It might have been lost in the dropped jaws reaction to Kirstine Stewart’s sudden move from CBC to Twitter Canada, but yesterday Mario Mota released his 2013 Canadian Television Benefits Monitor. The Report, which is available in detail to subscribers and summarized in his press release, tracks each year English-language broadcasters’ reporting on their CRTC-mandated tangible benefits packages. Those are the benefits required to be spent on the Canadian broadcasting system as a condition of approval of an acquisition of Canadian broadcasting assets. The 2013 Report tracks spending for the year ending August 31, 2012. It takes this long for the broadcasters to report to the CRTC, for the CRTC to publicize the reports and for Mario to then review and analyze the reports.
We are currently enjoying substantial benefits spending on Canadian television and we now have the data to demonstrate that. Due to benefits packages primarily from Bell, Shaw and Rogers that were determined in 2011 but finally started to be spent in 2012, benefits spending jumped from $52 million in 2010-11 to $177 million in 2011-12. Not all of that was for onscreen benefits (i.e. television programming) and the Commission did allow for unprecedentedly low allocations for onscreen benefits for Bell-CTV and Shaw-Global. Even so, onscreen benefits spending increased from $44 million in 2010-2011 to $113.5 million in 2011-12. That is an increase of 158%.
Benefits are to be spent roughly equally in each year but broadcasters will not be sustaining this level of spending in each year going forward. This may in fact be a high water mark, perhaps with next year. Some packages expire in 2014, others in 2015 and the final ones in 2019. There will be smaller packages approved for Bell-Astral 2 (most of which will go to French television or radio but some for TMN), and Teletoon and Family Channel transactions are still to be determined. Currently, according to the Report the total to be spent by 2019 on onscreen programming is $355.4 million.
To give some context to these numbers, the 2011-12 budget for CMF English Performance Envelopes was $189 million. So last year’s onscreen benefits spending of $113.5 million was 60% of the full amount that was available from CMF from the performance envelopes. Additionally, benefits are to be incremental to what a broadcaster already has to spend on Canadian programming through their CPE and/or PNI CPE (see Acronym Decoder). That’s the other part of the story that we do not know yet – how much did the broadcasters spend due to the Group Licence Policy before they started spending benefits money. We need to know that before we can really get a sense of how much money is in the system for Canadian programming.
But it’s a lot! We know that much. What happens when it has all been spent? I have said this before and I am not alone – we have an opportunity here to leverage increased spending on Canadian programming to try and create permanent positive change. Last year in an article in Carrt (subscription needed) Mario Mota suggested that we leverage the increased funding in Canadian programming by implementing Non-Simultaneous Substitution (“NSS”). NSS would break English Canadian broadcasters dependence on the US schedule, give Canadian programs stable timeslots thereby increasing audiences and therefore increasing revenues. If NSS was in place, the benefits-funded “Bomb Girls” would not have been pulled off the air for a simulcast of “Survivor” and might have had a chance at a better time slot when it did return. [See Kate Taylor at the Globe and Mail].
There are technical hurdles to NSS and I am not qualified to discuss them. NSS is just one of the ways though that we can try and take advantage of the current ‘bulge’ in Canadian programming. We have audiences watching Canadian drama in higher numbers than they have in years. How do we sustain that appetite for Canadian programming and the willingness of Canadian broadcasters to keep spending money on Canadian programming when they no longer have to. I agree, getting rid of simultaneous substitution so that Canadian broadcasters have to rely on their Canadian programming is another solution. I am just not sure that the Canadian broadcasters could survive a cold turkey withdrawal of their crack cocaine. Then again, who says it would have to be cold turkey?
What else can we do? Perhaps future benefits should be put in endowments like they used to be so that they could have long term sustained investment in Canadian production as the Independent Production Fund, Cogeco Fund and others have been able to do. That is something for the Commission and broadcaster applicants to consider. Perhaps some of the benefits money yet to be approved could go to building audience demand (i.e. promotion, social engagement, sustaining a star system) so that broadcasters risk alienating their audience if they stop funding Canadian programming. [Note – in no way am I advocating a return to entertainment magazine programming, a notorious broadcaster boondoggle that was intended to build a star system but instead allowed Canadian broadcasters to spend money on promoting a lot of US programming with Canadian stars in it instead of spending it on actual Canadian programming.]
I am sure that there are other things that we could do to leverage this ‘golden opportunity’ if we put our minds to it. We need to learn from the last golden age – the mid-90s. We had so many great programs that Canadians loved to watch: “Street Legal”, “Due South”, “Da Vinci’s Inquest”, “Road to Avonlea” to name just a few. Those shows trained screenwriters, directors, actors and producers and developed a talent pool. When the money dried up with the 1999 TV Policy, which got rid of an expenditure requirement for broadcasters, a lot of the talent went south and did not return. That is what we are risking if we do not have a plan in place for post-2019. We are right now growing our talent pool but will they have careers here in a few years.
*And for the record, I was thinking more of a cow in the middle of a snake kind of bulge, nothing Jon Hamm-ish.