Canadian Television, The Medium Needs A Message
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 1 Feb 1990, p. 184-194
Whittaker, Sheelagh, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
"… in the 90's the focus for Canadian broadcasters has to be on quality program content." A brief history of Canadian television broadcasting. The situation now. The various roles of television. The reliance of Canadian television on American entertainment programming. The impoverished start of Canadian entertainment programming. Money and regulation but no substantial body of work to watch. Some exceptions. How the problem, now endemic, evolved. What to do? How to break through? Some suggestions. Participation and contribution from Canadian Satellite Communications (Cancom): a holistic approach. Ways to invigorate our TV entertainment programming. Why Canadians watch Canadian news; creating a situation wherein Canadians also choose Canadian entertainment.
Date of Original
1 Feb 1990
Language of Item
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Sheelagh Whittaker President and CEO, Canadian Satellite Communications Inc.
Chairman: Sarah Band, President


Honoured guests, Head Table guests, members of The Empire Club, ladies and gentlemen.

Our guest today says she is in the electronic distribution business. That's distribution as in Marconi. Not Bay/Bloor Radio. When Marconi rapped the key to send the first electronic signal to Europe, he stood on a windswept hill in Newfoundland with nothing on the far horizon except the lush green hills of Ireland, which he couldn't see. Sheelagh Whittaker's company gathers whole television programs, wars, insurrections and riots, complete with the terror that goes with them and sends them off to Inuvik, Heart's Content or Rimouski, while Sheelagh sits in her office and reads the critics' reviews.

Her company was licensed to provide the immediacy of television to the areas of Canada which are seen to be remote and underserved. The technology of taking a signal from a camera in someone's hand and sending it to the stars and back to 1800 cable companies serving two and half million Canadians--I find it mind-boggling.

Sheelagh's background is in business administration. She holds a Master's degree from York University, a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor's degree in Science from the University of Alberta. She has worked with the CBC, the Canadian Consulting Group and the governments of Canada and Quebec. She is a Trust Company director, a member of the President's Council of Mount Saint Vincent University; and has participated in Advisory Boards at York, Guelph, and Ryerson.

Her topic today is one which touches all of us. It comes from her intimate knowledge of the medium that British television critic Clive Barnes calls, the first truly democratic culture" and, in a lighter vein, Gore Vidal says is, now so desperately hungry for material that they're scraping the top of the barrel."

Ladies and gentlemen, l take great pleasure in welcoming the President and Chief Executive Officer of Cancom, the person who is the headline in one of the business success stories of the eighties: Sheelagh Whittaker.

Sheelagh Whittaker:

Madame Chair, members of the Club, honoured guests. I am particularly glad to be here at The Empire Club this afternoon because, unlike Bruce Springsteen, who tells us endlessly that he was born in the U.SA., I was born in the British Empire. Shortly afterwards some big pieces were broken off the Empire, but, as my eldest son would say: I, admit I was there at the time, but I didn't even touch it." My British connections are important to me--grandparents who came to Canada from Lancashire and a godmother who was a governess at Rideau Hall and who now lives near Salisbury Cathedral. But by the time I was able to understand much of what was going on around me, the talk was no longer about the Empire, it was about Canada and being Canadian. And the things you hear in childhood shape your life, sometimes far more deeply than you can recognize for yourself.

A couple of my friends were talking recently and one said: "You know, Sheelagh always seems to work for companies whose names start with a "C". "No, it's more than that," said the other friend, "she only works at places that have Canada or Canadian in their title." And, as I thought about it, I realized that he was right--Canadian Satellite Communications, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Canada Consulting Group, Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada--two private sector firms, a Crown corporation and the federal government. Even the ventures I have helped name, like Cantel and CBC Newsworld, have unconsciously reflected my bias. My nationalism does have some limits. My children are called Meghan, Matthew and Daniel, not Canadian Child, nor Mapleleaf, nor even Via. Come to think of it--I haven't seen quite so much of Via lately. Anyway, I am a Canadian, which means, in the old joke where there are signs over the entrances to two conference rooms at a convention, one saying "free love" and the other saying "panel discussion on free love," that I would probably be going to the panel discussion.

Just before Christmas I took part in a television panel discussion--see what I mean?--on one of those topics that sounds so boring and takes so long to say that you are almost asleep before they finish announcing it. It was something like "What happened to broadcasting in the 80's and what will happen to it in the 90's." The subject is important, but as material for a television program its effect was to help me understand why my children watch reruns of "Cheers." Anyhow, in this panel discussion the most relevant, if not the most interesting, thing we said was that in the 90's the focus for Canadian broadcasters has to be on quality program content. We all know the brief history of Canadian television broadcasting. In the 50's there was a lot of live programming and just getting a decent signal out was quite an accomplishment. In the 60's we extended distribution, added another network and went colour. The 70's saw further extension of service across the country, rapid growth of cable and some more television stations. In the 80's the emphasis in Canadian television was on choice and specialization. While larger Canadian centres like Toronto have had many channels to choose from since the 70's, in the 80's the application of new technology brought a multi-channel environment to the entire country, extending even to remote areas like Heart's Delight, Newfoundland--and they were delighted. The cable industry, assisted by Cancom and satellite technology, brought that choice. At the same time, the broadcasters innovated and added channels specializing in sports, music, children's programming, news, religion, multi-cultural programming, movies.

We can now deliver more programming to more Canadian households than ever before. In fact, Cancom now serves Arctic villages with fewer than twenty-five homes. This distribution achievement by Canadians is a remarkable one but we can't just stop there. Simply delivering signals over vast distances to remote communities is a tremendous accomplishment, but what is on those signals matters, too. Here's what the noted broadcasting historian, Frank Peers, said back in 1985: "Whether broadcasting will help preserve Canada's cultural sovereignty is still unresolved; the question will grow in complexity as technology advances." Canada has built the biggest physical system in the world, but in large part has turned it over to the U.S. entertainment industry. Television is an extraordinarily powerful and pervasive medium. Few of us would deny that television images have had an enormous impact on recent history in the world. What television has shown did much to change American policy on Vietnam and, later, Soviet policy on Afghanistan. Television pictures have influenced world opinion on South Africa, have brought about a shift of world sympathy from the Israelis to the Palestinians, have shown us Tiananmen Square and its horrors, and perhaps even helped to ensure, through the presence of the world's cameras, that those horrors were not much worse.

Many of us feel that television even played a role in creating the expectations and yearnings in citizens of countries of the Warsaw Pact that ultimately led to the events of the last few months. And in the midst of such startling change, whether behind the crumbling Berlin Wall, in Panama, or earlier in the Philippines, the national television system always emerges as a key strategic element. Where there has been fighting and not peaceful change often the toughest battle has been for control of the nation's broadcasting facility. In Romania, for example, it was clear the people believed that control of national television was the key to a successful revolution. And it probably was. Where the change has been peaceful, the first thing that happens is that members of the new government use television to show who they are and that they are in control and to illustrate the changed nature of the society that will ensue, sometimes even to assert their nation's sovereignty and independence.

Here in Canada, at least as far as the most influential television entertainment is concerned, we didn't lose a bloody battle with our American friends and neighbours to the south that enabled them to force their programming onto our television system. Being the nice, obliging people that the world knows Canadians are, we actually went down to Hollywood and gave them money so that we could bring their programs back here and play them to ensure that all Canadians received a full supply of American cultural values whenever they watched entertainment programming on Canadian television. And when we thought that we were perhaps not paying quite enough, we agreed to give them copyright payments for cable, in addition.

The reliance of Canadian television on American entertainment programming is a long-standing tradition. And there is nothing dishonourable about it. It isn't just something that private broadcasters have done in the pursuit of profit. From the beginning of Canadian television, the CBC brought in many hours of American programming and still offers several hours a week. While Canadian broadcasters were trying to build studios, develop news operations, and build transmitters so their program services could simply reach an audience, the reliance on American programming, with its generally good standards of quality and attractiveness to the audience and advertisers, was completely understandable.

The trouble is that so little money and energy was left to spend on Canadian entertainment programming that audiences often found it to be disappointing in comparison with the America product that was so widely available to them. That is why Canadian audiences have tended to shy away from Canadian entertainment programming and why the two words, 'Canadian content', seem to inspire the exact opposite of confidence. Canadian entertainment programming, from an impoverished start, through series that were heavily promoted as if they would be good, but weren't, simply has a bad name. Editorial cartoonists often sum this kind of situation up very well. We have a cartoon at home which shows a Canadian hoser-husband, beer in hand, watching TV with his charming wife, who looks as if she hasn't taken her hair curlers out yet this month, and the husband is saying, "I'm totally supportive of the CBC's mandate to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political and economic fabric of Canada ...l just don't want to watch them do it.

That does seem to cover it. We have a substantial broadcasting system, a massive distribution system that is the envy of the world. Money and regulation certainly have been invested, but for the most part we still don't have a real, substantial body of Canadian entertainment programming that Canadians want to watch. There are exceptions. Degrassi High is a splendid program series for young people- but we should have three of four series like that at the same time, not just one. What you can say about Degrassi is what George Bush rightly said when he heard that Mikhail Gorbachev had withdrawn from Afghanistan, introduced a multi-party system in Russian, permitted a free press, allowed democratic elections in countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, knocked down the Berlin Wall, and ended Soviet support for international communist revolution--it's a start. Degrassi High is also a useful sign that there is Canadian talent there, if we can just get our act together to exploit it properly. Glory Enough For All, the story of Banting and Best, won most of the awards at the last November's Geminis, but it was on and off again in just two Sunday evenings. The Colin Thatcher film, Love and Hate, did well with audiences and will probably win most of next years Geminis. Small Sacrifices, a North American ratings success, put Farah Fawcett's face in the Alberta landscape. But these are the exceptions. And they are few enough that those of us in the industry can name all of the Canadian successes of recent years without even having to stop and think. It's like another of my children who, when he's in trouble, tries to get out of it by recalling one time, many weeks ago, when he was good. We need to have so many attractive and really entertaining Canadian programs, so much good behaviour, that none of us can remember all the examples. And we are still a very long way from that point--on both counts.

Part of the problem, as I have indicated, is endemic. Our broadcasters, advertisers, and ultimately our viewers expect Canadian entertainment programs to be second rate. As a result, advertisers are reluctant to pay for time in these programs, broadcasters are reluctant to invest substantial resources in these programs, and viewers don't want even to take the risk of starting to watch them. Children raised in the knowledge that their parents don't expect much of them usually don't accomplish much. Television programs seem to react the same way.

In fact, with just a few exceptions, Canadian entertainment television has become the cod liver oil of television broadcasting. Because governments want us all to be well-balanced and sure of our identity, and have clear complexion, a large number of organizations and agencies responsible for change and improvement have been established and a number of measures introduced. The Department of Communications, the CRTC, CBC, National Film Board, Telefilm Canada, Section 19 of the Income Tax Act, the cable television tax, and several provincial organizations and agencies, all have a role in nurturing and supporting Canadian programming.

And all of those agencies and initiatives have, in fact, made some difference over time. The Department of Communications has directed funds to the CBC and NFB, and more recently created Telefilm to ensure the development of more Canadian programming, the CRTC has used Canadian content quotas and the licensing process to exact more programming from the system, the Film Board encourages the development of production skills and some programming, Telefilm funds independent productions sanctioned by broadcasters, Section 19 of the Income Tax Act keeps advertising revenues from migrating to U.S. border stations and the cable television tax collects funds from cable subscribers which indirectly benefit program production. Nevertheless, the position of Canadian entertainment programming is still tenuous and, as I say, the few successes fade from over-exposure at awards shows and from being repeated too often in official speeches.

What then are we to do? How do we break through? Well the desire is there, and most of the necessary money, even if it is held in too many different hands and not, at the moment, reserved for program purposes. So what we have to do is to look at the whole system, look at the players, assign roles, sharpen the focus, change our attitude, become assertive. We need to take a leaf out of Jack Valenti's book. His job is to protect the American production industry from encroachment on either its domestic or its foreign markets--including Canada. He does a terrific job, determinedly and single-mindedly, protecting the U.S. industry by being assertive, by telling other countries that their industry doesn't need protecting.

As you may know, Canadian Satellite Communications or Cancom, the company I run, distributes programming and data via satellite. We take the signals as we get them. We don't influence the content. But we do position ourselves as,' providers of a package of Canadian and American signals and we do have a stake, both as Canadians and as distributors, in the quality of Canadian programming that we deliver. And it is clear to us, not just to me personally, that in the 90's we finally have to achieve the Canadian breakthrough in television entertainment programming. It is clear, too, having made the investment necessary to set up stations and to build the biggest and most far-reaching and enviable distribution system in the world, that we are now, as a country, finally in a perfect position to achieve that goal.,

For our part, to protect and develop our own entertainment production industry we have to take a holistic (a sixties word) approach to the problem--we have to look at what we have always called a broadcasting system and finally make it act like it is a real system--with each different part playing a clear role essential to the whole, not needlessly duplicating the role of others. We can no longer afford to be typically Canadian--to try to please everyone by having seven equal top priorities, to have programming which is as Canadian as possible under the circumstances. We have foundered before on half measures. Sometimes we have even foundered on quarter measures. Now we much focus our efforts to try again to find a way to build a substantial and ongoing body of Canadian TV programming that is genuinely entertaining.

To invigorate our TV entertainment programming, all of the players--including those of you who think of yourselves as just viewers--have to try to shake up our attitudes and expectations. We have to question conventional wisdom about the broadcast business, we have to question traditional approaches, we have to recognize that we need the courage to reduce our dependence on the broadcasting drug of cheap American programming and to rely more on Canadian programming judged against American standards of quality. Making good television programming is expensive. To put together enough money we will have to divert funds from other uses--such as the pursuit of technological advancement for its own or for foreign manufacturer's sake--and coordinate and simplify the roles of the various components of the broadcast system.

The Department of Communications needs to become more aggressive in its use of chosen instruments and in its management of the public airwaves. In particular, the DOC should act comprehensively on the fact that cable is the chosen instrument for local TV distribution in Canada and is, de facto, the distribution system to 80 or 90 percent of the households in some urban centres. The Department of Communications should require that we phase out the use of over the-air broadcasting and the huge investment in transmitters by broadcasters. If we have a mature delivery system, why spend money on transmitters which could be spent on programming? Cable systems with 100 percent penetration of major markets could be used to provide other services, and the capital and operating money saved by broadcasters relieved of the costs of distribution could be used to produce more entertainment programming. It costs about $1 million to buy and install a big transmitter, and around $60,000 a year to run it. And transmitters like that now feed only 15 or 20 percent of the market they once serviced. That money could be better used to produce Canadian entertainment programs.

The technology attracting all the attention right now is high definition television. We need the DOC to show further leadership by coming up with what I call an "Emperor's New Clothes" position on HDTV. The DOC has to face the possibility that the benefits of HDTV may not be visible, and to insist on a technology that is perceptibly better, not just change for change's sake. If we should change our systems to HDTV, the DOC should direct the use of satellite and cable for its distribution to ease the transition to a new standard, thereby conserving our increasingly scarce public airwaves for other uses such as cellular telephone.

To date the CRTC has used schemes involving quotas, points and percentages of revenue to try to achieve Canadian content goals. Now is the time for the CRTC to simplify and clarify once and for all the goal and the means to achieve it. Specialized channels and special efforts have meant that news, sports, music videos, religion, children's and multicultural programming are available in increasing quantity and quality. Our information programming on television is a huge success. It should not be deprived of money, but we don't need the regulators to protect it as they did in the past. Nor do we need to encourage Canadian content fillers--quiz shows, game shows and repeats of them. The CRTC is free now to act boldly, to abandon all the old formulae, and put in place one simple, straightforward reward system designed solely to encourage Canadian comedy and drama programs. Those are the types of programs that we need if we want to safeguard Canadian ways, words and ideas, and we should single-mindedly concentrate on them. The CBC should concede what the American networks have long ago conceded, that entertainment programming is best produced by independent producers, that creative people work best in a flexible environment and under pressure to produce. The CBC should use its financial capability and TV expertise as a buyer and co-producer of independent entertainment programming, instead of wasting energy and resources on entertainment overhead.

Telefilm presently requires independent producers to have a commitment from a broadcaster before funding is provided. What about requiring from the broadcasters a minimum aggregate commitment to independent production of Canadian drama before allowing them to benefit from the public funds being made available to subsidize their Canadian programming? We should do that, should insist upon it. As for the broadcasters--CTV, Global, the independents, CBC, the specialty channels--in the coming struggle for distinctiveness, Canadian entertainment may well be what decides which of them succeeds. It will take a major investment, but the money can be diverted from other expenditures, and the sense of achievement and national pride with each success will be tremendous.

Canadians watch Canadian news because its quality is unquestioned and it speaks to them about themselves. If we are determined and cohesive enough, we can create a situation where Canadians choose to watch Canadian entertainment for the same reasons. It can be done. Someone just has to do it. If not us, who? And if not now, when?

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Larry Stout, Bureau Chief, C.T.V. Television Network Ltd. and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Canadian Television, The Medium Needs A Message

"… in the 90's the focus for Canadian broadcasters has to be on quality program content." A brief history of Canadian television broadcasting. The situation now. The various roles of television. The reliance of Canadian television on American entertainment programming. The impoverished start of Canadian entertainment programming. Money and regulation but no substantial body of work to watch. Some exceptions. How the problem, now endemic, evolved. What to do? How to break through? Some suggestions. Participation and contribution from Canadian Satellite Communications (Cancom): a holistic approach. Ways to invigorate our TV entertainment programming. Why Canadians watch Canadian news; creating a situation wherein Canadians also choose Canadian entertainment.