Sunday, December 26, 2010

George Grant and Canadian Broadcasting Regulation by Bruce D. Dyck

In 1965, George Grant claimed that Canada had lost its identity, becoming a "branch plant satellite" of the United States (40).  Grant argued that private broadcasters in Canada would make Canadian culture, like the Canadian economy, "redundant" (53), in that it would essentially be a carbon copy of American culture.  While Canada's film and television industries suffered due to inadequate funding and infrastructure during the late-60s and early-70s that made it nearly impossible for them to compete with the slicker, higher budget American-made productions, Canadian radio was not saddled with the enormous costs and direct competition from cross border stations that Canadian television faced, nor the monopolistic film distribution structure that was controlled by the American movie studios (Dorland 117).  However, despite competing on terms that were more favourable to Canadian artists, Canadian radio stations still filled the airwaves with almost exclusively American top 40 music.  In the case of radio, the extent to which Canada had, according to Grant, lost its national identity during the late-sixties and early-seventies, had less to do with American cultural imperialism than a lack of political, economic, and creative initiative by both the government and regulatory boards that allowed station owners to pursue profits at the expense of promoting Canadian content.

In Lament For a Nation, George Grant traces the Canadian government's contradictory view of broadcasting as both a market process and a "public service with national responsibilities as a medium for communication and enlightenment" (Peers 136), back to Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker (Grant 19).  Grant explains the paradoxical nature of broadcasting as a market process and a public service by saying that "the encouragement of private broadcasting must be anti-nationalist: the purpose of private broadcasting is to make money, and the easiest way to do this is to import American programs appealing to the lowest common denominator of the audience" (Grant 19).  While critics justifiably argue that "American" does not necessarily mean "lowest common denominator," as Grant might suggest, the fact remains that private broadcasters in radio, as well as television, had little motivation to find, fund, or air Canadian content when they could just pipe in American content without much effort or expense.  In fact, it is reasonable to argue that despite claims that private stations would increase the amount of Canadian content on the airwaves, their real purpose was to sell Canadian goods and keep advertising dollars at home, because, as Edwardson points out, "culture did not lend itself to bureaucratic ledgers; its benefits did not fill federal coffers" (80).  So while the government paid lip service to their nationalistic views of Canadian culture through the late sixties, they were unwilling to fund the creation of Canadian content, or mess with market forces by forcing broadcasters to adhere to any strict quantitative or qualitative quotas.

As I have pointed out, the dichotomy between the government's desire for broadcasting to promote Canadian culture and the practice, which allowed the Americanization of Canadian airwaves for profit, was encouraged,in part, through the late sixties by nearly nonexistent content regulations and by toothless ones in the 70s.  Television broadcasters received their first Canadian content regulations in 1958 when the Board of Broadcast Governors set the daily minimum at 55 percent (Rutherford 106).  These broadcasters, however, had little trouble finding loopholes within these quotas that allowed them to show programs from the Commonwealth for partial Canadian credit or fill time with inexpensive content, such as a pianist in front of a camera (Edwardson 114).  Radio stations, for their part, did not even have to jump through these hoops at this time, as they were not subject to their first Canadian content regulations until 1970, and even then the quota was pegged at just 30% for AM stations, while FM avoided any regulation until 1975.  To put this into perspective, until 1970, Canadian radio broadcasters, who faced little competition from American stations (Vipond 51), could continue to broadcast however they saw fit without any interference from the government or the BBG.  Realistically, there was no reason for American music to ever dominate Canadian radio; without the direct competition of American stations, nor the technical and budgetary deficits that television faced, radio broadcasters were in a unique position to promote Canadian artists on an equal plane with their American counterparts.  But station owners obviously did not feel it was either in their interests, or their responsibility, to give Canadian artists equal air time, and they continued to base their play on U.S. charts.  This was a double whammy to Canadian artists, because their inability to chart in Canada, due to a lack of opportunity, also affected their album sales, as record retailers across the country used CHUM-Toronto's 'Chum Chart' to identify the albums that were likely to sell.  I should point out here that CHUM-Toronto was identified by Canadian music journalist, Ritchie York, as "the station that did the least for Canada" (Edwardson 126).

Of course, those who oppose cultural regulation would say that if Canadian artists do not have a presence in the Canadian marketplace, it is because Canadians do not value them enough to pay for it (Vipond 83, 84).  Certainly, this was one the arguments used by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in the 1970 Canadian Radio-Television Commision hearings on Canadian content regulations.  This argument, like all the others used by the CAB during the CRTC hearings, which included "claims of censorship, quantity not equating with quality," and most ridiculously of all, "that Canada lacked talent" (Edwardson 201), does not stand up to the evidence.  First, the CAB's claims of censorship and quantity not equating with quality were thinly veiled ways of saying that they wanted to continue doing what they were doing without any interference.  The president of the CAB, J.A. Pouliot, even claimed that Canadian content on the radio was already between 75 and 80 percent, where the CRTC had estimated Canadian content levels to be between 4 and 7 percent (Edwardson 201).  In the end, the CRTC somewhat acknowledged the CAB's argument of quantity not equating with quality, as they decided to set the Canadian content minimum at 30 percent, which was lower than television's 55 percent minimum, to see if radio broadcasters would spend more money on a smaller amount of Canadian content (Edwardson 200).  I will discuss the detrimental effects of this decision later in this essay, but before I do that I want to look at the CAB's most insulting claim: that "Canada lacked talent."

What is ironic is that during the CRTC hearings where the CAB claimed that Canada lacked talent, a Canadian band sat atop the American radio charts.  The Guess Who, a garage rock band from Winnipeg, whose song, 'American Woman,' hit number one in the U.S. in March 1970, and then number one in Canada a few weeks later in April (Edwardson 201, 202), are a fitting example of a common problem that Canadian artists faced: that success in Canada was dependent, first, on success in the United States.  Since Canadian radio stations selected songs for airplay based on their popularity on American charts (Edwardson 201), countless Canadian performers were forced to migrate south to look for opportunities.  Iconic Canadian folk singer, Neil Young, is quoted as saying, "I soon realized that nothing was ever going to happen in Toronto.  I split and went Los Angeles.  I was just completely fed up with the Canadian scene" (Edwardson 129).  Young quickly found success in the U.S., first as part the folk rock group, Buffalo Springfield, next as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and finally as a solo artist.  Another group that could relate to Young's experience, was first known as the 'Hawks,' while backing rocker, Ronnie Hawkins, before setting out on their own as the Canadian Squires.  While the Canadian music industry did not take notice of the Squires, Bob Dylan did, taking the group on as his backing band for his legendary first electric tour.  Following Dylan's motorcycle accident the group once again set out on their own, this time known simply as The Band, achieving two RIAA certified gold albums, and going platinum with their 1969 self-titled album (Edwardson 128) (note gold=500K, platinum=1m).  But for each band or artist like The Guess Who, Neil Young, or The Band, who went on to make names for themselves in the United States, many others remained toiling in obscurity.  Vancouver is noted for its rock and psychedelic scenes of the sixties and seventies that are the subject of a four volume compilation titled simply, The History of Vancouver Rock and Roll; the Winnipeg rock scene that produced The Guess Who is documented in John Einarson's Shakin' All Over: The Winnipeg Sixties rock scene (note here); and Ryan Edwardson writes in Canadian Content, that Yonge Street in Toronto was "lined with venues for rocking crowds" (127, 129).  To put it concisely, there was no shortage of talent in Canada, just a shortage of opportunity.

Referring back to the earlier argument that if Canadian artists do not have a presence in the Canadian marketplace, it is because Canadians do not value them enough to pay for them (Vipond 82,83), Ronnie Hawkins put it best when he said, "nobody can tell whether you're good or bad if you're not heard" (Edwardson 128).  Unfortunately, this is the major failure of the Canadian content regulations.  Established at just 30 percent for AM radio following the CRTC hearings in 1970, and with no provisions requiring broadcasters to provide airtime to new and emerging acts, the Canadian content laws were quickly criticized for allowing stations to overplay the few artists who had already made their reputation in the United States.  Gordon Lightfoot said, "the CRTC did absolutely nothing for me.  I didn't need it . . . and I don't like it," while a Time magazine article joked that, "AM radio stands for Anne Murray," and the authors of Mondo Canuck, claimed that, "if you listened to pop radio in the early seventies, it was easy to believe that Burton Cummings was the voice of Canada" (Edwardson 229).  It is hard to believe that anyone would think that broadcasters would follow anything other than the letter of the law when they had so clearly shown their disdain for Canadian content regulation during the CRTC hearings.  Secretary of state, Gerard Pelletier, campaigned for a measure of quality in the regulations, saying that the CRTC's approach was just "an exercise in mathematics, and if you're good enough at mathematics, the rules can be circumvented" (Edwardson 200, 201).  Since no measure of quality would be implemented, Canadian radio just continued to follow the lead of the American industry.  Now, I realize that hindsight is 20/20, but the lessons that should have been learned through the early years of radio's Canadian content regulations, and the early years of television regulations even before that, still have not been learned today.  I do not think that the problem is necessarily that the 30 percent Canadian content requirement (or 35 percent today) is too low.  The problem is that this regulation still does not help the majority of Canadian artists, as it allows stations to play a handful of established acts ad nauseum to the exclusion of all others.  When the BBG received its mandate to regulate the broadcast industry in order to provide "a varied and comprehensive broadcasting service of a high standard that is basically Canadian in content and character" (Rutherford 104), I do not think they intended to have acts of dubious artistic and critical merit, like Anne Murray in the seventies and Nickelback today, dominate the legislated Canadian content airtime.  The solution to this problem is simple: enact firm guidelines that state that once an artist achieves a certain level of success, say three top ten hits in Canada, stations can no longer use them to fill quota airtime.  By the time an artist reaches this level of success they should be well established and no longer need the assistance of the Canadian content regulations.  This amendment would ensure that each new generation of artists would get a fair shot at airplay and success in Canada.

I do not hold the position of George Grant that American culture is synonymous with the "lowest common denominator" (Grant 19), but at the same time I do not agree with economist, Stephen Globerman's assertion that government intervention into the cultural industries has resulted in "the suppression of the public's right to consume foreign cultural programming" (Vipond 84), and while I agree with Rutherford that "Canadians could happily consume American products of all kinds without doubting that they were citizens of a better country" (143), I think that, as I have shown, Canadian artists were at an unfair disadvantage in the late-sixties and early-seventies.  This disadvantage, which lead to Grant's claims that Canada had lost its identity, was not due to American cultural imperialism, but rather it came as a result of the government's contradictory desire to uphold the free market and promote Canadian culture that allowed radio broadcasters to avoid tough content regulations that would truly have allowed a broad spectrum of Canadian artists to succeed.

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