Aprhs Sports Illustrated, le deluge

Hoping to protect the Great White North from U.S. magazine pollution, Canada is trying to keep Canadian editions of American rags off its newsstands. But it isn't working.

Published April 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a typical American can go days, weeks even, without ever thinking of Canada. Quick -- who's the prime minister? What's the capital of Alberta? Yeah, sure, the signs at toll booths might carry warnings against using Canadian currency; every so often, the U.S. will be denied a 100-meter Olympic gold medal by a non-steroid-enhanced Canadian; and "Jeopardy!" might feature a category like "Canada -- Not Just America's Hat."

But to be Canadian is to live a dual identity, to wake up in the morning and read a local newspaper filled with stories of foreign politics and business. It means being denied the pleasure of seeing a movie made in your own country because foreign companies, with their staggering marketing power and cartel-like tactics, control your corner multiplex. It means turning on the TV and being inundated with broadcasts from another country. The U.S. has gone to war over less.

This explains why so many Canadians have gotten themselves worked up over something as seemingly arcane as the sovereign right to levy trade tariffs. A notoriously obsequious nation like Canada doesn't usually get upset without a good reason. And it's got good reason this time: America has been trying to force-feed glossy magazines down its throat -- and now can do so with the approval of the World Trade Organization.

The problems between the two neighbors began in 1993, when Time Warner started publishing a "split-run" edition of Sports Illustrated in Canada. The practice allowed SI to cover its editorial and production costs with the ads in its American edition, then pull in extra cash from the sale of Canadian ads in a split run north of the border. Not coincidentally, the practice conveniently enabled Time Warner to undercut Canadian publishers in the quest for scarce ad dollars.

Split runs threatened to seriously impair the viability of the Canadian publishing industry, with its notoriously anorexic profit margins, so Canada's Liberal government responded with an 80 percent tariff on ads placed in those editions. Getting the hint, Time Warner dropped the split runs -- and picked up the phone to Washington.

And so, last year, the Clinton administration, in its never-ending zeal to make the world safe for free speech -- free American speech, in any case -- took the case to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Last month, the WTO declared the tariff illegal -- and now the borders have opened wide: The publishers of over 100 magazines expect to follow Time Warner's lead with split runs.

Now, it might seem a little strange to see the U.S. turn to the WTO in its hour of need. The WTO, after all, is one of those pesky international bodies, like the World Court, that the U.S. sees fit to disregard whenever it clashes with American policy. Just last month, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky showed she had a keen grasp of that essential fact of life, when her office was asked to appear before the World Trade Organization to defend the Helms-Burton Act against European accusations of international illegality. With the obnoxious swagger that only a superpower can muster, the American trade office told Europe and the WTO to go fuck themselves -- it was keeping its anti-Cuba law.

But the U.S. has no trouble with the WTO when it rules the right way: Last year alone, the U.S. government laid a record 15 complaints against its various trading partners. While that's unprecedented in the history of the WTO and its predecessor the GATT, it might not be completely surprising, given America's reputation as the only country on earth that practices litigation as a spectator sport.

For many Canadians, the current tiff cements America's reputation on the world stage as a hypocritical nation bent on cultural imperialism. The WTO decision is like living next to the loudest guy on the block and having the cops tell you to stop whispering in your own house because you're disturbing his party.

U.S. publishers already have unparalleled access to Canadian audiences: 80 percent of magazine titles sold on Canadian newsstands (including the regular edition of Sports Illustrated) are American. The fight isn't about access. It's about the quest by Time Warner and other American media conglomerates for unfettered dominance of the newsstands of the world.

The Canadian film and television industries, dependent on government support and protection for their very survival, are terrified of the possible implications. Americans should be scared, too. If it weren't for government support of the Canadian cultural industries, this year's best picture Oscar might have gone to "Jerry Maguire" instead of "The English Patient": Michael Ondaatje was a grateful recipient of government grants for two decades.

Fact is, if the decision isn't overturned on appeal, Canadians will be forced to respond with the only means at their disposal, and it won't be pretty. Thousands of us are currently employed in America's cultural industries: Jim Carrey, Peter Jennings, Lorne Michaels, Alanis Morissette, k.d. lang, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Pamela Anderson Lee, Scott Thompson, dozens of sitcom writers and producers, the editors of Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan. If it takes just one of us to screw up a $50 million movie like "The Cable Guy," imagine what we could all do if we set our minds to it.

By Simon Houpt

Simon Houpt is a Canadian writer who divides his time between Toronto and Boston.

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