Viewpoint: Canada – the battle continues

TBI Vision | By Stewart Clarke
Published on May 19th 2016

At the end of last year I penned an opinion piece for TBI about the drastic changes that were about to be implemented in the Canadian broadcasting industry and offered some thoughts as to the way forward.

Five months down the line there is even more to say, both positive and negative, but there are no real resolutions as yet and to a large extent, the industry is treading water.

2016 has proved the slowest ever start to a commissioning year and there is a pervasive uncertainty amongst broadcasters and producers that, along with lingering legislative constraints, continues to stifle risk-taking and innovation.

2016 has proved the slowest ever start to a commissioning year

The 700 job losses at Bell Media last year and those more recently from the Corus and Shaw merger have forced people to step into new roles as well as manage more channels. And naturally, these people are still finding their feet and coming to terms with an increased workload.

My worry is that nobody is really taking care of business and this in itself could result in further cutbacks. Smaller producers also have a concern that these cuts benefit the larger production companies; commissioners would, for example, rather spend much less time – and probably money – with one big producer making a raft of programmes than with different producers for every show.

Practically speaking, these larger producers will inevitably be taking on some of the broadcasters’ workload and this could be very appealing. A few smaller producers have already closed this year, or have been taken over, and more are expected to follow.

One of the major changes implemented by the CRTC’s (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission) review last year was the unbundling of channels. This came into effect on 1 March 2016 and now broadcasters have to offer ‘skinny’, pared down packages and added pick-and-play deals to give viewers more cost-effective options.

As predicted, with money ceasing to flow to some of the smaller, less-watched channels, we are starting to see casualties. Canal Argent, a financial/business channel, has folded for example, with attendant job losses, and I estimate that we could lose up to 10 more channels within the next 12 months.

In theory, broadcasters have a little more commissioning flexibility… there is no such flexibility granted to producers if they wish to receive vital tax credits

Canada’s TV advertising revenues have also been flat for nearly five years so channel owners are now desperately looking for shows that will sell subscriptions; invariably content with big name celebrities that will generate good PR. In theory, broadcasters have a little more commissioning flexibility this year as, following the CRTC recommendations, individual channels can now move outside their original genre restrictions. However, there is no such flexibility granted to producers if they wish to receive vital tax credits.

The criteria for tax credits was established more than two decades ago and while it once was a cushion that helped protect and grow the Canadian production industry, this cushion is now smothering us and slowly draining the life out of the industry.

One of my own productions provides a good example. True Sex Confessions, a show featuring everyday people discussing their love lives, initially qualified for funding as a documentary series. During production government factotums screened it and criticised it for being ‘too entertaining’ and we were asked to greatly increase the level of factual information and statistics to put this show back in the right box. Needless to say we were not happy, but significantly, neither was our broadcaster or ultimately the viewer.

Working to such contrived criteria is the antithesis of making the best shows possible and how can this benefit the industry going forward? This level of intervention will produce mediocre content that becomes less and less watched as unregulated new providers such as Netflix grow. And we certainly won’t be competitive on the international stage.

But, I hear you say, great Canadian scripted content such as Falling SkiesThe Tudors, or new comedy Schitt’s Creek are travelling well. And indeed they are, as there is no government intervention in scripted content; no crazy, limiting criteria to meet and no need to be overtly Canadian.

We are still very much in the pain before gain period but there are big two chinks of light in the proverbial tunnel

If unscripted programming was allowed to follow suit, but still had some level of financial support, our industry would be forced to sharpen up and make programmes that viewers really wanted to watch, both at home and overseas. Viewers don’t really care where great content comes from, they just want to be entertained and informed, and I strongly believe that they are the best people to advise us on what they want to see, not blinkered politicians and civil servants.

We are still very much in the pain before gain period but there are big two chinks of light in the proverbial tunnel since I last wrote.

I stated that an industry association, where producers and broadcasters came together to drive the agenda, would be welcome. Unofficially, different groups are now starting to work together. It’s currently more of a think tank, but I’m very much hoping this will become formalised down the line. The other major positive is the April announcement from new heritage minister Mélanie Joly.

Mélanie Joly is expected to shake up our Broadcasting Act, which has been rigidly in place since 1991

She is expected to shake up our Broadcasting Act, which has been rigidly in place since 1991, when no one could foresee the impact of digital technologies or Netflix, and next year the government will also be preparing a new cultural export strategy.

A major consultation process is about to start and creators and consumers of cultural content will be at its core. This will be a lengthy process I’m sure, but as long as freedom and flexibility – for both consumers and creators – get enshrined in any new legislation and a commercial imperative is balanced with the cultural one, Canada could start producing, transmitting and exporting the compelling content of which it is more than capable.

There’s still an awful lot to figure out and we don’t really know where we are going yet – but, as long as viewers’ needs are at the heart of any changes and Canadian content creators can be unshackled and take the lead, there is definitely hope.

Watch this space.

Sophie Ferron is President of Canada-based independent producer Media Ranch