The "Turn" in Canadian Television Studies

Article excerpt

Outside Looking In: Viewing First Nations Peoples in Canadian Dramatic Television Senes. By Mary Jane Miller. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. 494 pp. $85.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-7735-3366-0. $32.95 (paper) ISBN 9780-7735-3367-7.

Programming Reality: Perspectives on English-Canadian Television. Ed. Zoë Druick and Aspa Kotsopoulos. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008. 354 pp. $34.95 (paper) ISBN 978-1-55458-010-1.

Rain/Drizzle/Fog: Film and Television in Atlantic Canada. Ed. Darrell Varga. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. 318 pp. $34.95 (paper) ISBN 978-155238-248-6.

In a polemical essay published in 2003, media scholar François Demers suggested that Canadian television scholarship, after having achieved a high-water mark in the 1970s, was in crisis. Demers argued that, in the fragmented, post-network era, the prominent cultural sovereignty paradigm that had linked television policy and programming to nation-building, identity, and citizenship was exhausted. Furthermore, he suggested, the fatigue of this cultural nationalist stance was apparent in the decline in publication and research on Canadian television. Demers was correct in noting that Canadian television study was indeed in danger of becoming redundant and moribund. The reasons for its stagnation, however, cannot be attributed solely to a cultural nationalist model, which in fact shows little signs of exhaustion, but to a number of factors that have slowed research advancement in the field. These include an overreliance on communication studies approaches that demonstrated little overlap with television studies, film studies, and cultural studies methodologies. This was coupled with an overinvestment in the analysis of public broadcasting (i.e., the policies and programming of the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]), to the exclusion of serious inquiry into private broadcasters and programming, as well as a striking lack of attention to the actual content of television shows. Since the publication of Demers's rather alarmist commentary, however, the study of Canadian television has emerged as a reimagined and reinvigorated field of study. The revival of publishing in Canadian television studies reflects new approaches and methodologies, but the single most promising, and long overdue, shift has been towards close readings of individual television episodes, series, or movies - the examination of the content of television shows is finally taking its rightful place as a necessary component of Canadian television study.

The analysis of actual television shows has seriously lagged behind that of American or British television studies, and this new "turn" towards textual analysis acts as a necessary corrective. Following in the path of a number of recent studies, such as David Hogarth's Documentary Television in Canada (2002), Serra Tinic's On Location (2005), and Bart Beatty and Rebecca Sullivan's Canadian Television Today (2006), the books under consideration here examine specific production contexts or content of television programs. This attention to textual readings is having a positive impact on the field, as the late media scholar Paul Attallah noted in his review of Beatty and Sullivan's Canadian Television Today, one of the book's "pleasures" was its examination of actual television shows; this strategy "points plainly and abundantly to the potential renewal of Canadian television scholarship - it actually examines popular shows!" (2009, 164; emphasis in original). Attallah's exclamatory surprise must be read as astonishment at the serious consideration of not only the content of television, but audience-friendly programming at that. His comment is no doubt a pointed jab at the prevalent tendency of Canadian television research to focus on the arguably "unpopular" CBC.

In fact, the question of the CBCs popularity and its role in the cultural sovereignty model has long been a defining feature of Canadian television scholarship (Collins 1990). The role of the CBC has been the focus of much debate that can be crudely summarized as follows: should the CBC continue to produce high quality, but little viewed, television programs that serve the public good of the country's citizens in developing a collective national consciousness? Or should it compete with private broadcasters for advertising dollars and audiences, and thus adopt more popular genres and formats? Currently, this debate continues to rage most prominently around the CBCs decision in 2007 to establish a factual entertainment division with the mandate "to broaden the appeal and reach of CBCs programming to larger and more diverse audiences" (CBC 2010). Thus, the arrival of the Zoe Druick and Aspa Kotsopoulos's Programming Reality: Perspectives on EnglishCanadian Television (2008) could hardly be timelier, as it provides an ample opportunity to dive into the reality television debate. To be clear, this is not a book about reality television per se, as it contributes to the debate more obliquely, setting out to examine the tradition within Canadian broadcasting, both public and private, of programs that "straddle the border between reality and fiction" (2008, 1).

One of Programming Reality's best features is its eclectic and impressive array of essays dealing with everything from a 1979 historical mini-series about Louis Riel to the well-known and often mocked Heritage Minutes, right up to the daily soap opera Train 48. Set out into three main sections - "Narrating Nation," "Making Citizens," and "Mapping Geographies" - these groupings make it clear that the notions of citizenship and nation have not been completely exhausted as points of reference. Upon first glance, it seems somewhat disappointing that most of the 16 articles in the volume deal with CBC productions or co-productions, replicating television scholarship's long-standing devotion to analysis of the public sector broadcaster. Upon closer examination, however, the essays amply demonstrate how questions of cultural nationalism can be reinvigorated when combined with new methodologies and close textual analysis of individual television series or movies. For example, Marusya Bociurkiw reads the CBC news coverage of the 1995 Quebec referendum as an affective melodrama - an analysis that is both highly original and innovative. Other CBC productions or co-productions under consideration include Canada: A People's History, The Greatest Canadian, Making the Cut, Da Vinci's Inquest, and Human Cargo.

Of particular interest are the insights that the cultural nationalism model yields when used to analyze shows produced for private sector broadcasters. For example. Michele Byers asks what a program like Canadian Idol can tell us about how Canadian citizenship is envisioned. Likewise, Sarah Matheson's essay on the Global Television-produced docu-soap Train 48 addresses the perplexing question of why Canadian-based soap operas continue to fail in finding a domestic audience when the genre itself is popular with Canadian audiences as is evident with the popularity of the British soap Coronation Street. Other efforts to look beyond CBC productions produce similarly pertinent questions. John McCullough's analysis of APTN and Showcase's Moccasin Flats addresses an Aboriginal production that is not set in a big city and considers what this means for the nation's selfrepresentation. "Canadian television," McCullough argues, "now typically sells itself by exoticising regionalism" (2008, 230), Indeed, one only need think of the national and international success of shows such as Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Trailer Park Boys to see the evidence in this line of argument.

The displacement of national by regional concerns suggests a particularly fruitful avenue for television scholars to consider, and this is taken up in Darrell Varga's edited collection Rain/Drizzle/Fog: Film and Television in Atlantic Canada (2009). While the volume limits its regional scope to Atlantic Canada, it adopts a more expansive approach addressing both film and television. Unfortunately, the inclusion of film and television here merely reflects their presence in the same volume and not their cross-pollination, thus missing out on the productive possibilities that some scholars have called for, when the intersections and influences of television and film are brought into conversation with each other (Urquhart and Wagman 2006). Furthermore, analysis of films dominates this collection, with only two of the 13 articles expressly devoted to television production. This, however, is less a failing of the book than an indication of the paucity of regionally inflected television programming, particularly from the Atlantic provinces. As John McCullough notes, it was not until Gullage's started production in 1995(!) that there was a CBC national television series made in Newfoundland. His analysis of Gullage's and Trailer Park Boys argues that the representation of Canadian space is less dictated by the needs of nation-building than it is reflective of the structural changes of global capitalism. Taking a more historical approach, Jen Vanderburgh examines how a program such as Don Messer's Jubilee evaded accusations of racism or ethnocentrism by locating its narratives in a regional, not national, framework. The show's nostalgic appeal was founded upon ideas of purity and simplicity that were seemingly apparent in a more "authentic," that is, regional identity. Both articles place regionalism at the centre of their inquiries and suggest some of the research approaches that are possible at the intersections of television, regionalism, nationalism, and globalization. The current success of Republic of Doyle, a new CBC national drama set on location in Newfoundland, seems like an obvious testing ground for some of these findings.

Amongst the recent publications on Canadian television considered here, the volume that most visibly fills a considerable gap in the scholarship is Mary Jane Miller's Outside Looking In: Viewing First Nations Peoples in Canadian Dramatic Television Seríes (2008). Miller has been a pioneering force in Canadian television studies, and her current book continues the exhaustive analysis of the CBC dramatic productions she commenced in 1987 with Turn up the Contrast: CBC Television Drama since 1952. Her book, along with Michele Byer's Growing Up Degrassi (2005), are precedent-setting in their devotion to the detailed analysis of specific television series. Outside Looking In continues this model of textual analysis and ambitiously tackles representation of First Nations peoples from the early days of Canadian television in the 1950s to the 1990s series North of 60, a long-running series that features a largely Aboriginal cast.

Outside Looking In is split into three sections: the first part situates Miller's framework with regard to her methodology and terminology, while the second and third parts are primarily devoted to the study of various television series. The close analysis of the individual shows is the book's greatest strength. Individual chapters are devoted to Radisson, The Beachcombers, Spirit Bay, and The Rez; but by far the lion's share of the study is devoted to a detailed consideration of North of 60. Miller's reasons for this focussed attention are persuasive: the series was popular during its run, it was relatively long-running (on air 1992-97), featured a large Aboriginal cast, integrated Dene advisors, and included contributions from Aboriginal directors and writers. While North of 60 made advances in the representation of Aboriginal peoples. Miller does not gloss over many of the show's detractors and critics. At almost 200 pages, this analysis is one of the longest scholarly treatments of a single Canadian television show and is illustrative of the needed emphasis on close textual analysis. Despite the merits of this study, it does, however, bring to light some of the inherent problems that plague scholarship of episodic television series. Long-running television series, by virtue of their duration, are difficult to summarize. How best to proceed? Should the focus be on the whole or on individual episodes? How can one adequately address issues and themes as they were portrayed throughout the series? Miller's study of North of 60, with its more than 90 episodes, makes these structural difficulties apparent. She has chosen to provide descriptions of specific episodes as well as an overview of some of the show's major themes. Unfortunately, these two strategies are not integrated and although the themes and issues are well catalogued, how they get played out in individual episodes and across the series as a whole could benefit from further elaboration.

Outside Looking In also sheds light on one of the largest impediments to the close analysis of Canadian television programming - the availability of viewing copies for scholarly study and repeated viewing. In extreme cases, the programs are no longer in existence, such as the 1950s drama Radisson to which Miller devotes a chapter; she necessarily positions her discussion in the context of the series' supporting materials (promotional materials, production memos, episode summaries) rather than the episodes themselves. This loss is somewhat understandable, although no less regrettable, given that the series dates from the early days of Canadian television. Somewhat more distressing, however, is the lack of access to more recent series, such as North of 60, that are not available on DVD. It should be noted that much of the current scholarship discussed here is primarily dealing with contemporary programming, as older, off-air programming is much harder to access (see Byers and VanderBurgh, forthcoming). Canada, it has been noted, is a "no-rerun nation"; older television shows from Wojeck to The Beachcombers and even Da Vinci's Inquest are rarely, if ever, rebroadcast. This profound absence of a Canadian televisual history contributes to our collective "cultural amnesia," in which we exist in a perpetual present (Tinic 2009). This absence of repeated broadcasts is compounded by the slow pace of DVD releases of older programs due to prohibitive licensing agreements. Thus, much loved programs such The Beachcombers may never appear on DVD, despite the existence of an online petition.1 Accessibility to current programming has taken a giant leap forward, with many series being available for online viewing, download, or on DVD. As more people turn to the Internet for their news and entertainment, more broadcasters are departing from outdated broadcast models and getting more content online as a necessary survival strategy in response to the perceived threat of the Internet to television as the primary content-delivery mechanism. While this makes access to current programming easier, and bodes well for research into these contemporary shows, it still does not address the issue of making older series more readily available for fans and researchers alike.

In an ideal scenario, Canadian television scholarship would move towards longer, more sustained analysis of the content of Canadian television series and emulate models of television scholarship and publications along the lines of the British Film Institute's Television Classics series or the TV Milestones series at Wayne State University Press. Both produce single-authored compact volumes that analyze a single series and are geared towards a generalist audience. This strategy is modelled on the success of similar books that analyze a single film by a single author. Recently, the University of Toronto Press adapted this model to the Canadian context with their Canadian Cinema series. Would a similar series on Canadian television be feasible? Is there an audience for monographs on SCTV The King of Kensington, North of 60, and The Beachcombers, or more recent shows such as Trailer Park Boys and Corner Gas? If our Canadian televisual heritage is slipping away through lack of archives, access, and reruns, this may be the only way that Canadian "classics" and television history survive in our cultural memory.


1. See The Beachcombers petition at (2010). The release of the first season of The King of Kensington is a positive development, although it seems unlikely that future seasons will follow.



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CBC. See Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Collins, Richard. 1990. Culture, Communication and National Identity: The Case for Canadian Television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Demers, François. 2003. "Canadian Television: The Exhaustion of a Domestic Paradigm?" Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media December 2003: 656-61.

Druick, Zoe, and Aspa Kotsopoulos, eds. 2008. Programming Reality: Perspectives on EnglishCanadian Television. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Hogarth, David. 2002. Documentary Television in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Miller, Mary Jane. 2008. Outside Looking In: Viewing First Nations Peoples in Canadian Dramatic Television Series. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Tinic, Serra. 2005. On Location. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

_____ . 2009. "No Rerun Nation: Canadian Television and Cultural Amnesia." FlowTV, 12 June, 2010. "Bring Back ... The Beachcombers.",

Urquhart, Peter, and Ira Wagman. 2006. "Considering Canadian Television: Intersections, Missed Directions, Prospects for Textual Expansion." Canadian Journal of Film Studies 15 (1): 1-7.

Varga, Darreil, ed. 2009. Rain/Drizzle/Fog: Film and Television in Atlantic Canada. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

[Author Affiliation]

Liz Czach is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She conducts research on home movies, film festivals, and Canadian film. Her articles have appeared in The Moving Image, Cinema Journal, and Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada.


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