In Other Words

As Canadian as Apple Pie

The International Journal of Communications Law and Policy, www.ijclp.net, Summer 2000 If you hold Canada to your ear, you can hear the ocean," quipped the Canadian playwright John Gray. But bureaucrats in Ottawa hear something else. They hear a few thousand Hollywood blockbusters, Orlando boy bands, and U.S. television shows. What to do? Canada could ...

The International Journal of Communications Law and Policy,
www.ijclp.net, Summer 2000

If you hold Canada to your ear, you can hear the ocean," quipped the Canadian playwright John Gray. But bureaucrats in Ottawa hear something else. They hear a few thousand Hollywood blockbusters, Orlando boy bands, and U.S. television shows.

What to do? Canada could act like France and find national pride in weird cultural minutiae — like Toronto’s recent world Monopoly championship, which featured an all new Canadian version of the game, including game pieces such as a moose, a sled, and a hockey player. It could ditch the gimpy Canadian dollar and elect representatives to Washington, as more than half of the Canadians polled in a recent survey expect. Or it could try to find new ways to help its cultural industries compete.

Glenn A. Gottselig, a legal consultant with the Organization of American States, surveys Canada’s cultural-protection tactics in the International Journal of Communications Law and Policy, a joint online project of the University of Munich, the University of Warwick, Oxford University, and Yale University. After sorting out the differences between cultural industries and the arts (the former, exportable products like books and movies, are subject to most free-trade agreements, while the latter, high-culture money losers such as theater or dance troupes, are exempt), Gottselig profiles Canadian policy toward three industries: television, films and videos, and magazines.

Ottawa sets a quota on the minimum number of hours that Canadian networks must broadcast Canadian programs. But Gottselig cites a Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) study claiming that network television still "does not provide enough of the programming that defines Canadian culture and values," particularly during prime time. The CBC argues that the government should decrease quotas and shift its efforts to subsidizing a few marquee programs, while encouraging networks to establish U.S.-style "constellations" of channels and multimedia services to capitalize on economies of scale in distribution and promotion — an approach Gottselig finds sensible.

Canada’s film industry is worse off. Canadian films flop at the box office, Gottselig writes, "despite decades of subsidization." Canada’s Feature Film Advisory Committee cites only 18 films in Canada’s history that have "earned international acclaim and box office success." (And to give you an idea of what counts as box office success, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Crash both make the list.) In response, last year the Ministry of Canadian Heritage proposed the creation of a $150-million fund for movie studios, which would make the federal government Canada’s largest film producer.

Efforts to protect the Canadian magazine business have been the most controversial, with the United States going before the World Trade Organization (WTO) to protest Canada’s discretionary postal rates and high taxation on advertising revenue for foreign titles. Acrimony still lingers over so-called split runs, Canadian editions of big-budget American magazines — almost identical to the American editions except for their Canadian ads — that compete with domestic magazines for corporate love.

Gottselig predicts, however, that Canada’s defensive efforts will not survive. The General Agreement on Trade in Services bars Canadian television’s quota system; Ottawa has simply stalled on negotiating a schedule for bringing the industry in line. Furthermore, although domestic subsidies tend to be "the least offensive forms of interference that countries take in order to protect domestic industries," there is a "definite trend" among WTO nations toward cracking down on all kinds of government favoritism. And as Gottselig notes, "With many of [Canada’s] cultural industries intent on exporting their products, their industrial significance may be taking precedence over their cultural nature." If the Canadian government manages to buy international competitiveness, other WTO members will almost certainly object.

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