Arts·Q&A

Canada's most pressing national controversy is a Twitter poll about old TV shows

The creator of "Canada's Most Memorable (English) TV Thing" tells us about the meaningless poll that means so much to many.

The creator of Canada's Most Memorable (English) TV Thing' on the meaningless poll that means so much to many

We're running a story about an online battle between Kids in the Hall and Mr. Dressup. Screw you, taxpayer.

On Monday, a nation will be divided. Not over language or politics or religion, but whether a few thousand people on Twitter care about the same old TV show.

Earlier this month, Vancouver's Justin McElroy tweeted a joke that's since evolved into a something he's calling Canada's Most Memorable (English) TV Thing.

It's a bracket tournament. Think March Madness, but for Canadian TV, specifically the stuff that appeared on the airwaves before 2012. It's an unrepentant slap to anyone under 20, but then, this is a conversation for people who are nostalgic for a time when television was actually seen on televisions.

McElroy, 30, is a municipal reporter for CBC Vancouver who earned a bit of notoriety a few years back for ranking every Canadian Heritage Minute ever made. He's also, to quote him, "the sort of person who knows Mr. Dressup from the Chester the Crow era, not the Casey and Finnegan era."

This information is no more or less pointless than Canada's Most Memorable (English) TV Thing.

The tournament began when McElroy crowdsourced a completely biased and incomplete list of the 64 best "things" to ever air on English TV, fare like The Friendly Giant, Degrassi, those PSAs with the fuzzy blue pom-pom monsters that sing about poison, muffins and beets.

Overnight, the polls blew up like a certain Heritage Minute about Halifax. McElroy says the surveys hosted on Twitter and his personal website were generating as many as 10,000 votes per round in addition to absurd and emotional conversation.

It's since garnered some mild national media attention (see CBC Radio's q), not to mention a bit of Twitter love from the stars of several Canadian TV things: Jonathan Torrens, Cynthia Dale. It even survived a vote-rigging scandal. Every moment of Gemini-worthy drama is documented on his blog.

Generally speaking, McElroy says: "It's a nice alternative to some of the angry arguments we have on the internet these days."

And now, we're down to final two.

Mr. Dressup or Kids in the Hall?

It's the question guaranteed to piss off every Canadian, because if they're not the kind of person who'd just be annoyed that you're asking such a stupid thing in the first place, they'll never be able to choose. It is a Sophie's Choice of mild-mannered white men, and Monday the results will be revealed. CBC Vancouver's The Early Edition will even be broadcasting the answer at 7:50 PST that morning.

You can cast your own vote until Sunday at midnight.

But first, McElroy tells us about the poll that's meant everything, and yet nothing at all, to so many. Why is he doing this in the first place, and why — in a post-Buzzfeed era when there's already an oral history of everything from Electric Circus to PJ Katie's Farm — have people been galvanized by the simplest of online polls?

CBC Arts: Why are you doing this, Justin? 

Justin McElroy: "'Cause I'm a little bit crazy. (laughs)"

"But no, two weeks ago there was an announcement that this company was setting up a YouTube channel [ed note: It's called Encore+] that would have full episodes of a whole bunch of vintage Canadian shows like The Littlest Hobo and Mr. Dressup and Little Mosque on the Prairie and others, and this got people really excited online. Just people on Twitter." 

"Different people were saying what Canada's most memorable TV show is, and just describing it matter of factly but sort of showing the absurdness by doing so, like Canada's most memorable show was about a giant who liked to play jazz music with a giraffe and a chicken."

"It became one of those fun Twitter games where people are tweeting and trying to do their best funny spin and then I went, well you know, you could actually do a vote on all this."

"I didn't mean for this to be an actual thing, but then I thought, people were having so much fun with it. It was very clear just through the conversation online that day, people obviously had a lot of warm memories of Canadian shows from their childhood and when they were growing up. Why not?"

What do you know about who's voting? 

"The media are part of it, but not overwhelmingly so, otherwise The Newsroom would've done a heck of a lot better than it did. (laughs)"

"It seems to be a combination of Millennials and Generation X-ers. It seems to be a little bit based in B.C. because that's where I am and that's where people know me, but otherwise, you can tell that it's pretty broad at this point."

"The one thing you can see is IP addresses and where the most votes from one specific IP address have come from, like, oh, it's from the CBC Parliamentary Bureau."

Is that true?

"Yes (laughs). Or, one time, a lot of people in Alberta started tweeting about it, and so the Alberta legislature was the number one place for one vote."

Let's talk about why this is even happening now. Maybe you were being facetious, but in your first blog post you said that this is something that's never been done before — a public vote to decide what the greatest Canadian TV show is.

But Huffington Post tried something similar in 2013, TV, Eh did a poll in 2011, the Gemini Awards did one in 2010. So what's your take on this? Why is this particular poll taking off?

"Ah! I think it's just the fact that it's completely public, right? [The fact that] I'm doing it on my personal blog and it's not aligned with any one media entity has made it so media all across the Canadian spectrum have been tweeting about it and giving it their thoughts."

"And the fact [is] when you have 64 shows to start with, that allows 64 different entry points for people to really get passionate about it. It allows it to seem like it's grassroots from the very beginning of the thing — born by the public."

That list of 64 shows. When you look at it, what does it tell you about Canadian TV?

"I think it's tremendously eclectic."

"We do have a lot of shows that a lot of people feel more passionately about than I'd ever thought. The number of people who yelled at me for not including Today's Special laughs in the first round was mind-blowing to me, and yet it could not get out of the first round against Polka Dot Door. It shows that the Canadian canon is pretty well established at this point."

I don't know if you can answer this, but what does it say about the voters that these are the shows we've all decided to be nostalgic about? Because it's not like they're exemplars of the golden age of TV or anything.

"Yeah, no! It's like you said, it's a big question."

"Like with Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, right? There are so many children's shows that people feel passionately about, but I knew at the very beginning it's going to be those two at the end because they were on for 30 years and everyone still talks about them and they're still the standard."

"It's one of those things where it's because of the smaller media ecosystem. And it's because we as a nation, we like creating these myths and founding stories that bind us together."

So as we're approaching the final, what could possibly beat Mr. Dressup?

"Well! This will be the interesting thing because Mr. Dressup has been dominating the entire competition but Kids in the Hall fans are incredibly passionate."

"Mr. Dressup is, of course, very broad and universal and Kids in the Hall is distinctly not. The Venn diagrams for these two are completely at odds."

Yeah, as a vote, it's two very different statements.

"It's interesting that Mr. Dressup and Kids in the Hall come from two very distinct, very different cultural viewpoints."

"Mr. Dressup would be a very traditional choice in a lot of ways, right? But Kids in the Hall is a statement of itself. You know, how we stand apart a little bit in our cultural identity. It's a cult show in a lot of ways that has gone big, and it's going to be fascinating which wins."

You don't have a prediction?

I don't.

When the results are in, then what? Where do we, as a people, go from there?

"Ha! I think it reminds us that more of these great and hilarious shows from our past should be put online. It really shows the appetite people have for this sort of stuff and it's a reminder that there is this overall desire to talk about these bits of Canadian cultural artifacts that we all know and why they bind us together."

I can see how that's what it would seem to suggest, that there's a lot of people who want to watch these things online, but I don't believe the viewership of Encore+ is particularly large right now. [Note: As of writing, the most popular English video is a Due South episode with a little more than 4,500 views.]

"That's generally the thing with Canadian culture, though. People like it and people want it and people have opinions on it, but it doesn't necessarily click with a mass audience."

What about you? What are you going to take from all this?

"The fact that so many people have so many opinions over what the greatest Canadian TV show is really amazing to me. And the other thing I'm going to take away is not to do this as a side gig again."

What is your pick for Canada's most memorable (English) TV thing? You have until Sunday to cast your vote:

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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