Foreign Culture Wars


When it comes to culture, Europeans think differently than many of us west of the Atlantic.  Just last month, European countries, led by France, unanimously endorsed the concept of ‘cultural exception’ in the current U.S.-European trade deal talks—meaning that cultural industries are exempted from full exposure to the free-trade winds that will blow through other industries under the new agreement.  It’s a position that in the U.S., with its mega-imagesscale cultural industries (Amazon and books, Hollywood and movies, ABC and Desperate Housewives, etc.), seems almost nonsensical.  For someone like the late Jack Valenti, Hollywood lobbyist extraordinaire, it’s simply a matter of cultural industries outside the U.S. failing to make competitive product.  He used words like “baloney,” “odious” and “a needless crutch”, for instance, when describing quotas on foreign television previously established by EU member states.

It’s a battle that Canada had to fight when negotiating its own free-trade deal with the U.S. back in the 80s.  At the time the Americans were keenly interested in gaining unfettered access to both the energy and cultural industries in Canada.  And, in the interest of context, it’s worth tracking back further, to the institution of ‘Canadian content’ regulations in the early 70s.  Prior to 1971, for instance, Canadian musicians heard on the radio were a thin and scattered bunch.  Following the imposition of the ‘Can-con’ rules, there was a veritable explosion of Canadian musical talent, from recording artists as diverse as Anne Murray and Steppenwolf.  (Although Anne may have won the day on most radio stations, prompting one wag to wonder whether AM was in fact her moniker.)  The digital revolution has since of course, negatively impacted the music industry as much as it has any trade anywhere, but, for a time, the pop music scene in Canada was never more robust.

In TV too, the original imposition of Canadian content rules quickly spawned a sizable industry that had previously been hardly present at all, and that continues as viable to this day.  There was an original mandate with government subsidies of the film and television industry to create product that was ‘culturally distinct’—stories would be ‘recognizably Canadian’—and with globalization that mandate has suffered (Is there anything genuinely recognizable as Canadian about a show like Rookie Blue?), causing one to wonder if the TV industry is still ‘cultural’ at all, but I digress.

The point is that cultural industries outside nation-state juggernauts like the U.S. and China have historically needed protection in order to flourish, if not survive.  What someone like Jack Valenti failed to recognize is that it takes the same ratio of talent within any pool to produce hits, regardless of place; therefore the Canadian or French pool has to be protected if it is to remain large enough to produce proportionately fewer hits, that is enough hits to survive.  Without that protection the industry will simply be overrun by the wildly larger numbers of both people and dollars emanating from the American cultural behemoth.

Which is exactly what has happened with the Canadian movie industry, where Can-con rules have never been applied.  (If you’re wondering why, perhaps it’s sufficient to say that Hollywood movie distribution contracts, back in the day, did not even recognize Canada as a separate territory.)  While the Canadian radio and television industries have evolved a reasonably sound business model, the same can’t be said about the indigenous movie industry in Canada.  It has been, and remains marginal; what I have described as an ‘ego-driven crap shoot’ where few people are employed, and audiences are meager.  (I’m referencing English-speaking Canada here; French Canadians actually go to see their own movies in considerable numbers.)

In Europe, French regulations delay the release of DVDs, in order to preserve movie houses.  German regulations force online book retailers to sell their product at list prices, in order to preserve bookstores.  Different thinking.

The internet of course arose in a ‘wild west’ American culture where any form of regulation was considered anathema.  In 2000, Yahoo! was sued in France after Nazi memorabilia was offered for sale on its auction site.  (It’s essentially illegal to sell such stuff in France in any venue.)  Yahoo! fought back, arguing “free speech,” that France could not rightly impose its laws on a U.S. company.  Yahoo! lost that case.

Vive la différence.

 

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