TV Dinner in 24 Languages (1980)

FUSE May 1980 v4n4, 188-191
REPORTS: Television

photo caption:
At MTV it's mostly studio interviews and movies; documentaries are too costly.

TV Dinner in 24 Languages
How 'Multiculturalism' created Multilingual Television - separate but not equal time.

Whenever one of my housemates is station hopping on the converter I can always pinpoint Channel 47. It's not because the language spoken isn't French or English since we usually do this with the sound off. No, I identify the station by those cinemascope productions shown without the corrective lens—yielding aliens, which resemble well-known movie stars grown unhealthily thin. Other signs include movies in shades of washed sepia and magenta, or badly lit studio interviews against backdrops of travel agent posters.

But Channel 47, Multilingual Television (M.T.V.) is not just any Canadian station. Producing programs in 24 languages, it is one of the most significant creatures of the era of Multiculturaljsm in Canada, an era whose other achievement has been to alter the meaning of the word 'ethnic' to exclude Anglo-Saxons.

In much-publicized contrast to the 'melting-pot' philosophy of the United States, the Canadian government through 'Multiculturalism' encourages each ethnic group to preserve its own traditions in food, clothes and, one suspects, occupations and social status. It facilitates this mainly by allowing grants for 'ethnic' folk dancing festivals and the like. When presented in the right manner this policy might appear even progressive, but so do Bantustans when described as 'Separate Development' by white South Africans. In fact, the effect of Multiculturalism is to place each minority into neat, easily manageable cages—and you know who's running the zoo.

Except for one French station, all the other channels on my thirty-channel converter are in English, aimed at an Anglo-Saxon audience. The faces on these channels with the exception of the odd Sanford and Son or Adrienne Clarkson are all white.

Many ethnic minority Canadians look toward M.T.V. for employment as hosts, producers or technicians. It is already a job ghetto. Like its programming policy squeezing twenty-four languages into one channel, M.T.V. jams many ethnic groups into its small staff. In the multi-million dollar world of television this is the tiniest of crumbs to Canada's minorities. But it is one that will nevertheless be used to justify keeping mainstream television white and English, in front and behind the cameras. Even the community stations have been heard to respond "Greek? I'm afraid M.T.V. is already doing programming for you." This reply reflects the fact that most people see minority groups as being internally homogeneous. Stressing the ethnic factor downgrades class difference.

The majority of immigrants whose first language is other than French or English are workers—often in low paying jobs. Besides concerns of employment or unemployment their most pressing considerations include things like orientation to public services, immigration policy for sponsoring relatives and racism. Presumably, they are the most likely viewership for Multilingual television. But instead of focusing on these very real issues, 47 intoxicates its transmissions with nostalgia for homelands that exist only in tourist brochures. It doesn't work because most of us know that we came here looking for a better life.

It is true that M.T.V.'s lack of funds precludes the production of costly documentaries. But constraints of money alone do not force the type of programming seen on channel 47—well-dressed heads and torsos shimmering against chroma-keyed backgrounds of foreign cities. Neither is this blandness the responsibility of the overworked and underpaid staff.

Multilingual Television is a business venture run for profit. It seeks to produce what sells but it doesn't sell to a subscriber. It attempts to make its money like most broadcast TV stations—selling advertising space. At present much of 47's commercials come from the same car sales rooms and stereo manufacturers that buy time on mainstream anglophone stations. But M.T.V. is also prying open the unexplored treasure-box of Metro Toronto's non-anglo small businesses, a group previously unable to afford TV commercials. Unlike large corporations whose P.R. departments might be quite distanced from the executive offices, the small restaurant owner or shopkeeper will directly decide whether he or she will support a programme aimed at his or her particular ethnic group. In order not to alienate potential sponsors, producers and hosts will ensure that shows are not contro­versial. If they don't, they will soon find themselves on the job market.

What's left is a medium that portrays a hybrid world as distinct from the real world. A no-risk environment where violence, sex, bodily functions and what is deemed 'politically subversive', (the real world) have been eliminated.

The discrepancy between TV characters and real people is one we have come to expect on Network Television in Canada. Despite the lack of polish this gap is the common denominator of most Third World Television as well. Programming in Turkey, Trinidad or on Toronto's MTV have a uniformity that derives from similar economic and political constraints, and from the fact that TV personnel everywhere take their cue from the large production centres. In all these situations, Television, more through the process of production than direct censorship, shows us the hybrid as the real world. We see our society through the distorting circus mirror of the ruling class: All the Blacks, Italians and Philippinos on MTV are well fed and well groomed. Here there are no Chinese garment workers, Native car-wash attendants, Portuguese cleaners or West-Indian domestics. And most of all, there is no political anger.

In North America, television educates us to be passive and invites us to 'celebrate' our 'good' fortune at being so luxuriously duped. Canadians who speak neither French nor English have so far been denied this form of social control through television. Multilingual TV remedies this 'neglect’.

Richard Fung