Opinion » Maxed Out

We have seen the future and it is Netflix

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In the age of hyperbolic, social-media hysteria, it's probably hardly noteworthy for the appointed head of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) to compare Netflix to the cultural imperialism of the British Raj. After all, we live in a world where there are people that equate all sexual intercourse with rape and creative expression that roams outside the immediate cultural markers of the person expressing it as cultural appropriation. Meh.

The Raj lasted for nearly 90 years, from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. It represented the last stand of the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, as they used to say. There was probably some good nation-building aspects to the Raj, but no one in their right mind would say that now, at a time where the world is black and white and no middle ground of grey is allowed.

Whatever theoretical good was done has been relegated to the dustbin of history and a simple equation has replaced it: Raj = the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre, Takkar massacre, etc.

The Raj, motivated by mercantilism, the need for foreign resources to feed the industrial machinery of Great Britain and markets to purchase the goods produced, was paternalistic, brutal, condescending and exploitive. It subjugated a nation, albeit one at war with itself along religious lines, to the rule of another more powerful nation.

Sounds just like Netflix, eh?

Catherine Tait was appointed president and CEO of CBC last April. She's worked in Canadian film and television for more than three decades. Stints at Telefilm Canada and as Canada's cultural attaché to France, president of an independent film, television and digital content company based in New York and president of Salter Street Films more or less round out her resume. Based on her statements about Netflix one may wonder if her grasp of Anglo-Indian history goes much deeper than watching the film Gandhi.

But she is in charge of defending the Canadian model of cultural content as it relates to television and radio and defending the CBC's role therein.

When the world was young and naive and television was in its infancy, a deal was struck. The nascent world of broadcasters would provide fuzzy, black-and-white content in exchange for bombarding viewers with commercials. Fair enough. Watch for free; tolerate dancing cigarette packs and hammering headaches.

Cable changed all that. Instead of over-the-air, free signals, we got piped in content, more channels, a monthly fee and commercials. We paid for what had formerly been free and continued to be sold snake oil in undreamed of varieties.

But Netflix once again changed that equation. If you so choose, you can pay a monthly fee and watch content devoid of commercial interruption.

This has proven to be catnip to an audience of cats. People have signed up for Netflix, and other content providers, in droves. Many have cut their cable entirely, fed up with ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing quality, not to mention the requirement to accept a lot of dreck they're not remotely interested in just to get the few channels they might watch.

I understand why CBC—and others—are freaking out. CBC isn't what it used to be and what it's become is almost—strike that—is entirely unwatchable. With the caveat my television consumption lies outside the bell curve, consisting almost entirely of news, movies and documentaries, I can't remember the last time I watched an entire program on CBC. Hey, Catherine, it's the commercials. There are too many. There are especially too many hyping other CBC shows. They seem to break up programming randomly and at inopportune times. Unless you need a lot of snack and/or bathroom breaks, I can't imagine this is a winning model.

Even more irksome, it means you are paying thrice to try and watch CBC. You pay first with your taxes, the federal government pumping nearly $700 million annually into CBC. You pay again when you are dinged monthly for your cable/satellite bill. You pay a third time being subjected to those commercials, the ones that seem to grow more voluminous each year.

Until recently, there were two reasons to watch CBC: Hockey Night in Canada and The National. HNiC is rapidly disappearing and The National has become an unwatchable mess of quasi news and non-stop victim porn. The chestnut of local news broadcasting used to be, "If it bleeds, it leads." At CBC, that adage has been replaced with, "If it cries, it flies." Unless, of course, we have some vacuous member of the royal family visiting the country on our tax dollars, in which case even the most heart-wrenching story is relegated to the back burner while we're appraised of Princess Whomever's darling dress and hat while she watches with soul-dead shark eyes as school children fawn about.

Until a recent visit by my grandson, I'd never watched Netflix. I found the idea of hundreds and hundreds of movies and TV shows from which to choose overwhelming. I am, admittedly, not good with too much choice. Give me six things to choose from and I can make a choice. Six hundred? I'm toast.

But with quasi-parental responsibility of a two-year-old for a week, one who reaches the calming state of alpha brain waves while watching a moralistic, talking train named Thomas, Netflix was mother's milk while mom was away. At least until I introduced him to Donald Duck, who takes a more direct, self-help approach to life's problems than Thomas. Where Thomas tries to be inclusive and nurturing, Donald simply takes a chainsaw to Chip & Dale's tree when they get on his nerves. The boy thought that was pretty cool.

I'd take a chainsaw to CBC and my satellite provider if it weren't for the fact I can piggyback my low-rent package in both Whistler and the digitally-challenged wilderness of Smilin' Dog Manor. So I can understand Ms. Tait's freakout over Netflix and other internet content providers. She has seen the enemy. But she still fails to grasp it is herself.

After most of the country had a good laugh over her Netflix-is-the-Evil-Empire-that-will-destroy-Canadian-content screed, the producers of that content jumped to her defence. Apparently the sun still rises in the East and Canadian cultural producers want the government to milk any cow that wanders into the field offering sweeter milk.

But they are fighting a rear-guard battle much as the Raj fought theirs in India. If television is, indeed, the opiate of the masses, Netflix and its ilk is fentanyl. Whether it proves to be lethal to viewers of dinosaurs like the CBC remains to be seen. But people seem to be picking a winner in this fight and it isn't the CBC.

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