Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services are so drastically changing the playing field for Canadian audiences, it no longer makes sense to provide subsidies to content creators or producers directly. In fact, it might be a better idea to give money to the CBC directly, so that taxpayer dollars would be going back into a network that broadcasts content of interest to Canadian viewers.
In other words, is it time to revoke the Canadian content requirement for TV? Do Canadians even need or want it anymore?
A pair of reports released last month, one from the Fraser Institute and the other from the C.D. Howe Institute, both argue that it’s time for a change, especially in light of the possible upcoming revision to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The Fraser Institute, in its 51-page report, “Technological Change and its Implications for Regulating Canada Television Broadcasting Sector,” argues that there is “no compelling empirical support” for the “outdated” belief that Canadians feel more patriotic and nationalistic when watching shows with a stronger and more deliberate affiliation with the country. Any national identity to be gained or affirmed through televised content is likely to come from news, public affairs or other related programming. “To the extent that such programming would be ‘undersubscribed’ in the absence of government financial support, it is arguably more efficient and more democratic to subsidize this type of programming directly through the tax system, as in the case of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”
Similarly, in its 28-page report, “Changing the Channel on Canadian Communications Regulation,” the Howe Institute report states that, as broadcasting and communications regulations have not kept pace with the changing world of entertainment viewing options, “the federal government should replace ineffective Canadian content regulations with direct subsidies, introduce more legal and economic rigour in regulatory hearings, and eliminate ownership restrictions on communications companies and wireless spectrum,” according to that report’s summary.
The report’s authors, Benjamin Dachis and Daniel Schwanen, go on to say “Canada’s legislative framework reflects an outdated structural separation between broadcasting and communications…(T)he regulatory model for communications providers is ill-suited to current technology that allows users to access whatever they want, however they want, and wherever they want.”
It’s worth noting that the reports, issued on May 25th, were released the day after the CRTC announced a hearing into the possibility of “pick and play” or “skinny” packages from cable providers, something of increasing interest to providers as more customers are cutting the cord in favor of streaming services that offer programming from a variety of networks and platforms, not just one network. Services like Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, CraveTV and others, referred to as “over-the-top service providers,” don’t have to follow any kind of CanCon requirements or meet any benchmarks, the reports repeatedly note.
The reports were viewed with skepticism from the Canadian press.
If there’s no mandate for Canadian programming, or that a percentage of content made available to Canadian viewers come from production companies based there, what’s the guarantee it will continue to exist, as the Fraser Institute suggests?
“Believing the market can be counted on to provide domestic commercial entertainment and preferring direct subsidy to the CBC rather than indirect ones to commercial broadcasters (Fraser Institute analyst Steven Globerman) also argues the public broadcaster should focus narrowly on public-interest programming,” says the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor. “So the Fraser Institute believes digital realities make regulation obsolete—along with the subsidy of anything that might make the mistake of being entertaining. (It’s adapt or die time, 22 Minutes!),” she warns. Globerman “also doesn’t address how viewers will find specks of Canadian programming in a sea of content,” competing with “big-budget, high-quality U.S. television shows (that) still dominate the cultural landscape.”
The Howe Institute report also suggests that, if there’s really a need for CanCon requirements in broadcast television, the responsibility for that work should fall to the Department of Canadian Heritage rather than the CRTC. The Department could then work with a network, like CTV, to develop a “Canadian schedule.”
While that might appear to step on CBC’s toes, “one of the strengths of the Canadian system has been the variety created by giving both the public and the private broadcasters a Canadian-content mandate, so the idea of the directly subsidized private schedule merits debate,” Taylor says.
In April, the Liberal government in Ottawa announced it would be overhauling the broadcast regulatory system, promising “a lengthy public and industry consultation process,” The Star notes. (The same might be true for radio, by the way.) Could it be that the best source of Canadian content this summer and fall will be hearings into the future of CanCon on TV?