- Canadian Television Today
That most maligned of art forms, television – the mass medium forced to reinvent itself in a digital age of niche marketing, regulatory upheaval, rising production costs, and shrinking revenues – nevertheless provides an essential tool for interpreting the world around us. However, our ambivalence towards it is reflected in a stream of indifferent programming, making the medium (and by association the world) as good or as bad as we imagine it.
Ambivalence may partially account for the general lack of good television scholarship. Here in Canada, despite the medium's mandated role as guardian of our nation's identity, relatively little serious analysis has been undertaken on the challenges and opportunities facing television. It is therefore encouraging to see Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan do just that in Canadian Television Today, in an ambitious and far-reaching discussion about the state of Canadian television programming. Covering a broad range of cultural, aesthetic, technical, regulatory, and economic issues, Beaty and Sullivan have co-authored a welcome addition to a fairly narrow canon of investigation.
Canadian Television Today explores television from the perspective of regulation, programming, and technology, addressing the interests of key stakeholders including producers, broadcasters, government, and viewers. Beaty and Sullivan take care to contextualize their findings [End Page 441] within a larger discussion about the ever-elusive Canadian identity and the media's role in fostering it. The final chapter provides a series of thought-provoking recommendations that challenge broadcasters and regulators to break from established modalities to reflect better the Canadian experience. The book argues that while Canada may pride itself on being inclusive and multicultural, its programming is anything but. As Beaty and Sullivan pithily remark, 'Canadian broadcasting should be embracing niche programming for everyone, not simply the golfers and the aspiring chefs.' This is a central theme running throughout this short but broad-reaching work. Beaty and Sullivan maintain that 'it is time to place audience at the centre, rather than on the periphery, of broadcasting policy in Canada.'
Calling for programming and policies that encourage and reflect rather than marginalize the multicultural experience, Beaty and Sullivan envisage television becoming 'a harbinger of a postmodern mediascape in which heterogeneity, disjuncture and difference flow.' They maintain that vested interests in both business and government have for decades used television to construct a 'normative national sentiment rooted in white, western, masculinist traditions' rather than integrating those traditions within multiculturalism itself. Citing examples such as the hugely popular Hockey Night in Canada with Don Cherry, they accuse Canadian television mandarins of having little interest in changing policy, despite ample evidence that an industry-friendly regulatory system 'invokes the sentimental dream of a nation that keeps refusing to come into existence, no matter how hard it tries.' These are cogent arguments that strike at the heart of a long-faltering national broadcasting policy. The authors' arguments might have been even more persuasive had they successfully explained why Canadians of all racial and ethnic backgrounds seem to enjoy Hockey Night in Canada with Don Cherry!
Beaty and Sullivan's observations about the impact of the Internet are disappointing. While networks watch their ratings plummet, it is clear that alternative content providers like YouTube have made significant inroads with viewers who increasingly prefer to turn on a handheld device rather than touch their dial. It is therefore surprising to see comments such as, 'Unlike the Internet, which still has marginal penetration . . . television . . . rightly belongs at the centre of media convergence.' However, these are small quibbles about an ambitious work that successfully bridges the crevasse between the general interest reader and the demands of academe. Presented in a clear, accessible style, Canadian Television Today raises important questions not only about broadcasting but also about wider cultural issues facing all Canadians.