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Quoting American poets while Rome burns

By guest blogger Buffy Childerhose

Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you’re wrong.”

These were the words of CRTC Chair and CEO Jean-Pierre Blais as he addressed an audience at the Sheraton on February 17, 2016. To be clear, they weren’t his words, but rather, those of American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Blais was speaking about the CRTC’s change in policy after the Let’s Talk TV  hearing. The regulator is removing requirements for broadcasters to air Canadian content during the day and unbundling cable. Both are causing seismic shifts in the industry. A recent study suggested they could lead to the loss of 7,000 jobs and $400 million in funding for Canadian programs.

Yet the CRTC is undeterred.  

“Some disapprove of the course the CRTC is setting. Our course upsets their entitlements and threatens their livelihoods. These interests express their disapproval clearly and regularly,” said Blais. “We all see it on TV; hear it on radio; and read it in media releases, newspapers and blog posts.

“The many Canadians who take part in our consultations and appear at our hearings tell another story. They approve of responsive, forward-looking regulations that strip away old entitlements and foster a dynamic marketplace that rewards intelligence, creativity and daring.”

Blais continued to champion the necessity of local news, arguing, “the value to society of a vibrant, free and responsible press is immeasurable. It is a public good. “

A Look Ahead

Blais’s address comes on the heels of the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Prime Time conference earlier in February.

In the face of imminent, potentially crippling changes, one might have expected a more somber affair, complete with black crepe wreaths, weeping, hair tearing, and shrouds. But it was a mix of cheer, networking, and high spirits. Why so festive? The easy answer is an open bar. The real answer is as hazy as a morning that follows an open bar.

Much of the talk was looking to horizons, in the form of co-productions, something many production companies have been developing for some time. But with the CRTC changes, there’s an even greater urgency to developing these relationships. The focus was so trained outside the country that when I mentioned my concern over the CRTC’s CanCon changes, one producer simply shrugged and said, “I just don’t think of content as local.”

A fractured market

Regardless of the intention of each session, the one word that cut through every conversation was disruptive. Disruptive content, disruptive technologies, disruptive business models. The preponderance was a very clear symptom of the changes, both regulatory and social, that are modifying our industry.

The session that was most connected to the CRTC changes was Canadian Media Leaders – A Look Ahead.  Discussing a market that’s changing at breakneck speed, moderator Kaan Yigit, was joined by Heather Conway of CBC, Steven Denure of DHX Media, Tracey Pearce of Bell Media, and Barbara Williams of Shaw – soon to be Corus – Media.

Yigit, as he introduced the panel, cited a conference in 2012 in which he said that there were 11 million smartphones in the Canadian market, over half were BlackBerry and some five million  IPhone and androids. A scant four years later there are 20 million smart phones in Canada, of which 17 million IPhones. We don’t just watch TV anymore – we also watch computers, ipads, and phones. Consider Netflix and Shomi and Crave, he said, and how the majority of Canadian homes have these services.

And these new technologies are, wait for it, disruptive

So do we have broadcasters or streamers? And if ISPs are making hay being the streamers, why aren’t they regulated as broadcasters, with all the responsibilities that  implies, such as requirements to carry and pay for Canadian content?

The path ahead

Bell’s Tracey Pearce, meanwhile, insisted that reports of TV’s death have been exaggerated. “TV is alive and well,” she said.

Traditional TV advertising is being impacted but is still the most efficient advertising for our clients,” said Pearce. “Broadcast TV continues to deliver vast audiences. [Last year] there were over 100 occasions during which two million Canadians were watching the same show at the same time.”

According to Pearce, changes coming out Let’s TalkTV aren’t going to be bad, “We’re not backing away from Canadian content, we’re leaning in.” Yet CBC’s Heather Conway – the one person on the panel with a property that is, by its creed, Canadian in its content – took a much more sobering view.

“If you want to make great content, and great content is expensive, we need to find a way to ensure we get paid for that content… “ she said. “We do need to figure out how to deal with the fact that the price for content is being crushed. And we have to figure out a way for content creators to get paid.”

Paying up

How creators get paid is a theme across the board. At a conversation between CMF CEO Valerie Creighton and David Purdy, Chief International growth office at VICE, there was a lot of talk about how the new VICE channel will need to be fed, and how that will likely take a lot of independent content. “I believe that we have not even begun to realize how rapacious a beast that channel will be,” said Purdy, and how great the need for content will be, so I think there is a huge opportunity for ideas to be brought to Vice.”

The question Purdy didn’t answer clearly is whether VICE will grab the rights for independent productions – and leave indy producers with fewer opportunities to make a living from their creations. And as indy producers get squeezed, those of us who work for them fear we could be crushed.

Future is hazy

Most producers and workers in media are concerned and uncertain. For Blais, the future seems clear.  With regards to CRTC policy, he says, “the horse is out of the barn.”

”Corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters [are] looking for subsidies. [Some people are] just complaining. They’re forecasting doom and gloom: job cuts, revenue losses, and station closures. They run off to court, they run off to Cabinet to seek relief. It’s their right to do so, but it doesn’t make them right.”

The image of Fatcats rolling in mounds of cash are easy to dismiss or decry We’ve all lamented those who get wealthy on the backs of our labour. But what of the people actually making the content? What of the stories that Canadians want to tell? To see? Can we support an industry that truly cultivates content, rather than foreign shows rebranded and given a spritz of Maple Syrup before qualifying for a tax credit? Can we have the support we need to tell our stories for an international market?

The head of the CRTC is quoting an American poet at the beginning of an era where Canadian content and voices are no longer protected and cultivated.

The dark joke of this is hard to ignore.

If the telling of Canadian stories is, as Blais said, a social contract between broadcasters and the public, what of the implications of the new regulation for that kind of storytelling?   With the projected loss of 7,000 jobs, how many Canadian stories will be lost along the way?

This is the kind of discussion that needs to start happening in Ottawa and across Canada. There’s no time to lose.

Buffy Childerhose is an organiser with the Canadian Media Guild

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