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Policy Matters: Another Fine Mess

With conventional TV and websites producing less revenue, you are the ones who will pay for content

Illustration by Dave Donald

Some time ago in POV I predicted that the free fall of Canwest globemedia Communications would end at the doorstep of Shaw Communications. And so, in early February 2010, Shaw proposed to acquire a controlling stake in Canwest with an undisclosed investment designed to rid the broadcaster of its creditors and emerge from creditor protection. If approved, Shaw would acquire at least 20% of equity and 80% of voting stock. If completed, the transaction would see Shaw in charge of Global TV, the specialties and other assets. There’s no relish in being correct. It was a no-brainer given the small number of players able to take on such risky media assets.

Cries over concentration of ownership will boil up, but they would have no matter who came forward. Assuming the sale occurs, the question now is what will happen to the specialty market. Shaw’s taking a gamble but they’ve got an ace in the hole: they’re a distributor and ISP, so they can deliver broadband in the future where it counts: on your computer.

Meanwhile, resuscitation for conventional TV continues unabated. Witness the CRTC’s [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] demand that the cable and satellite distributors negotiate with conventional private broadcasters to pay a fee for carriage of the old ‘rabbit ear’ signals. The Commission is alarmed by its own analysis, which confirms that ad sales and profits have tanked for conventional private TV; Cancon expenditures continue to take a back seat to foreign ones, and the distributors’ own profits are climbing. Rogers and Bell haven’t had to pay a nickel so far for the industrial changes, because they’re passing demanded fees on to consumers without protest or censure from the Commission or the government. The former can ask as much as it wants, but it’s toothless to prevent distributors from charging viewers for any new fees imposed on them (witness the local programming levy on your cable/satellite bill since 2009). Protection of profits is the unquestioned ideological foundation of this mess.

Another instance of critical care: the introduction of 3D television sets in late March. At $5,000 a pop (including 3D glasses), it smacks of yet another attempt to keep TV alive. Unless the Olympics go yearly (!) these sets will probably remain an elite item. But 3D technology itself will finally take hold—with computers now capable of the 3D experience. According to an Ipsos Reid poll, Canadians now spend more time each week on the internet than they do watching television, and 3D will enhance that. The split is about 18 hours for the net versus 16.9 hours watching TV. Sure, it’s neck and neck, but it won’t hold.

Trouble is, there is still no singular revenue model to help create web content. Broadcasters are going to have to find a way to push stuff through the internet pipe and follow iTunes’ lead by selling episodes for cash or sell cheap subscriptions for online portals. Can this generate enough revenue? Only if ad revenues follow. Yet some say the ad-driven model is entirely dead. I don’t see how it can be if the millions of eyeballs advertisers used to rely on have not disappeared but merely migrated to a new screen.

So where does this put filmmakers, especially documentarians who don’t typically have 3D social justice films in mind? It’s grim for sure. I suggest you dust off your grant-writing skills and don’t turn down that directing gig for a makeover show. Better yet, create your own broadband channel and find new media investment partners. They’re bound to be out there. Eventually.

And don’t be fooled by the festival hyperbole: This year’s Hot Docs may seem rich with offerings, but it is work that was seeded some years ago. That’s how docs often work. The coming years will likely see a roster of fewer high-end independent docs, more DIYs, and perhaps more (and high quality) branded content like Peter Mettler’s Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Now that I’d pay to see in 3D.