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Policy Matters: “Let’s Talk TV”....in Canada?

We’re being force-marched into an unbundled, digital future.


I took a mental-age test recently and discovered I’m 33. Now, these are notoriously open to ego-sparing cheating but I didn’t cheat. Really. Based on the questions, it taught me more than anything that what separates generations these days is the digital divide between millennial ‘natives’ and their young’uns, and the rest of us geezers who are the digital ‘immigrants’. (I guess I’m a successful one.)

It’s a divide brutally reflected in online forums occasioned by the CRTC’s recent call to arms to predict the Future of Television in the face of TV’s radical shift, if not outright and imminent demise as we know it…. But allow me to me step back a bit: “Let’s Talk TV” is the Commission’s attempt to seek a more inclusive, broad-based perspective from the great unwashed beyond the usual stakeholders from the broadcast and creative communities.

The online forums are brutal in a few ways. One, given our population base, the participants are few and far between, which tells you either no one gives a hoot about the future of television, or the CRTC did a piss-poor job of shouting out where and how to participate. Perhaps both. They did a YouTube clip, but it’s lame and got fewer than 700 views (http://youtu.be/mxed9yhGiw4). Many of our kids could have done that, and done it better! Given the scope of questions around all things digital, you’d think they would have done a huge push to the social-media sphere or, at the very least, billboards and ads. I follow their Twitter feed and, like their approach to the cultural part of their mandate, it sure isn’t inspiring.

Second, it’s brutal because, big surprise, it’s overwhelmingly negative. Storm the ramparts, scorch the tax payer–funded earth on which we coddled ‘creatives’ and fat-cat ISP/cable/broadcaster cabal walk. From those answering questions about technology, you read that Canadian TV sucks, it wastes our money, it’s now dead on arrival anyway, etc., ad naseum. More thoughtful participants in the ‘programming’ forum do ask for more in-depth journalism and documentaries, and several astute analyses zero in on how reality TV has overrun our channels, and how the CRTC hasn’t kept said channels’ feet to the flame on dashed Cancon promises. But typical responses? “[F]or heaven’s sake please, PLEASE unbundle cable television!” or “[P]lease sell the CBC!”

Lucky123 (a frequent contributor), for instance, wrote: Do not force the Canadian people to watch Canadian Productions [sic], they are ter- rible…. When these people produce something decent, then we will be happy to watch it, and you won’t have to force us to watch it…. Is this NOW clear to you CRTC?????????

Or Snowboard’s aperçus: I refuse to pay the outrageous prices to be able to get the few channels I want to watch… The rest of the time it’s either Netflix or other sources…..Allowing two of the major incumbents’ ISPs to purchase 2 major TV networks was a huge mistake that the CRTC made.

True dat.

These forums, like those mental-age tests, are notoriously flawed. They draw out a self-selected bunch, some of whom live to spew venom. And who can entirely blame them? We all feel powerless in this radically shifting environment. Indeed, cutting through the spew, a few hard truths can be gleaned that clearly hinge on that digital divide. TV as a material object, a screen, may survive for now (Apple TV, Chrome Cast), but only for us ‘immigrants’. The ‘natives’ are now mobile, iPad and laptop consumers of content.

Given that Canadian ISPs have been allowed to bring existing distributors and broadcasters under their wing, they are now protected too—that ‘huge’ mistake Snowboard referred to. Will they care if Slice or W channels die on the vine? Don’t think so.

Netflix and YouTube—those beloved objects of the ‘natives’—are ‘Black Swan’ events for broadcasting, changing the game as we know it. We get that. What we don’t know yet, and what the CRTC is struggling with, is how to square the new game and figure out new rules with a policy framework that still has Canadian culture and cultural job protection in the mix. That’s the only thread we have to hold on to here as we’re force-marched into an unbundled, digital future. Give them all the advice you can.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning writer, documentary filmmaker and producer. She is currently producing filmmaker Phyllis Ellis’s next feature for the Documentary Channel and Radio-Canada.

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