The announcement by TVO, Ontario’s public television network, that it is canceling its long-running book show Imprint has been greeted with howls of outrage within, well, the Toronto cultural community. To date, TVO has offered no official explanation for why Imprint got the axe, and seems to be following a strategy of waiting to see how wild the outcry is, and where it’s coming from. None of the possible explanations meanwhile, are very attractive.
One explanation has TVO altering its mandate from public broadcasting to that of an educational programmer—which is pretty much the mandate it started with 35 years ago. It’s a pretty strange response, if that’s what it’s really doing. Ontario’s education system needs teachers in the classroom, not development and inspirational DVDs that exhausted teachers can funnel through their students’ computers, subjecting kids to yet more fake-interactive television while they sleep behind their desks. If it’s being done in the hope of getting direct funding from the Provincial education ministry, it is monumentally misguided. If the McGuinty Liberals transfer one penny from its overburdened education budget every sane parent in Ontario will land on the Network with both feet, because most schools don’t have the budget for computer-equipped classrooms, and may find the TVO-produced DVDs hard to jam into the slots of their broken down classroom VCRs. .
The McGuinty government, which seems generally intent on proving that it is even more heartless and myopically bottom-lining than the previous regime, is no doubt a factor in the cuts. They’ve been threatening the network with both cuts and privatization for months now, not to mention wondering publicly if they ought to, just for the ideological thrill, privatize Ontario’s biggest cash cow, the LCBO. TVO may imagine that biting off its own hind-quarters voluntarily will prevent a larger and sharper axe from falling on its neck. If that’s the strategy, even if it works, it’ll only be a very temporary reprieve, given the underfunded educational sector it is trying to move in on.
TVO is also missing a golden opportunity. In a media landscape in which the private sector’s idea of cost-effective programming is to mount increasingly bizarre and loathsome “reality” shows, and the CBC has dumbed itself down to the point where it sometimes feels like one long episode of the Dick Clark Show, it can be argued that TVO ought to be going in precisely the opposite direction: producing smart public television for the growing cohort of people who are beginning to find television too dumb to watch at all.
Some of the outrage within the cultural community is justified, too. TVO’s backdoor explanation of the cancellation tacitly hints that the cuts have been made in the name of some sort of shadowy formula that justifies programming in direct relation to the dollar value of public and corporate support any given program item can generate—a strange position to take given the network’s ridiculous terms for accepting sponsorship funding, which prevents direct solicitation of support for specific programming unless it comes from a “non-profit” source.
Imprint has been running for sixteen years now, which makes it the longest-running television book show in the English language world. It was originally the brain-child of Daniel Richler’s tenure as arts head at TVO, and while Daniel was hosting it, Imprint was much more than a mere book show. It was—and I’m being exact here—a television show about the cultural and political importance and possibilities of precisely crafted language. Mostly it focused on books and their authors because book writers are—and are likely to remain—the most skilled non-sectarian practitioners of language. But the early Imprint shows weren’t close to an exclusive focus, and the original producers went out of their way to keep their eyes on the larger ball they set out to track, and they created a rare and relevant kind of television from it.
When Richler tired of TVO and was followed as arts head by a series of in-house arts administrators, the focus began to waver. Then Richard Ouzounian took over, and things quickly went south. Ouzounian, who isn’t a bad arts guy if you like musicals and movies from the 1940s, believes that culture means dressing up fancy and listening to violin music, and he likes to keep arts categories where they were in about 1955. He programmed, in other words, for the audiences from the beginning of the Golden Age, when business leaders and governments began to dimly suspect that artists aren’t all neurotic troublemakers who ought to be arrested, but colourful folk who might, if properly channeled and browbeaten at cocktail parties, be good widget producers and helpful adjuncts for the tourism industry. TVO’s senior management, under threat of being privatized by the then newly-elected Mike Harris government and its neoconservative “Common Sense Revolution”, was all too eager to adjust its arts programming to Ouzounian’s tastes, no doubt hoping it would be less offensive to Harris and the North Bay mafia.
Under Ouzounian’s watch, Imprint was softened and sepiaed, right down to the show’s look, which went from hard-edged metallic silver to hearthside oranges and golds. Instead of the spikey-brained Richler and his gnarly successor, Guy Lawson, a series of Auntie-substitute hosts was brought in, and the show became about as cutting-edge as a Heather Reisman sales meeting. The show gradually became another unwatchable industrial showcase, except in this case one that duplicated the characteristics of an industry that is itself in a headlong retreat from public relevance and financial viability.
Canceling it, in that sense, is more euthanasia than tragedy.
Of more substantial interest than the cancellation of a senile arts program, meanwhile, is the degree to which the evolution of Imprint mirrors the evolution of book publishing and distribution in general over the last sixteen years, and what it implies about books—and more profoundly, literary culture itself in the 21st century. We’ve seen, since 1990, a fundamental shift from literature as a crucial cultural conversation to a low-prestige consumer commodity. This evolution, at least in Canada, is startlingly coincident with the rise of superstore booksellers (Chapters/Indigo) as the primary outlet for getting books to the reading public. The two phenomena are clearly connected, but it’s probably going too far to define one as responsible for the other, or vice versa. More likely, they’re both the product of a larger societal transformation that has seen the marketplace become the single arbiter of civil values across Western civilization. Certainly most of the subsidiary phenomena—the destruction of independent local and national production, the creation of distribution and sales monopsonies, and the narrowing range of cultural production and public distribution are characteristic and unremarkable despite their implications.
Most of what got featured in the last years of Imprint was industrial novels and novelists, and the way both were treated was much more related to their widget-value than to their cultural conversational content. Mostly viewers got mind-numbing interviews aimed at further mystifying the productive process for the bemused genre fans and little old ladies the producers imagined were out there glued to their sets awaiting insight.
Hence, a typical late-Imprint interview, only slightly parodied:
Interviewer: So, how did you really feel about character X while you were fleshing out this story, and where do those feelings come from?
Author: Well, you probably know that my great-grandmother committed suicide in 1890 with a blunt screwdriver, and I found the experience of reproducing her agony on the page cathartic. Basically, I imagined her pain, and of course, once I did that the characters just took off on their own, and the story more or less wrote itself. But of course the result bears directly on the general victimization of women, and bringing it out into the open made me feel much more in tune with my own pain after my recent knee-replacement, which was quite painful, as you can imagine.
Interviewer: I’m so sorry for you pain. But has the book sold well? I understand it might be selected as one of Heather’s favourites.
Author: As a matter of fact, I was just talking with the sales manager last week, and he has high hopes for that, and perhaps even for Oprah, but I won’t even speculate about how glorious that would make me feel.
Interviewer: I think the seven prize nominations it has already received are a pretty solid indication of what will happen next. I imagine you’ll be attending the galas. Have you chosen your dress?
Author: Yes, and I’ve even had it made by an authentic Canadian designer, actually. I can’t tell you how gratifying this all is. I feel so, uh, validated, honoured. And with all those presentation dinners coming up, I won’t need to cook for a month. And of course, every dollar means another hour at the keyboard, blah,blah.
However accurate this parody is—and I swear I’ve heard a Canadian writer deliver every one of the above lines recently, along with some far more silly ones—it bears little relationship to the Daniel Richler Imprint interviews , which rarely talked shop, preferring to contextualize authors and their books on a broader cultural and political stage, not on their performance within a shrinking niche-industry. The show, in that respect, cancelled itself five years ago by making itself so slow and irrelevant that its audience tuned out. Its demise really should have us questioning what we’ve turned literature into in our eagerness to get with the Zeitgeist, and it should have the community scurrying to find ways to return writing to the cultural mainstream.
TVO, meanwhile, has a few questions it ought to be looking at. Among the urgent ones are that of the ultimate cost of relating its programming choices to the ideology of a governing political party or to the marketplace, and the question of whether its educational mandate ought to go deeper than sucking up to the Zeitgeist or providing lazy teachers with digital alternatives to real teaching. If we’re going to have public television, it isn’t going to be of much value if it doesn’t at least try to raise the quality of public information and conversation a notch above commercial discourse. If it isn’t willing to try, then it deserves what it will almost certainly get in the near future: sold out, sold off, disbanded.
March 10, 2005 1600 w.