Canadian Media Policy – Is There Any Fun Left?

Recently one of my wonks said over cocktails that all the big tv policy issues had been dealt with and now there was nothing to do but get the work done.  I’ve been thinking about this and I have to disagree.  After years of fighting a decline in Canadian television programming and particularly Canadian drama there is now the Group Licence policy, expenditure requirements and Programs of National Interest (PNI).  Once Bell-Astral is done, it is unlikely that there will be any more large acquisitions.  Or so they say (I’ve heard that one before).  There is a lot of benefits money in the system, there are PNI expenditure requirements and the BDU contributions to the CMF are still going strong.  So what is there to worry about?  Promotion?  No – I’m not going there.

We have a really big challenge that few seem to be considering.  We should be thinking now about how to fix the system that is going to be broken in a few years.  The Bell-CTV and Shaw-Global big pots of benefits monies will be spent by 2017.  By that point, BDU subscriber erosion will likely be very real as more and more cut the cord, buy their iTunes series subscriptions, watch Netflix or catch up the next day on broadcaster digital players.  [Update:  Yes, I did notice that the CRTC released 2012 financial results for BDUs right after I first posted this, and that demonstrates that erosion hasn’t happened yet as subscribers have grown by 2% for cable, though dropped by 1.8% for satellite.  But revenue growth is slowing, most likely due to subscribers cord shaving, ie paying for fewer services though staying in the system.  CMF contributions have grown but that growth has slowed down as well – and note that contributions to Canadian programming are just CMF, LPIF, independent funds and other BDU mandated contributions, not benefits or CPE as they are reported at the broadcaster level.  I stand by my worries for the future.]  BDU contributions to CMF will go down and this government is unlikely to make up the difference.  So how are we going to finance Canadian television?

I can hear the voices saying ‘why do we need to’ and that is an exhausting argument to deal with but I’ll say this quickly.  Canadians want Canadian television.  Look at the audience numbers for “Murdoch Mysteries”, “Motive”, “Cracked” and “Bomb Girls” just to mention a few on the air right now.  I do not believe that Canadians watch those shows just because they are Canadian but because they are good tv that tells stories that Canadians want to watch and reflect values that Canadians share.  So it is important as a society that we continue to be able to offer Canadians the choice to watch quality Canadian television.

How are we going to fund it?  I have not yet heard a viable proposal for how we are going to continue to offer Canadians choice in 2018.  The ISP levy is the cleanest but since the case was lost at the Supreme Court of Canada it will most likely require legislative change.  There is so much resistance to the idea though, particularly from the BDUs who are also ISPs, that an ISP levy is not likely to be an easy solution.  At Prime Time, the Chair of the CRTC told producers to look outside Canada for financing and explore co-ventures.  The problem with relying on foreign financing is that the resulting programs are overly influenced by the creative interests of that foreign financing and we end up with “Sue Thomas F.B. Eye” rather than “Flashpoint”.

It worries me that I’m not hearing conversations about how to solve the problem.  I am reading about the imminent death of Can Con regulation so those on the other side are gleefully anticipating the future.  For those who understand that the system has to change but there still needs to be a system, there aren’t any round table discussions, working groups, calls for papers or one-day symposiums so that we can try to figure this out.  Everyone seems to be taking a breather after a very hectic five or six year period and I get that.  However, if we’re not careful we are going to wake up in a few years with a broken system and no way to fix it.  No amount of promotion is going to help if there are no Canadian shows available to watch – on any platform.

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