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Policy Matters: A ray of (Star)light

Will the CRTC approve a new truly Canadian channel?

Illustration by Dave Donald

This spring will be one of the busiest seasons for our federal regulator, the CRTC, as it faces a slew of new and returning independent conventional, pay- and specialty TV services seeking either a new licence or a renewal, and/or mandatory carriage by one of the cable or satellite providers. In the mix of TV services seeking a new licence is Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel, helmed by industry veteran Norm Bolen and backed by founders and funders Robert Lantos, his old sidekick in distribution at Alliance, Victor Loewy, and a board of 14 of some of the biggest names in Canadian cinema. With the likes of distributor Hussain Amarshi (Mongrel Media) and producer Niv Fichman (Rhombus Media) and filmmakers Deepa Mehta and Denis Villeneuve as backers, along with a proposed scheduled studded with both feature docs and dramas, it’s a desperately needed player for our film culture. Most hopeful is that they’ve staked a $22 million feature film fund to help launch work by emerging filmmakers.

Their raison d’être is clear. Current broadcast and promotion of our feature docs and scripted films is at a reprehensible status quo, made worse in part by recent TV consolidations (Bravo stopped supporting TV-movies and features when Bell took over), and by the chronically anemic cultural will shown for our feature industry by other conventional and specialty broadcasters in the hall of shame. I’ve lost count, for instance, of how many times I’ve written that the CBC/SRC should not have a licence unless they commit to funding significantly more features and in any case advertise all of them for free, on radio and TV. (But then, to be accountable you’d have to have a licence hearing more than once every 13 years!)

Meanwhile, HBO Canada, TMN, Super Channel and Movie Central, have been left to carry the heavy load for the rest of them, which is whacked. They’re specialty channels so their support pots are smaller (though they’re owned by rich “parents”), and even at that, their programming and dollar commitments are extremely modest and far outstripped by the demand from our growing talent pool. HBO Canada and TMN are required as a condition of licence to help support the industry, but we all know they cleave most closely to driving viewers to Boardwalk Empire and Girls. (Which, incidentally begs the question of who the hell in Canada is supporting that kind of character-driven series work?)

As for Rogers, according to Canada.com’s Marc Weisblott they “tried to wiggle out of a regulatory commitment to show 100 hours of Canadian features on City Television, on the grounds that viewers no longer turn to broadcast networks to get their fix due to the number of specialty and on-demand services.” (Would you pay $10 per year to help make Canadian movies more Hollywood?, January 22, 2013.)

If Starlight does get a licence, there will be some self-dealing challenges. Its board is filled with distributors and heavy-hitting producers who have libraries that can be recycled onto the schedule at very low cost, potentially crowding out other work. Self-dealing could be an issue too with respect to the production fund. Those who access it may not actually end up with much equity in their own work beyond an amount equal to the tax credits used to help finance it.

These are the kinds of details the CRTC avoids; they get positively queasy over business issues the creative and industrial communities. Maybe if they did address them, we’d have more full bodied accountability and a shot at really fulfilling the cultural goals of the Broadcasting Act. But when you’re starving, the new crouton of $22 million is far, far better than the crumbs scattered across the present system.