Global National Public Television and Canada’s "Little Mosque on the Prairie"

Curator's Note

I spent this summer interviewing the creators of the program Little Mosque on the Prairie, which has aired on the English television network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since 2007. (Michele Byers wrote an excellent post about it in an earlier In Media Res post.) It’s a show about a small Muslim community in a fictional town in Saskatchewan, and it raises questions about the production and maintenance of national and religious identity in post-9/11 North America.

Rarely have I met people so gracious, and it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the production of a program I enjoy. More importantly, I gained insight into a contradiction characterizing Canadian public broadcasting, namely its frequently global orientation.

Here’s the paradox. English Canadians' sense of identity derives in part from their perception of the difference between Canada and the United States. One aspect of that difference is Canada's approach to multiculturalism, which many Canadians see as more respectful and less assimilationist than the U.S. approach. At the same time, a lot of Americans (especially academics and journalists) see Canada similarly—as a more successful realization of certain ideals about equality and social opportunity. This perception led the New York Times to send Neil MacFarquhar, its former Middle East correspondent, to write about Little Mosque even before it premiered.

What MacFarquhar's article did was confirm for Canadians that they were right—Americans seemed to agree that Canadians had succeeded in fostering a more humane approach to integration. That confirmation (not to mention the publicity that an article in the NYT generates) helped boost the premiere's ratings to unheard of levels. However, despite the interest shown by the NYT, and despite having distributed the program in a wide range of markets (including a number of Arab countries), Westwind Productions, which produces Little Mosque, has never been able to syndicate it in the United States.

The question I pose here, then, is this: what does this contradiction reveal about the cultural dimensions of the circulation of national programs beyond their original national borders, and what are the implications for a public broadcaster in particular?


Thanks for this terrific post, Kyle.  This is indeed an important question.  What is the relationship between PBS and the CBC?  Has PBS distributed Canadian programming in the past?  

Global flows fascinate me for what they reveal, particularly when flows are stopped or non-existent.  I am also endlessly frustrated as a regular ol' viewer because the U.S. seems rather narrow in the types of foreign programs it will distribute.  The BBC has long been in partnership with the US (from remakes like "All in the Family" to imports like "The Avengers" in the 1970s) but I'm not familiar with a similar free exchange between Canada and the U.S.

Your post highlights how Canadians define themselves partly in reference to the U.S.   Does the US have a similar relationship with Britain that might preclude a consideration of the similarities with our neighbor to the north?

Of course, I'd like to know much more about how industry structures operate with this example.  Which networks have the producers of "Little Mosque" approached and why have the terms never been satisfactory?  Have the producers ever approached Netflix or another streaming site? Does the possible lack of a historical relationship with U.S. distributors continue to block the flow of Canadian television to this day?

Of course, the next question is whether it matters any more.  "Downton Abbey" is airing now in England but won't arrive to the U.S. for many months.  That is not stopping many American fans of the program from keeping up with it right now along with the British audiences.  Is the flow of "Little Mosque" similarly reaching beyond traditional (read: legal) distribution methods?  What does the by-passing of traditional network distribution cycles suggest about the persistence of national models of television production? 

More to the point, is there an opportunity here for public broadcasting networks to form closer alliances with other national systems to eliminate these barriers amongst themselves?

Your attention to when global flows 'stop or are non-existent' is well taken, especially in the scope of David Harvey's recent work on the housing market bubble and China's international investments. For 'capital' to work, he argues, it has to continuously circulate.

On this point, your post does raise a pretty difficult question--if most historical formulations of 'the public' have arisen from a nation/state structure as means to promote homogeneity and a greater imagined community, then what does it mean when transnational production cultures contribute to circulate 'public' broadcasting (such as with recent BBC/CPB attempts)? Is this a logical expansion of public broadcasting into global distribution, or a dramatic shift from the early modernist need for public media?

Thanks for your feedback and questions, Karen. I'll post a brief response and try to come back later. (I'm in a bakery waiting for my family to come so we can have lunch!)

Most of the Canadian programs distributed to the United States, at least that I know of, have been either sketch comedy or kids' programs -- or both, such as You Can't Do That on Television in the 1980s. Canada has historically subsidized the production of kids' programs, making them inexpensive to export, which is how Nickelodeon -- which needed inexpensive programs to launch its network in the early 1980s -- ended up with YCDTOT. What's remarkable, there, however, is that the networks on both side of the border were commercial.

As for Little Mosque, I got the impression from Mary Darling, one of the show's executive producers, that most networks abroad that had picked up the program were public broadcasters. (I'll send her a link to this post -- perhaps she'll weigh in!) She said that network executives would approach her and describe how the program addressed issues they were facing in their country as well. Its specificity to the Canadian context (for instance in its setting, in the different ethnicities represented by both Muslim and non-Muslim characters, etc.) was outweighted by the themes it raised, which executives saw as translatable into their national context, too.

I'm still looking into questions of unauthorized modes of distribution, although most of the episodes are available on YouTube. The CBC's website posts episodes, but they're not available to people with IP addresses outside of Canada.

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