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Jaime Woo: What's the point of a 'Canadian' channel with almost no Canadian content?

It’s a question I wonder about sometimes when television broadcasters whip themselves into a frenzy in front of the CRTC begging for permission to show less Canadian material. Earlier this year, queer specialty channel OutTV did just that (at the same time Sun New Network demanded a mandatory payment from every television viewer), telling the National Post that otherwise bent Canucks would have to do with the New Addams Family. Doesn’t the feeling remind you of a little of a child belligerent at having to play with the unpopular kid who eats glue, wanting instead to be with all the so-called cool boys and girls? “But, but, but, I’d rather have Glee reruns all day long!”

You can see where OutTV is coming from: the top show on the network, RuPaul’s Drag Race, is from the States, off American queer channel Logo. On RPDR, contestants vie for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar, but the reach is international: it is a cultural cross-borders smash that provides OutTV much of both its buzz and relevance. It’s not difficult to see why OutTV would want to show less Canadian content and spend less on producing homegrown programming, in turn shifting resources to obtaining rights to American work that might replicate RPDR‘s success. Certainly it would fare better than the programming listed on OutTV’s website. Sample shows: Hunks and I’m A Stripper. Must-see television!

The weird thing is that the only lesson OutTV drew from RPDR was that foreign shows are better, considering that Logo, although backed by mega-corporation Viacom, was in a similarly bad shape before RuPaul came along. Drag Race is the outlier, not the norm: it is Logo’s biggest hit by far, and Queerty suggests much of the channel’s production budget goes toward the show. The rest of Logo’s lineup is fairly muted, mostly sitcom reruns (Golden GirlsRoseanne), comedy specials, and sister network MTV hand-me-downs (Teen Mom 2). However, with the success of RPDR, Logo has been able to capitalize on foreign distribution rights, streaming rights, DVD sales, and so on. 

This ability to own multiple revenue streams is a compelling reason to create your own content, says Diane Wild, publisher of the blog “TV, Eh,” which focuses on Canadian television. She says that by hinging its success on American programming, OutTV is handcuffed to the whims of the foreign producer, even on issues such as Canadian streaming rights. “We’re getting into a world if you don’t own your content, you’re not going to get very far in terms of Netflix and YouTube.” Case in point: OutTV has partnered with YouTube for a paid channel called Gay Direct and its programming is meagre, stripped of any foreign programming.

What is most frustrating is that we’re in danger of getting trapped in a chicken and egg cycle. Without any stabs at Canadian programming, the talent pool has no chance to grow and evolve. Without the talent, there can be no great Canadian programming. Sure, there will be failures–many, many failures–that are inherent in any risky process. Yet, without those risks, there will be no prospects of big hits. “If they don’t make a lot of shows, the number of shows that won’t succeed is high,” says Wild. 

The risk aversion is non-trivial: part of the reason shows may not succeed even if they get to air is that the networks get nervous supporting them. Adds Wild: “If the networks themselves don’t put the energy in, most shows will fail.” Here’s the thing: OutTV sounds embarrassed by its Canadian content. Yet if OutTV is in such dire straits with its Canadian programming, why not throw a Hail Mary then and go for some really interesting, out there stuff? It doesn’t even need to be expensive. Take a look at Comedy Central, the American channel that built itself up with the Daily ShowColbert ReportTosh.0, and other talking head shows. 

The biggest question is–and without knowing the financials or how syndication deals are structured at OutTV–how did New Addams Family became the poster child for queer television? Especially when Canadians are or were behind huge chunks of DegrassiLost Girl, and Wonderfalls. Do a post-show for RPDR as MTV used to do with the Hills or AMC does for Walking Dead. I’m assuming the channel has considered this. Or maybe not. Perhaps, in the end, part of the problem is that it isn’t really a conversation: the plea by OutTV to the CRTC doesn’t have much real dialogue with the public. There are so many unanswered questions: Just how far did OutTV go to make Canadian programming work? Could OutTV get it right if the standards were relaxed? And, the biggest question belongs to Diane Wild: if OutTV needs predominantly American programming to be successful, “why wouldn’t we just let Logo come into Canada?”

Jaime Woo is a Toronto writer and the author of Meet Grindr, about the effect of cruising apps, which is now available in a digital edition. Follow him on Twitter at @jaimewoo.”

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