Oh Canada, so close to the US…

If history is right, Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most infamous dictators, once decried his nation was too close to the United States and too far away from God. Canada, though not as dramatically, might feel the same about the neighborhood. The God issue is another subject altogether.

Nevertheless, proximity to the United States has been an extremely influential factor in the development of Canadian culture. This is a practical matter, because no nation develops a sense of self without defining what makes them different from other nations around it. We can’t deny, however, that the United States and Canada do share commonalities; they were both colonized by the British, and both share the English language. Yet the differences are also striking. For example, where Americans describe their nation as a melting pot, Canadians consider theirs as a mosaic, a multicultural state, in which different groups are not expected to assimilate. Instead, they co-exist, or so it goes. Whether or not the coexistence is harmonious, or equitable, is debatable, but the fact that Canadians claim it is worth noting as an important ideological difference. And it does not end there. The political system (parliamentary), bilingualism (because of Quebec), and even the fact that Canada remained under British rule until the twentieth century contrast starkly with the American experience.

How does broadcasting fit into this picture? According to Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadians view telecommunications and broadcasting as crucial for the development of the nation. This should not come as a surprise since Canada, after all, is the second largest country in the world (the United States is the third). The problem is that Canada is also sparsely and unevenly populated. The eastern seaboard, which includes Ontario and Quebec, and the areas around the US border are the most demographically dense, whereas the central and northern portions of the country are not densely populated at all. Still, a nation does not exist without internal cohesion. Transportation, telecommunications, and broadcast systems are part of this process, as Arpin reminds us:

With the possible exception of the development of a national railway system in the 1800s, few industries have played as important a part in unifying Canada as telecommunications, broadcasting and satellite distribution of signals. From the days of the telegraph, and from the introduction of radio and television, we have understood that these technologies are powerful tools that allow Canadians to connect with each other across great distances, help develop our economy, shape our national identity and assert our cultural sovereignty (Arpin, 2007).

The last sentence is the  key to Canadian broadcasting philosophy: it views telecommunications and information technologies as “tools” that support national development, both economic and cultural. Furthermore, broadcasting in Canada, at least in terms of philosophy, is about nation building, about creating a common culture through a shared media experience.

The quest for cultural sovereignty, Canadian style

Sovereignty is a quality of nation states. In political theory, it indicates that a state has control over a territory, and, with autonomy, can exercise political power through policy, law, and/or coercive means. Cultural sovereignty, in the Canadian case, suggests independence; it implies the ability to produce an autonomous culture, that is distinctly Canadian (i.e. not American).Yet, sharing a border, as I stated previously, has complicated Canada’s quest for cultural sovereignty. Once broadcasting began, in the early years of the twentieth century, the situation became even more complex because you obviously could not stop radio waves at the border. They spilled into Canadian territory from the United States, and interfered with Canadian signals. According to Skinner (2008), some American stations were “explicitly built to broadcast over the border and exploit Canadian advertising markets” (p.). Regulation was first introduced not just to bring order into chaos, but to extend sovereignty to the Canadian airwaves.

This is the recurring theme of Canadian broadcasting, and it is an issue that kept Canada from following the British broadcasting model too closely. Like the British did, Canada also envisioned a strong public broadcaster, that would “inform, enlighten, and entertain” (Broadcasting Act of 1991, I(l)) the Canadian public. Furthermore, they originally intended for this public broadcaster to take over all aspects of broadcasting in Canada, that is, it would not only provide services, but also regulate the operations of commercial broadcasters. However, Canada is not Great Britain. License fees, first of all, would have been completely impractical because people had more choices. Nevertheless, Canadian regulators believed that they could fund public broadcasting through other means, through government allocations, or by instituting the obligation to carry Canadian content. Early on, it became clear that the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) never had enough funding to live up to these expectations. As a consequence, Canada developed a mixed system, which now, following the passage of the 1991 Broadcasting Act, includes public, commercial, and community broadcasters. With technological advances, like cable, satellite, and the Internet, cultural sovereignty became even more elusive.

Canadian Content

For me, one of the most interesting, albeit frustrating, facets of the Canadian broadcasting system is the issue of Canadian Content. All players in the system are supposed to provide Canadian content, and abide by the quotas established by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But what is Canadian content? Let’s look at some Canadian television shows and see if we can figure it out.

According to the CRTC, Canadian Content is defined by specific criteria, none of which seem to have anything to do with content itself. Music, for example, qualifies as Canadian if it fulfills any two of the following conditions: it is produced in Canada, performed by a Canadian, composed by a Canadian, or performed and/or recorded in Canada. Television programming, on the other hand, is Canadian if the producer and key staff are Canadian, by how much money is spent in services provided by Canadians, and by how much money was spent on lab processing done in Canada. Co-productions can also qualify as Canadian content, provided that Canadians hold 50% of the investment and receive 50% of the profits. Cable and pay per view systems also abide by Cancon rules, but those decisions are made on a case by case basis (Media Awareness Network).

As it stands, the CBC provides most of the Canadian content because, according to Cancon rules, 60% of the programming aired daily between 6 am and midnight, must be Canadian. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, are not bound by this requisite. They only have to air 60% overall, for the year, and of this 60%, half must be broadcast between 6 pm and midnight.

The Cancon Rules leave plenty of leeway to Canadian commercial broadcasting. They exemplify the liberalization and de-regulation policies that are meant, in theory, to make countries more competitive in a global economy. The other side of that coin is, though, that commercial broadcasters have very little incentive to produce Canadian content that reflects Canadian culture in any explicit manner because, as Skinner suggests:

Not only [is] Canadian programming more expensive to produce than foreign programs [are] to buy, but if a Canadian program [is] scheduled to replace a foreign program – even if it drew as large an audience as it replaced – any return on investment would be roughly equivalent to that of the imported program” (Skinner, 2008).

Media Concentration

In Canada, media ownership is heavily concentrated. Currently, three private companies — CTVGlobemedia, Canwest, and Rogers Broadcasting — dominate Anglophone television sector.  Quebecor and Remstar control the Francophone sector (CRTC, 2009).

The latest controversy: Fee for Carriage

Canadian television broadcasting faces the same challenges that other systems are facing. For one, it is not easy to protect local broadcasters from the competition they face from Satellite and Cable, or from the Internet. Audience fragmentation is very real, in spite of the overwhelming media concentration of Canadian media, or of the regulations that are meant to protect Canadian  productions.

In 2008, one of the most heated debates regarding broadcast policy was about fee for carriage. In a nutshell, Canadian media companies, spearheaded by CTVGlobemedia and Canwest, presented a fee-for carriage proposal to the CRTC. They argued that the economic crisis  had forced them to take drastic budget cutting measures, including layoffs, and program cuts. The solution, or at least something that would slow the crisis down, was fee-for carriage. Under this scheme, CRTC would mandate cable and satellite providers to pay Canadian companies  50 cents per subscriber for the right to carry their signal.

In November, CRTC denied the request. Instead, they passed the following policies:

  • Beginning August 31, 2011 distributors (cable and satellite companies) can offer channels to customers in an a la carte fashion (instead of the current system where subscribers buy a basic cable package and then purchase themed bundles of additional channels). This gives viewers more direct choice in the channels they watch.
  • Effective Sept. 1, 2009, a new fund will support the creation of local content (i.e. TV news) by conventional broadcasters in markets with fewer than a million people. Broadcast distributors currently provide 5% of their revenues to fund production of Canadian programming. This will be increased to six percent, with the extra 1% benefiting this new Local Programming Improvement Fund. The CRTC said it expected the cost of the fund – totaling around $60 million annually – not to be passed to subscribers (i.e. our bills wont go up to pay for the fund). However, cable and satellite TV operators aren’t happy about the increase and have indicated to the press that anytime their expenses go up, the consumer pays one way or another.
  • Currently a U.S. channel that offers similar programming to a Canadian specialty channel can be barred from entry into our broadcast market. However, the CRTC has decided that Canadian news and sports services are financially healthy and already face competition so new foreign services will be allowed. As a result, expect more American sports and news channels on your TV program guide once this ruling takes effect in 2011.

(Binning, 2009)

I can’t get over the fact that Canada now has ala carte cable. But that’s an entirely different matter. I guess it is far more important to ponder whether or not Canadians have created a broadcasting system that enhances cultural sovereignty.  In terms of organization, they recognize the role of three components in over the air broadcasting. In terms of structure, media concentration in the commercial sphere is severe. In terms of regulations, generating Canadian content has been a major concern, but the nature of that content is loosely defined as economic participation, and/or opportunities for Canadians. With this in mind, Cancon regulations do not facilitate productions with strong cultural elements, especially in the private sector. After all, Canadian producers still want to compete in the international market, and out there, Degrassi is easier to sell than Little Mosque.

In other words, the answer to my question is yes and no. Yes, because the regulations and philosophy of the system are unique and different, and no because the context in which operations occur, and the pressures from in a commercial environment are important deterrents.




Global Twighlight Zone

Globalization must be among the most contested terms in contemporary society.  It is, at once, the blessing that will unite the world in a common Kumbaya, or the curse that ravishes local economies, fosters inequality, and, at the end of the day, increases the corporations’ ability to exploit people and natural resources. Some observers regard globalization as a “natural” process, as the product of “human evolution” that inevitably leads societies on an upward trajectory (modernization). Others wonder if it is an old or a new phenomenon, or even if it’s happening at all (Mengisteab, 2005). Yet Mirza Jan, in a haphazard discussion of the globalization of media, argues that it is really happening, but it is not natural. Globalization reflects the operations of power in society:

Globalization is not necessarily a natural progression emerging out of the ordinary communication and interaction of people and cultures around the world. Rather, it results from eliberate (sic) human choice by a powerful group of nations, transnational corporations (TNCs) and international organizations (Jan, 2009, p. 66).

Deliberate acts, then, become the major force behind globalization, and for Jan, we should wonder whose interests are being served by globalization.

But before we even begin unpacking who benefits, there should be some sense of what globalization means. Jan points out, very accurately, that it is a buzzword, much like interdependence used to be back in the 1970s. Buzzwords become trendy and eventually they are rendered meaningless because they “are meant to cover a variety of phenomena” (Jan, 2009, p. 67). For Anthony Giddens, globalization means that “we now all live in one world” (2003, p. 7), which suggests a greater degree of integration, interconnection, and interdependence in the economic, cultural, social, political, and environmental (“Globalization”, 2008).

In other words, because of globalization we are experiencing a greater flow of ideas, products, capital, technologies, and people across national borders. But the process is neither simple, nor unproblematic.  Noam Chomsky suggests that the prevailing view of globalization is limited because it privileges one specific form of integration: “the investors’ rights version [… which works] in the interests of private power.”

The “investors’ rights” version of globalization is the prevailing model for globalized media.

Globalization and the Media

Media globalization, according to Jan, is not “truly global in nature”; it is not leading to the emergence of a “global public sphere” because global media only reach a limited audience, which often means affluent English-speakers. Notice I say often, and not always, because even bastions of globalization like NewsCorp recognize the need to translate and localize their content. However, global actors, whether companies, governments, or institutions, do promote models of how things should be done.  I feel that this is one of the areas in which globalization is most obvious, as Jan suggests:

Globalization of media is probably most pervasive at the level of media industry models — ways of organizing and creating media. The world is becoming a much more integrated market based in (sic) a capitalist or marketplace economics (2009, p. 67).

Private ownership is one of the time honored principles of capitalism. And it is not surprising that media privatization is increasing worldwide (Calabrese, 2008). Private media, or so it goes, are more efficient, and much more apt at fulfilling their role as watchdogs over the government.

Nevertheless, private media are not a godsend. They are businesses accountable to shareholders, and they operate according to the principles of efficiency, economy, predictibility, calculability, and control (Ritzer, 1993), which often leads to uniformity and ultimately reduces choice (McChesney, 1999). The true giants, furthermore, are horizontally and vertically integrated juggernauts that control the market. Horizontal and vertical integration allows companies to shut out their competitors (by buying or merging with them), to create synergies, to develop economies of scale, to specialize, and to control the entire process of production, distribution, advertising, and retail of their products. The downside of horizontal and vertical integration is, though, that it increases bureaucracy, and does not encourage innovation.

Why innovate, if you don’t really have to compete, and according to McChesney big media doesn’t need to compete. In fact, collaboration seems to be the norm as “many of the largest media firms have some of the same major shareholders, own pieces of one another or have interlocking boards of directors” (McChesney, 1999).

In terms of culture, most global media conglomerates are from West, and within this group, the majority are American. Such control greatly limits the availability of non-Western content.

Rank Company Country Market Value ($Bil)
98 Comcast United States 37.62
102 Walt Disney United States 31.13
103 Vivendi France 28.19
290 Thomson Reuters Canada/United Kingdom 19.81
318 DirecTV Group United States 20.28
385 Viacom United States 9.33
444 Time Warner United States 27.37
479 Omnicom Group United States 7.47
483 WPP United Kingdom 6.53
522 News Corp United States 14.53
587 Reed Elsevier United Kingdom/Netherlands 8.24
596 Lagardère SCA France 4.31
613 Dai Nippon Printing Japan 6.01
681 RTL Group Luxembourg 5.37
691 Toppan Printing Japan 4.22
753 Dentsu Japan 4.11
754 Publicis Groupe France 4.60
755 Pearson United Kingdom 7.61
789 DISH Network United States 5.03
849 Mediaset Italy 5.08
902 McGraw-Hill Cos United States 6.20
905 Liberty Global United States 3.38
932 CBS United States 2.90
974 British Sky Broadcasting United Kingdom 11.75
1007 SES Luxembourg 7.21
1028 Wolters Kluwer Netherlands 4.59
1040 Grupo Televisa Mexico 6.03
1186 Shaw Communications Canada 6.33
1212 Liberty Media-Entertainment United States 8.95
1229 Discovery Communications United States 4.36
1231 Cablevision United States 3.86
1240 Naspers South Africa 6.19
1281 Jupiter Telecomunications Japan 5.46
1286 Interpublic Group United States 1.82
1328 Yell Group United Kingdom 0.23
1378 CC Media Holdings United States 0.13
1468 RR Donnelley & Sons United States 1.60
1512 Eutelsat Communications France 4.56
1519 Axel Springer Germany 2.01
1521 Charter Commun United States 0.01
1539 Oriental Land Japan 6.25
1553 Virgin Media United States 1.57
1703 Fuji Media Holdings Japan 2.72
1715 Consolidated Media Australia 0.87
1835 Hakuhodo DY Japan 1.70
1835 Prisa Group Spain 0.35
1859 JCDecaux France 2.86
1865 Gannett United States 0.74
1875 Washington Post United States 3.39
1935 Fairfax Media Australia 1.44
1944 Singapore Press Singapore 2.80
1950 Telegraaf Media Groep Netherlands 0.79


The dominance of Western big media, nevertheless, does not mean that no other content is available ever, or that global media face absolutely no obstacles. On the contrary, research indicates that cultural proximity, language, and cultural specificity are significant barriers to the free flow of content (Jan, 2009). Cultural proximity (Straubhaar, 1991) suggests that audiences will choose available national and/or regional media offerings over international ones. Language, on the other hand, is  “natural barrier” for imports, which must be either translated, or subtitled. This increases costs, and is also dependent on the cultural specificity of the original product. This would be a third major obstacle  because the prospective audience may be unfamiliar, uninterested, unamused, or offended by programs that include too many specific references to the culture in which they were produced:

Sometimes a very popular sitcom, such as Seinfeld, is too United States-specific to export broadly in the global market, whereas Baywatch, featuring action and sex appeal, does better abroad, even after the U.S market [tires] of it (Jan, 2009, p. 68).

Potential Benefits

Mirza Jan’s view of media globalization, like McChesney’s and Chomsky’s, is very critical. However, a contrasting view holds that globalization brings about social and economic change. Modernization and democratization processes have both been linked to globalization. A recent example of this view was espoused by Cynthia Schneider, in a recent TED talk. You be the judge



  • Giddens, A. (2003). Runaway world: How globalization is reshaping our lives. New York: Routledge.
  • Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of. (2008). In W. A. Darity, Jr. (Ed.)International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 3(2nd ed., pp. 332-335) Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA Retrieved January 12, 2010, from Gale Virtual Reference Library via Gale: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=athe17405
  • Jan, M. (2009). Globalization of Media: Key issues and dimensions. European Journal of Scientific Research. 29(1), pp. 66-75.
  • Mengisteab, K. (2005) “Globalization: General.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, p 947-950. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Ohio University. 12 Jan. 2010 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=athe17405&gt;.
  • McChesney, R. (1999, November 11). The new global media: It’s a small world of big conglomerates. The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/doc/19991129/mcchesney/single
  • Ritzer, G. (1993). The mcdonalization of society.


The challenges of culture in the globalized world

In the early nineties, when I was an undergraduate in college, my mother sent me a tape recording of a very popular Salsa band. Their name was Orquesta de la Luz, and they were Japanese.

Now, salsa music is not something anyone would associate with Japanese culture. In fact, when I think of Japan, I see images of Anime, Hello Kitty, and Japanese game shows. Yet there it was, a Japanese salsa orchestra, and not only were they really good, they were singing about a new, borderless culture, which characterizes contemporary life.

The world, we are told, is becoming smaller, more interconnected, and as barriers fall and markets open up to trade, the idiosyncrasies of an indigenous culture fall to the wayside. In fact, some warn that the local is being replaced by a uniform global, and that globalization, with its emphasis on efficiency, uniformity, control, predictability, and calculability replaces idiosyncrasy with McDonalization (Ritzer, 1993). Ritzer, wearily, warned that this process would limit us to an instrumental rationality, which is dehumanizing for, among other things, its lack of diversity:

Another dehumanizing effect of the fast-food restaurant is that it has contributed to homogenization around the country and, increasingly, throughout the world. Diversity, which many people crave, is being reduced or eliminated (Ritzer, 1993, p. 138).

Before Ritzer coined the term mcdonalization, cultural critics were talking about cultural imperialism. The main contention in this view of society is that a powerful center imposed itself, its institutions, its beliefs, and its way of life over less powerful countries. Mass media was one of the vehicles through which domination was predicated upon, as countries with underdeveloped media systems of production and distribution imported massive amounts of content from the United States (Nordenstreng and Varis, 1974). The consequences, it was argued, were frightning because when everyone, in every corner of the planet, is exposed to the same content, they  develop the same views. At the end of the day, the result was a more appeased, more compliant, consumer.

However, the flows of media content are no longer dominated by one single country. This began to become clear in the 1980s. One landmark study, by Antola and Rogers (1984), for example, showed that in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile, US cultural imports had declined significantly. In their place, these countries were either developing their own productions, or importing from other Latin American nations.

Appadurai (1996), furthermore, noted that the trend in the global world was not towards greater uniformity, but towards greater hybridization. Cultural products, in other words, are not merely taken as they are. They are adapted and infused with local touches, which make them recognizable and acceptable to multiple audiences. In the process, the global and the local intertwine, and each influences the other:

In hybridization, global forces bring change, but that change is adapted into existing ways of doing things via historical process in which existing local forces mix with new  global ones, producing neither global homogenization nor authentic local culture, but a complex new hybrid with multiple layers of culture (Straubhaar, 2007, p. 6).

This is, in essence, what Chiara Ferrari’s article describes. She explores how the Simpsons, now the oldest running prime time show in American television, was adapted for the Italian market. There are several important lessons to be learned from the experience:

  1. Successful adaptations involve local talent and know-how and global concerns, which invest on the local talent, and sanction the version as an official product.
  2. Translation does not equal localization. Language is not the only variable to be considered when you localize a product. It may even be secondary to culture, which is why Willy the groundskeeper, in Italy, is no longer Scottish, but Sardinian.
  3. A successful adaptation will adapt to the local culture, not the other way around. There is an awareness of small nuances, which are important and appealing to viewers.
  4. Characters that are not attached to any “specific ethnic, racial, or political identity” are like an empty canvas, which, in terms of narrative, are readily adaptable to different contexts. However, what makes the Simpsons especially prone to an adaptation is the fact that supporting characters, which represent specific stereotypes, provide ample opportunities for localization. For example, Ferrari suggests that many of these supporting characters are dubbed to Italian using regional accents, which, in turn, are linked to familiar stereotypes.

As I write, The Simpsons twentieth anniversary special is on television. I certainly did not plan it, and it’s a fortuitous coincidence that just as I’m getting ready to talk about the Simpsons as a global product, Morgan Spurlock is doing the same thing. The difference is that he is focusing not only on the global appeal, but also addressing global controversies. Brazilians, he explains, were very upset about an episode which Rio de Janeiro came under a negative light.

The cartoon characters found that Rio de Janeiro is a city where all men are bisexual, where fearsome monkeys roam the streets, and tourists are kidnapped by taxi drivers and mugged by children (Bellos, 2002).

Brazilians did not find the depiction particularly funny, and according to Morgan Spurlock, 8 years after the original airing you can still find Brazilians that have not forgotten. James Brooks apologized for the content, in order to avoid a lawsuit from the Rio de Janeiro board of Tourism.

Television production in a globalized environment is obviously accountable to higher standards of cultural sensitivity. And it is not a matter of appeasing unreasonable demands by people who have no sense of humor. The key issue is, at the end of the day, one of economics. Programs like The Simpsons have been very successful in international syndication precisely because they can be localized, and because they are perceived as products that appeal to our global sense of the universal. In other words, international buyers purchase them because they assume that the audiences they cater to will recognize themselves (see Havens, 2002).



  • Antola & Rogers (1984)
  • Ferrari, C. (2009). Dubbing The Simpsons: Or how groundskeeper Willie lost his kilt in Sardinia