuck tube

Producers fear trend towards U.S. fare threatens biz

TORONTO — Turns out that the elephant next door really is crushing the Great White North.

A grim picture of the Canadian television and film industry emerged last week with the release of a study that indicates Canadian broadcasters pay the lowest license fees for first window rights in the English-speaking world, depend the most heavily on foreign programming, collect the fewest advertising dollars and have the fewest domestic programs among their most popular fare.

Just six of Canada’s top 20 programs are domestically produced, compared with 16 in Australia and 95 of the top 100 in the U.K.

Canadian broadcasters are instead spending their money on U.S. programming. In fact, Canada has long been the world’s largest foreign buyer of U.S. programming, spending 32% of programming budgets abroad, mostly in the U.S.

Compare this with American broadcasters, which spend 4% of their programming budgets on foreign fare, while Brits spend 5% and Australians 9%.

Producers fear the trend threatens the industry, which has been struggling with underfunding and an increasingly fragmented market.

Canada’s largest producers, Alliance Atlantis and CanWest Global, have shut down their production arms in favor of their broadcasting divisions, saying that production in Canada is not viable.

“Financially, it’s better to be a broadcaster,” opines Laszlo Barna, chairman of the Canadian Film and Television Production Assn. “But underneath this all there is a cultural issue, because if there’s no producing community and nobody fighting for or protecting the number of Canadian hours of programming on TV, or the quality of the hours that are presented, we’re just going to have a big hollow resonance of what culture used to be like on the airwaves. It will be gone.”

The report, “Through the Looking Glass,” was released at a documentary policy summit in Toronto on April 23.

Sponsored jointly by a group of public agencies and lobby groups including the National Film Board of Canada and the Canadian Film and Television Production Assn., the independent study compares the television and feature film environment in Canada with the U.S., the U.K. and Australia in 2001.

Just 18% of the budget of English Canadian productions is recouped from broadcaster license fees — the amount that broadcasters pay producers for content. In Australia, the figure ranges from 30% to 85%, in the U.K. from 70% to 115% and in the U.S. 81%.

Canucks are forced to go cap in hand to government funding agencies or sell future rights to recoup the costs.

“The anecdotal evidence was that license fees were very low; that was not a surprise,” says Kirwan Cox, the policy consultant who wrote the study. “I was very surprised at how few Canadian programs were among the top-rated TV programs in this country compared (with local shows in) Australia or England. American programs are not that popular” in those countries, he adds.

“English Canadians don’t know they’re a country, unlike the Australians and Brits, who at least have a funny accent and an ocean between them and the U.S.,” says Cox.

The picture in French Canada, with its own language and solid star system, is much more encouraging in both television and film.