Is Quebec Culture Doomed to Become American?

Gaëtan Tremblay (University of Quebec at Montreal)

The fear of American cultural colonization is a recurring theme in Quebecois and Canadian discourses on culture. This apprehension explains the importance accorded to the defense and the promotion of cultural identity in all policy statements concerning culture and communications. After demonstrating the salience of this theme in policy discourses, I will provide the first elements of an answer to the question posed in the title of my paper by way of certain data concerning television supply and demand. These data permit one to conclude that American cultural productions represent a potentially important but relative influence. I will continue with an attempt to explain, by reference to the constraints of the Quebecois cultural market, there remains a real threat of cultural invasion. I will conclude with a discussion of the foreseeable consequences of an eventual integration of the cultural industries sector within the Canadian-American Free Trade Agreement.

The Promotion of Identity: A Priority Policy Objective

In Canada, broadcasting is considered an instrument of production and diffusion that must contribute to the maintenance and development of Canadian culture and its various components. The 1968 Broadcasting Act was quite explicit on this matter. The recent Broadcasting Act, adopted by Parliament in February 1991, is even more explicit. Article 3, which defines Canadian broadcasting policy, has several paragraphs pertaining to this subject. It begins by defining the maintenance and the enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty as fundamental objectives:

  1. (1)
    It is hereby declared as the broadcasting policy for Canada that
    the Canadian broadcasting system operating mainly in the English and French languages and comprising public and private elements, makes use of radio frequencies that are public property and provides, through its programming, a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty. (Bill C-40, 1991; emphasis added)

Further along the Act addresses the necessity to encourage Canadian cultural creation and expression:

the Canadian broadcasting system should...
encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity, by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view. (Bill C-40, 1991)

Finally, the act obliges broadcasters to draw upon, as much as possible, Canadian talent and resources in the make-up of their programming:

each broadcasting undertaking shall make maximum use, and in no case less than predominant use, of Canadian creative and other resources in the creation and presentation of programming, unless the nature of the service provided by the undertaking, such as specialized content or format or the use of languages other than French and English, renders that use impracticable, in which case the undertaking shall make the greatest practicable use of those resources. (Bill C-40, 1991)

For its part, the Quebec government has always argued for the control of communications within its territory, this with respect to its responsibilities for the defense and development of Quebecois culture:

It devolves first and foremost upon Quebec to elaborate a global communication policy. This policy is indissociable from the development of its education system, its culture and all that belongs to Quebec. While this policy must be coordinated with those of other governments and be coherent with the North American setting, it must first be congruent with Quebec's priorities and as such guarantee the maintenance and the unhindered evolution of our society as a dynamic element within the Canadian and North American totality. For Quebec, a communications policy is not useful, it is necessary, all the more so with each passing day. The present working document wishes to make it possible. (L'Allier, 1971, p. 2; emphasis added)

For Americans, in contrast, cultural products are commodities like any other; their production, like their circulation, should be subject to free market rules. Already committed to deregulation, they will be all the more so if they adopt the recommendations contained in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration report, NTIA Telecom 2000, published in 1988:

Congress and the FCC should immediately take steps to remove most remaining content-based rules governing radio broadcasting, and modify licensing procedures, in order to gain experience to determine what degree of television deregulation could best promote the public interest. If legislation is deemed necessary, it should seek to foster maximum competition by, among other things, providing for indeterminate radio licences, and ten-year licences for television. (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1988, p. 19)

The usual impact of American policies and decisions on the Canadian and Quebec situations is well known. In the case of free trade conditions, the report clearly indicates that the United States should pressure its international partners to adopt similar measures in order to achieve the greatest possible market deregulation:

Throughout the remainder of this century, U.S. trade and telecommunications policy makers will have to work under complicated circumstances to seek greater adherence to free market rules. The United States must redouble its efforts to persuade others of the soundness of open markets in the face of foreign concerns for their national security, privacy, economic welfare, and cultural sovereignty. (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1988, p. 127)

Canada succeeded in removing cultural industries from the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But some American authorities have already signalled their intention to take advantage of the tripartite discussions with the Mexicans in order rescind this decision.

The Presence of American Programs on Quebec Television

The considerable importance accorded by Quebec and Canadian policies to the protection and the promotion of cultural identity, is due largely to the belief that this identity is in danger, particularly with respect to the significant presence of American cultural products on the Quebec and Canadian markets. Obviously, the impact is quite different for anglophones than francophones given the linguistic barrier which affords more protection to the latter than the former. This discussion will focus primarily on French-language television. Table 1 presents data concerning the proportion of Canadian and foreign (mostly American) content broadcast by francophone Quebecois networks from 1982 to 1989. The first observation: nearly two thirds of all programs broadcast by the Quebecois networks are of Canadian origin. Public television (Radio-Canada and Radio-Québec) display quotas slightly higher than private television (Télé-Métropole and Quatre-Saisons). Second observation: the share of Canadian productions increased by 4 percentage points over the course of the seven years between 1982 and 1989. Observation three: overall the situation is not that bad. Two thirds of the total television supply is of Canadian origin, with the remaining third of foreign origin. The presence of foreign products is much higher than it is in the United States, but much less than in certain other industrialized countries.

Table 1 Proportion of Canadian Programs: General Programming (Percentages)
1982 1986 1987 1988 1989
R.-C. 65.63 64.17 69.91 68.42 67.96
R.-Q. 54.81 78.38 74.27 82.40 68.85
T.-M. 61.45 49.73 55.49 60.08 64.58
T.Q.S. 0 58.18 54.80 64.51 57.88
Total supply 60.63 62.62 63.62 68.85 64.82
Source: Gaëtan Tremblay, 1990.

The situation is even better during the evening (between 18:00 and midnight); the proportion of Canadian content attains 73% (Table 2). Where, then, is the problem? That a small state like Quebec should produce more than two thirds of its television programming is, to say the least, a considerable achievement! Should this be ascribed to the effects of regulation by the Canadian Radio-Television and telecommunications Commission (CRTC)?

Table 2 Proportion of Canadian Programs: Evening Programming (Percentages)
1982 1986 1987 1988 1989
R.-C. 73.61 73.61 74.01 71.23 75.99
R.-Q. 66.83 71.43 69.50 78.97 77.38
T.-M. 71.43 58.30 67.86 79.76 72.62
T.Q.S. 0 56.35 50.40 73.81 65.67
Total supply 70.62 64.92 65.44 75.94 72.92
Source: Gaëtan Tremblay, 1990.

Whatever the case, the Commission's regulatory quota fixing a 60% minimum for Canadian content during prime time is for the most part respected by French-language television stations. While there is little room for concern with respect to information, public affairs and educational programming, the contrary is true in the area of entertainment, particularly in the case of drama programming (series, "téléromans," films, cartoons). With respect to this programming category, Canadian performance is somewhat less than sterling (Table 3). In 1982, 16.9% of drama programming broadcast was produced locally by francophone Quebecois television stations. In 1989, this proportion had fallen to under 10%!

Table 3 Total Supply: General Drama Programming (In Minutes)
Canadian Content Foreign Content % of Canadian Content
1982 1060 5330 16.59
1986 1140 7950 12.54
1987 1385 8805 13.59
1988 1305 8410 13.43
1989 1095 9980 9.89
Source: Gaëtan Tremblay, 1990.

Table 4 gives the distribution by category for drama programming. Even though their proportion has decreased since 1982, films still represent the largest segment. Of these films barely 8% are Canadian productions. This should hardly come as a surprise; a people numbering six million cannot by itself produce the majority of the 2,800 films broadcast annually (2,862 in 1990, according to tables compiled by the Social Communication Board [l'Office de communications sociales]). But, as indicated in Table 5, more and more of these films are of American origin. In 1990, against 55% American films, there were 17% French films, 7% Canadian, 6% British, 4% Italian, and 9% of diverse origins (Source: The Social Communication Board. Because of rounding, the total does not equal 100%). In sum, there is a strong presence of American television products on all Quebecois screens, particularly in the drama category (films and made-for-TV series) yet a 50% proportion does not constitute an out-of-control invasion. Policies intended to protect and promote cultural identity, CRTC regulation and the language barrier have no doubt played a key role. But viewer preferences must also be counted.

Table 4 Total Supply: The Profile of Drama Programming (Percentages)
1982 1986 1987 1988 1989
Series 38.26 37.29 35.48 33.04 38.71
Films 52.58 52.92 51.87 54.61 47.95
Cartoons 9.15 9.79 12.66 12.35 13.18
Source: Gaëtan Tremblay, 1990.
Table 5 Proportion of American Films Broadcast on Francophone Quebecois Television (Percentages)
1986 1987 1988 1989 1990
Radio-Canada 36 41 39 41 37
Télé-Métropole 53 61 73 74 76
Radio-Québec 14 10 29 30 29
Quatre-Saisons n. d. n. d. 59 65 64
Super-cran n. d. 47 50 53 53
Totals for all stations 43 48 54 56 55
Source: Social Communications Board.

Quebecois Viewer Preferences

Like Canadians, the Quebecois insist that their broadcasting system should guarantee easy and quick access to American and French productions. This demand has not, however, hindered them from preferring "made in Quebec" television products. The Bureau of Broadcast Measurement's (BBM) ratings consistently show that Quebecois programs make up the majority of the 20 most-watched programs. Consider the following recent example of the popularity of Quebec produced programming: in the fall of 1990, according to BBM, there was but a single American program among the 20 most popular. It was a re-run of the old series The Untouchables, which placed twentieth on the list.

If the majority of the supply of television programming is Canadian and if the demand displays a preference for these products, then why do policy statements continue with the objective of protecting and promoting national identity? Does protectionist regulation serve a useful purpose? At a time of free trade, why not remove these barriers to the free circulation of information and culture? What is there to be afraid of?

Constraints of the Quebecois Market

It is worth remembering that the situation of francophone television is very different than that of English language Canadian television, which is much more exposed to American influences given their linguistic similarity. The Quebecois, like Canadians, want to keep their protective policies and regulations concerning the promotion of their cultural identity, because they are convinced that without them, the situation would rapidly deteriorate. In Quebec's case, this fear has taken root because of four factors: (1) the proximity of the American giant; (2) a limited internal market; (3) its status as a linguistic minority in North America; and (4) the fact that market rules favour the purchase of American products.

Table 6 illustrates the disproportionate relation between production and distribution capacities in Canada and those in the United States. The latter controls 41.54% of the global audiovisual market while Canada's share is only 1.93%. Quebec's share of Canadian production is close to 25%. Quebec has a very limited market consisting of six million consumers. While this market restriction is an obstacle for all businesses, it is all the more so for cultural industries, which carry the marks of a specific culture while the production of material goods can cross borders more easily, at least in Europe and North America. In contrast, cultural goods are very dependent on ways of feeling, of doing and of knowing. Most of them are also closely associated with a particular language. Thus, the obstacles to the international diffusion of cultural productions are greater than those for other types of industries. This often limits businesses to their own national market, a restriction which, at a minimum, renders efforts to circumvent them difficult.

Table 6
The Distribution of the Global
Audiovisual Market in 1988
Country %
U.S.A. 41.54
E.E.C. 29.76
Other European 2.41
Japan 20.38
Canada 1.93
Australia 3.32
Brazil 0.67
IDATE, calculated as a function of the earnings of the top 100 audio- visual companies in the world.

Increased production and distribution costs in cultural goods has made commercialization and profitability more and more risky within the confines of small markets. UNESCO, for example, estimates that there must be at least 10 million people to make national literatures viable and to guarantee the survival of an indigenous book market without government support. At the present time, feature film budgets are calculated in millions of dollars. It is therefore essential that box office earnings be counted in millions if producers are to recoup their investments and turn a profit. The same is true for cultural industries in other sectors.

Faced with imposing production and distribution costs and in the context of a small market consisting of a few million consumers, survival and development require capturing a considerable share of this small market (bring out a best seller, have a box office smash, reach the top of the hit parade), reliance on support from the state, or product exports. Several cultural industry sectors receive some sort of aid from the state, insufficient perhaps but real nonetheless. As for exportation, it has become, in the mouths of certain political authorities, a panacea for all the ills afflicting cultural industries. But as I indicated above, the conquest of foreign markets, in the field of culture, is easier said than done. The desire to reduce investment risks, to exploit economies of scale and to optimize possibilities for profit are factors that help to explain the creation of gigantic consortiums in the cultural industries and communications sectors. Over the last few years company acquisitions and mergers have multiplied in the American market.

Obviously, American multinationals are not satisfied with their own domestic market. They export throughout the world, but Canada is first on their list, and often considered as part of their internal market. Take the example of film: distribution rights for Canada are not negotiated separately; they are a part of the distribution rights for North America. In television, American drama series, which recoup their investment in the domestic market, are offered in Canada at prices which undercut all competition. The broadcast rights for one hour of Dallas, for example, cost $60,000. The production of a similar Canadian program could require up to a million dollars.

Should the Free Trade Agreement Include Cultural Industries?

What would happen to Quebecois and Canadian cultural industries if they came under Canadian-American free trade rules? There are some who argue that nothing would not change at all given the existing high degree of penetration of American products in the Canadian market. They would remind us that foreign films make up 97% of those broadcast on Canadian television. Moreover, close to three quarters of English-language prime-time television and nearly half of French-language television consist of foreign programs. The situation could hardly get worse, they trumpet mean spiritedly. If free trade only pertained to customs duties, the cultural industries would hardly be affected. Only records and cassettes would be involved. However, what would happen to Canadian broadcasting if CRTC regulations concerning Canadian ownership of broadcasting companies and Canadian content quotas were perceived as unacceptable "irritants" by the Americans? Would we be witness to a wave of acquisitions of Canadian companies by foreign interests? What would Canada's chances be for developing an audiovisual production industry if the Americans demanded, by arguing unfair competition, the elimination of government financial aid programs such as that of Telefilm Canada (Canadian Production Development Fund)? And given the American public's rejection of dubbed programs and films, perhaps Quebecois producers would be obliged to shoot systematically in both languages, as they have already begun to do? That is, unless the proposal made to Denis Arcand to remake his film, Le déclin de l'empire américain, in Hollywood with American stars became the rule for Quebecois wishing to export to the American market.

Hopefully, the recent successes of Quebecois films (e.g., Le déclin de l'empire américain and La guerre de tuques) will not create illusions with respect to the possibilities of exporting Quebecois productions to the American market. To be sure, the president of Vidéotron, Claude Chagnon, is looking to acquire an American distribution company to enhance the diffusion of Télé-Métropole's programs. The project might well work. But for the moment these single successes are, and will remain exceptions which do not upset the cultural trade balance with our southern partners. In this balance, need I add, Quebec is at a great disadvantage. It can be expected that a free trade agreement which includes cultural industries would sharpen existing imbalances instead of correcting them. No doubt there would be some Quebecois or Canadian successes, but on the whole we would see an even greater presence of American products in all the country's distribution and broadcast networks. There would also be intense competition between the American giants and Quebecois and Canadian companies resulting in an increase of company acquisitions, mergers and closures. Finally, the degree of capital concentration in the cultural industries would be further intensified.


Canada. House of Commons. (1991). Bill C-40, An Act respecting broadcasting and to amend certain Acts in relation thereto and in relation to radiocommunication. Ottawa.

L'Allier, Jean-Paul. (1991). Pour une politique québécoise des communications. Québec: Ministère des communications.

U.S. Department of Commerce. (1988). NTIA Telecom 2000. Washington, DC: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

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