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The crisis in TV production

The crisis in TV production

Written by
Michel Duchesne
December 10th, 2019

Michel Duchesne, author of L’écrivain public, describes the challenges of producing television programs in Quebec.

The crisis in TV production

The web series crew at work on the adaptation of Michel Duchesne’s novel L’écrivain public.

My father thought that people who work in cultural industries really struggle: “You pay to work,” he would say. And when you think about it, it’s not unusual for actors to rehearse at home, for preproduction to involve insane hours to get through 12 to 16 pages of fiction per day, or for web series creators to pay for a pilot out of their pockets to prove their worth and attract funding. Thousands of artists and creators go to great lengths to present high-calibre productions with fewer and fewer resources. People are starting to speak up about rushed shootings and high-pressure production environments where actors don’t have time to rehearse, and where some technicians even lose their lives on set. Unfortunately, silence still prevails in these matters most of the time.

French-language productions receive barely more than a third of the funding that English productions get in Canada—38 per cent, to be exact. The cost of living is exploding, but we are expected to create series with peanuts. How can we create programs that live up to our dreams? We need to go back to our theatre roots and rely on outstanding actors to portray the things we can’t afford to film.

The climate emergency isn’t our only problem—we’re also facing a cultural emergency.

From the get-go, creators are limited in their ambitions—no more than X number of sets and Y number of actors. Genres such as historical series are becoming rarer. A police series can no longer feature all the action intended by the creators, and a youth program was cut because the costumes and makeup cost too much. Come on!

I served on the board of the Société des auteurs de radio, télévision et cinéma, and every time we went to Ottawa, we were met with the same sighs: “Okay, now what do you want?” We want to be able to tell stories!

You have to watch the crew of a web series in action to understand the devotion of these people. Quite often, they are underpaid and handle many different tasks. The young producers of the web series based on my novel L’écrivain public (The Public Writer) are no exception, but rather an example of the all too prevalent rule that people have to put in long hours to tell their stories.

L’écrivain public is autofiction based on real-life events. On a part-time basis, I spent two years doing community work in the Montreal borough of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. I discovered that, four Metro stations from my home, many people struggled to read and write, and therefore lacked the words they needed to defend themselves. Through letters, formal notices, simple resumés and email replies, I helped change some of these people’s lives. I also found out that community and cultural organizations have to fight—sometimes among themselves—for their survival.

Public Writer - Official Trailer

Who would have thought that L’écrivain public—a show denouncing austerity measures at the expense of the population—would have achieved such far-reaching success? Celebrated locally, the series was also acclaimed in New York, Bilbao, Seoul and Buenos Aires. Our local story of compassion and devotion shows how important it is to share our realities. Right now, the climate emergency isn’t our only problem—we’re also facing a cultural emergency.

Last fall, I was a speaker at the World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin. I came home deeply shaken by the experience. Everywhere in the world, public television broadcasters are under siege and being silenced by Netflix. Some ventured to say that national cultures are doomed to disappear within the next two years. If the BBC, whose public funding is much better than ours, is expressing concern, then we have every reason to be worried.

Nobody expected things to change so fast. In my late 20s, I was a director for Politiquement Direct on MusiquePlus; who would have thought this wonderful melting pot of culture, art and essays would disappear so quickly? At Radio-Canada, just a few years ago, there was an entire floor dedicated to sociocultural shows, and another devoted to variety shows. Que reste-t-il de nos amours? Nowadays, we have far too many specialty channels, which represent niches that are losing popularity. In the past, a television season would have up to 39 episodes, but over time, that number decreased to 26, then 13, and today, many screenwriters create no more than six. We have moved from documentary series to one-time documentaries; from television theatre to reality TV, without actors or stories to pass on to future generations.

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Skeptics of “cultural change” will argue that there have never been so many television programs. Does this include junk TV? Yes, documentaries, fictional series, and variety shows are still being made, but do people actually watch them? Our culture is melting like the Arctic pack ice, engulfed by American productions.

How can we bring our series to new audiences? When I teach at UQAM or visit high schools as a guest artist, too many students admit to being on YouTube and Netflix. Over the years, I have seen awareness of local productions steadily decrease. We lack the ever important discoverability needed to promote and disseminate our content, since we do not have the financial means of the big tech companies. Our governments are also to blame for neglecting to enforce standards on foreign digital corporations, which are still free from any regulations as I write this. The few Canadian series and films that make it onto these platforms are buried among tens of thousands of other works, and often suffer from comparisons given their lower budgets.

Not only must big tech be taxed on its income, but it must also be subject to quotas for the production of francophone and local content.

We have every reason to be hopeful about the preliminary conclusions of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Review panel headed by Janet Yale, which recommends sufficient funding to support Canadian content, and pressure will certainly be used to make sure these measures are implemented. The CRTC is an outdated institution: its laws and regulations could have been upgraded years ago, and it certainly had the power to do so, but there was no political will to act. Like his predecessor Stephen Harper, our Prime Minister—who happens to be a former theatre teacher—shows very little love and interest for our local culture, compared to his devotion to the oil industry and big tech, which get all the airtime.

Opposition parties, broadcasters, Radio-Canada vice-president Michel Bissonnette and Quebec’s entire industry all emphasize the urgent need to act. Not only must big tech be taxed on its income, but it must also be subject to quotas for the production of francophone and local content. Denmark, Brazil, France and countless others have dared to stand up and require the big tech companies to film universal stories in the language of their country. That’s why it is shameful that American productions shot in Canada are being counted as local content under Netflix’s secret $500-million deal.

Given the crisis caused by the underfunding of our industry, I applaud the efforts of the Coalition for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions and FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting. These organizations remind us how important it is for big tech to contribute to our ecosystem without replacing our public institutions, which also need substantial support. We must no longer be silent—the winds of intolerance and cultural ignorance are blowing too strongly. History deserves to be taught, and stories are worth sharing.

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