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Policy Matters: Culture Death Creep

“This is like a food court where every kiosk is a Subway.”

Illustration by David Donald

“This is like a food court where every kiosk is a Subway.”
— Ed the Sock on CRTC’s report on “Let’s Talk TV”, The Huffington Post Canada, March 25, 2015

IT IS A MYSTERY wrapped in an enigma. The mystery? How do you encourage Canadian media culture in a small market, which is dominated by U.S. culture and binge Netflix-style viewing of platinum-quality drama? The enigma? How to encourage Canadian industries to create better and more media-based stories, docs, drama, kids’ and comedy programmes to compete with said U.S. platinum fare. How, when the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) is still, after 47 years as our regulator, handmaiden to a plutocracy of four vertically integrated broadcast owners?

Let’s focus on the CRTC’s decisions occasioned by last fall’s “Let’s Talk TV” hearings. They amount to this: 1. No more Canadian content (Cancon) required during the day, as an ‘easing’ in to a Cancon-LESS future; 2. No more nature of service, which required specialty channels to deliver the content for which they were originally licensed; 3. Marketing of channels into ‘bundles’ will be broken in a ‘pick and pay’ world. Except for this last edict, the big owners have been given just about every break possible. Independent producers? They’ve been handed the centre of a bagel hole.

The problem is that the CRTC did not fundamentally want to “Talk TV” so much as figure out how to wrestle a better price point for consumers. They also didn’t really try to understand how development and production work in TV, how the “successes” chair Jean-Pierre Blais pontificates about wanting to engineer get incentivized in a planned or even open market like the U.S.

The Achilles hell of it all is the false notion that pulling money out of daytime and putting it all into prime-time programming will give broadcast executives the resources to finally create more excellence (à la Orphan Black). If you produce children’s programming, you’re shit out of luck. Blais wrong-headedly stakes his faith that innovation will arise by this “tearing down of barriers.”

The commission at least did not give the big owners a protected market. Their automatic carriage fee revenues will fall apart, and with it, some dead-weight channels. It’s a perfect storm that could see the broadcast groups deal with only a handful of preferred producers for the few prime time Canadian content windows that remain. I don’t see a lot of “innovation” in that, especially given how already risk-averse these owners are—something the Commission has traditionally failed to grasp.

Amongst all the commentators, the snarky sock puppet, Ed the Sock, did the best job deciphering what it means. As he put it, we’ve seen a broadcasting culture devolve from the Moses Znaimers of the world to a clutch of television execs with MBAs who “just don’t have the balls” running the show. To free up specialties from their nature of service means they are free to programme whatever you want. It’s a hall pass to find bigger, broader audiences. Specialties will become an oxymoron. No music on the music channel, no history on the History channel, no sports on TSN. TV will become “a food court where every restaurant is a Subway,” Sock quipped.

It’s “quality over quantity,” exhorted Blais. But can quality really be engineered? Will any of the broadcast groups go on a concerted hunt for the next Mad Men, which took Mathew Weiner eight years to develop and launch in a market 10 times our size? Because volume will no longer be required, there will be little room for error. As the American market has proved for eons, one in fact needs a tremendous quantity of shows to discover and nurture the standouts.

So you want innovation? Ban police procedurals for five years. Or how about mandating fatter tax credits for web series, and offering big tax credits to the venture capital investment world to help start-ups launch broadband content-production companies and channels? Break up the group licensing pool, and make the vertically integrated owners pony up some of their astounding wireless profits—amongst the highest in the world—for new broadband-based content. And once and for all, refuse to grant Cancon points to branch-plant reality show formats. Did the CRTC even touch that? Nope. They were too busy “talking TV.”

Barri Cohen is a Toronto-based award-winning director, producer and writer. She recently co-produced the CBC ‘firsthand’ POV doc, Girls’ Night Out from director Phyllis Ellis for White Pine Pictures.

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