‘No sex please, we’re American’

The flap about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the full-frontal attack on broadcast indecency it spawned is a clear illustration of how divergent attitudes and values are north and south of the border. These differences were top-of-mind for Canadian television programmers during the recent L.A. shopathon.

The flap about Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction and the full-frontal attack on broadcast indecency it spawned is a clear illustration of how divergent attitudes and values are north and south of the border. These differences were top-of-mind for Canadian television programmers during the recent L.A. shopathon.

No sex for Americans. Canadians on the other hand are more open to pushing the envelope on sex while drawing the line at extreme violence.

Ellen Baine, VP of programming for CHUM Television, says violence definitely bothers Canadians more than sex or nudity.

‘I think Canadians have a more European sense than an American sense. People [in the U.S.] are still influenced by the whole stupid Janet Jackson thing. In Canada it’s not big deal. We know women have nipples, apparently in the U.S. they didn’t.’

Boobgate also lends support to the theory of Michael Adams’ prize-winning 2003 book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, that Canadians are growing farther apart from American values, not closer.

Adams, president of the Toronto-based Environics Group of research and communications companies, says Canadians are much less uptight about sexuality, more egalitarian and open to same-sex marriage than Americans are. He says that has a lot to with the influence of one-third of the U.S. population, the Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals.

‘We’re more socially liberal and think sex is a crime without a victim and are much more concerned about crimes that have victims,’ says Adams. ‘They are the gun culture with a second amendment they interpret as ‘everyone should be able to own a .357 Magnum.’ We think its not just people, but people with guns that kill people.’

Adams says when it comes to humour, Canadians are closer to the Brits and enjoy a smarter, more ironic type of humour. With Americans, it’s more slapstick.

Baine says every broadcaster pretty much has to be like a specialty channel today because viewers watch the specific stations they believe will have the type of programming that appeals to them.

Programmers really have to know their audience, says Baine, but even when you do choose the right made-in-America program for your audience, Canadian broadcasters are at the mercy of U.S. networks that will yank it quickly if it doesn’t do well with their viewers.

Slawko Klymkiw, executive director of network programming for CBC Television, says there are two areas where Canadians watch Canadian-made television more than anything else: news and public affairs, and big event programming like sports – hockey and the Olympics for the most part.

Those are driven by a national sensibility about supporting your country, your team, and often one’s own sport.

‘Other areas are remarkably more competitive,’ says Klymkiw, ‘because one of the great and important struggles we’ve all had and continue to have in Canadian television, not simply at the CBC, is the struggle to produce drama at a level that competes significantly well with the U.S.’

Sitcoms are also harder to develop in Canada. He says that genre has been honed in the U.S. where they have the luxury of 20 to 30 writers and a huge amount of money for a half-hour show. Thus, sketch comedy, rather than sitcoms have been a successful Canadian alternative, including the long-running Air Farce and the relatively newer, This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Susanne Boyce, president of programming for CTV, adds that when it comes to humour, Canadians like sophistication, subtlety and good-natured rather than mean-spirited.

‘Corner Gas (a Canadian series) is in the tradition of Bob Newhart, good-natured, very smart. You don’t have to hit people over the head with the comedy.’

Canadians are more open to sex and explicit language if it’s in context. For example, she says, four years ago CTV ran The Sopranos unedited. Four years later, the U.S. still won’t air it unedited on conventional television.

Boyce says you can see other differences by comparing American Idol and Canadian Idol. Instead of holding less talented performers up to ridicule, Canadian Idol last year had a special edition where singers who were not going to make the cut were flown to the show, made up, dressed and allowed to perform and complete the full Idol experience.

When shopping for U.S. programming, she says, CTV viewers are looking for quality shows that are smart and well-written. Whether reality, comedy, or drama – the quality shows have staying power.

‘I think there’s a variety of quality reality as well. Our first Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had a good-natured feel. Nobody dies,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t touch Extreme Makeover, The Swan, or Fear Factor. They don’t fit our channel. Nip/Tuck, which is a show that pushes the envelope, has dramatic tension, humour. Again the writing and producing is superb.’

Boyce says choosing the right programming is part instinct mixed with respect for the viewers.

‘Internally and externally, I love to hear people talking about things and what they watch. At the end of the day, it’s a bit of sprinkle dust and a lot of listening.’