Escaping Extinction

– The Americanization Of Canada Through The Media Essay, Research Paper


Much has been written, and even more said, about what constitutes the Canadian character, what identifies the quintessential Canadian. Two features clearly emerge as dominant elements in the make-up of both English and French-speaking members of our family: Canadians are constantly brooding over who we are, what gives us our Canadian character, and what makes us different from other nations. Most other nations never think about such things, or take the answers for granted. Secondly, there is a keen awareness of, interest in, and concern with all things American, that is, with the United States of America. This is a main factor that contributes Canada to becoming the 51st State.

No form of cultural activity so clearly displays Canada s cultural dilemmas, and their implications for Canadian-American relations, as the field of communications. This critical and ever more important area is immensely complex. It encompasses such diverse aspects as transborder data flows, the transnational character of satellite footprints, and the implications of one country s being dependent on another with respect to computer hardware and software. More important still, it embraces the field of broadcasting, the focus on concerns in this essay.

All of broadcasting, but television in particular, has the most far-reaching effect on the minds of individuals and therefore on the nature of human society. Television is by far the most popular of all the media, engaging, on the average, the attention of Canadians for more than three hours a day. Children spend more time in front of a

television than in the presence of teachers. Dominant perceptions of ourselves, of others, of this country and its neighbours, of desirable lifestyles, of national and world affairs, of different ethnic, religious, and social groups perceptions of all of these things are profoundly influenced by the programming available and watched on television. No wonder then this medium is a uniquely powerful force in the socialization of individuals and in the formation of collective attitudes, values, and aspirations. And television is, as it is well known, predominantly, overwhelmingly American. The fact is of absolutely central significance in the state and development Canada s culture, but also of the country s perception of, and relations with, the United States. It is, therefore, imperative that it is understood fully why Canadians are so dependent on the Americans and what can be done to ensure that the electronic media serve the best individual and collective interests of Canadians.

There are at least six major factors explaining why Canada is so vulnerable to the television world of the United States. First, the physical proximity of so many Canadians to the United States border places a vast

majority of the population within the reception area of American signals with the aid of only a cheap rooftop antenna. New technologies, particularly cable, and, more recently, satellites, have placed almost the whole of the country within reach of American programming. Secondly, 80 percent of Canadians speak English and therefore have no problem in savouring the goodies produced south of the border.

Thirdly, the American entertainment industry is the most vital and vivacious in the world. Growing largely out of the enormously successful and widely applauded American film industry, television programs and stars have found easy acceptance everywhere. American television has from the beginning, and until the advent of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the late 1960 s, been conceived as a commercial medium whose major role is to deliver audiences to advertisers. The content has therefore been designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences. The format and the type of drama originated by the American entertainment industry have in the most recent era created new universal art form, which is claiming something close to a worldwide audience.

The fourth cause of Canada s vulnerability to United States television is probably the most telling. It concerns the economics of television programming and particularly of drama production. It costs a couple million dollars to produce a one-hour show like Beverly Hills 90210 . American networks can afford this expense, because it can be amortized in their vast and rich domestic market. Having paid for themselves at home, these programs can then be offered to foreign (including Canadian) purchasers from 3 to 6 percent of their cost. Although the money spent on a program certainly does not guarantee its quality, it is impossible to present, consistently, shoes comparable to the

best American dramas without spending very large sums of money on them. But the size of the Canadian market does not permit the same investment in indigenous productions as is possible in the United States. It therefore makes very little economic sense for commercial broadcasters to try to program Canadian dramas.

The importance of this matter cannot be exaggerated. 50 percent of Canadian viewing hours are devoted to drama, but only 4 percent of the available shows in this category are Canadian. Films, soap operas, comedies, and television plays are at least as important in influencing perceptions and values as public affairs, and yet the menu offered Canadian viewers in this most popular type of programming is almost totally foreign, in part because of the facts just described.

Historical antecedents are also responsible for the strong presence in Canadian homes of American programs. They are the fifth factor noted. Television made its way south of the forty-ninth parallel in the 1940 s: The year 1948 is commonly accepted as the turning point when V emerged as a mass medium and the United States networks changed their emphasis from radio to television. Canada only authorized the new medium in 1952, after the release of the Report of the Massey Commission. In the first instance, only the CBC and its affiliates provided service, but in the early 1960 s CTV was licensed and provided an alternative source of programs in many parts of the


People who bought television sets before the inauguration of the CBC s service were able to watch United States shows, and this, in a sense, established expectations and patterns which could not be ignored later. Both the CBC and the private broadcasters realized that they would only win and hold viewers, so many of whom could receive signals from south of the border, if they themselves offered many of the most popular American programs; the appetite for these, therefore, became deeply ingrained. Free marketers argue that in commercial broadcasting it is the viewers tastes which determine

programming. In fact, of course, the reverse normally occurs. The shows available shape tastes, and in Canadians case it was essentially American television fare which formed the preferences of Canadian audiences.

This brings about the sixth factor accounting for Canada s vulnerability to American cultural influences. It would be foolish to ascribe the popularity of entertainment provided by CBS, NBC, ABC or PBS to its being crammed down reluctant Canadian throats. On the contrary, a great many Canadians have an avid thirst for most things American and feel perfectly at home surrounded by them. This applies not only to anglophones, but also to francophones, as their mass annual exodus to Florida, among other things, shows. The fact that these sentiments are induced in part by the hype emanating from Hollywood and the United States entertainment industry makes the Canadian empathy no less genuinely felt.

One may think that the title Escaping Extinction is somewhat odd, to link Canadians to the dinosaur, the passenger pigeon, or the dodo ignores the fact that there is a dance or two left in Canadians yet. But it was chosen after reflection, which was certainly measured and also mature.

The greatest threat to Canada lies in the possibility (some might even say probability) that, as the result of the strong presence of American influences, Canadian cultural development may be stunted. United States styles, ideas,

and products are never far away. There is, alas, a well-grounded fear that as a consequence, Canadian perceptions, values, ideas, and priorities will become so dominated by those of the southern neighbours that the distinctiveness of Canada will, to all intents and purposes, vanish.

As in so many other areas, the prime ingredient in the escape from extinction is to recognize the problem realistically and then to have the will to act upon it. Ironically, whether Canadians have these qualities, whether Canadians can muster the force needed to defend ourselves effectively, depends on the extent to which we have already become Americanized, or, the 51st state.


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