Columns

Policy Matters: Innovation Games

Will the Heritage Minister genuinely “innovate” and create a luminous film culture?

Image by Dave Donald

This spring, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly announced a broad consultation review of Canadian content and media industries. It’s likely the first such review since the brilliant-but-ignored Lincoln Report of 2004. The goal is essentially to build a new framework that will encourage Canadian production in our digital future, and to do so with a very strong world-market focus. Based on the Minister’s recent speeches (e.g. at Banff Media Festival, June 12, 2016) the operative word to drive this new framework is “innovation.”

That’s a lot to unpack, actually. First, what does “innovation” really mean? Is it just another bromide, like that oft-abused word “disruption,” or worse, the phrase “thinking outside the box”? And by whose measure? The Minister loves all of these words and phrases just a little too much for my liking, which suggests neither she nor her staff have dusted the Lincoln Report off. If they had, they’d know that the first truly “innovative” order of policy business should be to combine industry and culture, telecommunications and broadcasting under one regulatory framework and Ministry. It was a key and prescient Lincoln recommendation, whose time has surely come.


And what would “innovation” look like? Will it be an industry filled with amazing independently produced content, a healthy creative job community, larger audiences and a gazillion downloads worldwide? Or will it be a deeply entrenched, rich industry for the few who are “innovating” by grabbing rights and learning digital distribution on the fly, with producers broken on bended knee?


The C.D. Howe Institute came up with an answer. In “Changing the Channel on Canadian Communications Regulation,” authors Benjamin Dachis and Daniel Schwanen offer a very blinkered and non-innovative take on “innovation” and Cancon. They argue that policy makers should replace Cancon rules and regulations with direct subsidies (presumably to producers) and leave regulators to tinker with the conditions of competitive possibilities, where finally foreign owners are given a seat at the Canadian table.


Given how concentrated our gatekeepers have become, I’m all for more competition; I mean, something has to give, doesn’t it? But C.D. Howe is a bit fuzzy on whether such foreign owners should be required to purchase some—or any—content from our producers. They don’t reference how other nations in the EU have created cultural marketplaces, nor do they suggest how Canadians and the world would get to see these “directly” subsidized programmes. The real head scratcher is the notion that Cancon is only there because “lack of competition” required the few players to do the distribution heavy lifting for the greater good.


That’s a gross mischaracterization, to say the least. Residing next to the huge market of America has meant that we have been subject to cultural dumping in Canada for close to a century. Cancon was a bulwark against it. Netflix just makes the situation more intense, but the structure is the same, thus requiring not less, but more cultural vigilance. As media scholars Marc Raboy and David Taras once wrote (in a 2004 article for Policy Options entitled The Politics of Neglect), “No country has to face this issue quite the same way as Canada.” No country.


If the discourse around Cancon futures gets ceded to market forces and competition only, then I think we’re doomed. Not because the successes and “innovations” aren’t there from producers; indeed they are there (e.g. over $7 billion in production and $3 billion in exports). It’s because we risk losing what we’ve always understood before any other nation: that telling our stories is central to our character and survival; central to our “brand.” Whether Canadian or foreign companies can partner in these stories will be the key issue ahead.


As for “innovation,” I wonder what Minister Joly would make of the recent Super Channel debacle, which has hit the documentary community very hard. Given the CRTC’s negligence in compelling broadcasters to program indie docs, Super Channel (SC) became a vital partner since at least 2012, commissioning work from the nation’s top filmmakers, who have tremendous track records here and abroad. In early June however, SC sought bankruptcy protection. If cable companies had really been nimble and smart, they’d have cut wide and fast deals with SC, who had been begging for lower subscription fees for their customers. In fact, when reduced subscriber fees were offered, SC claims retention was pretty good. But not all cable companies would cut them such deals. Thus, they were left to circle the digital drain. It may very well be that cable’s corrupt concentration of power and their cynical (now under review) “skinny basic” schemes that didn’t include SC, are largely to blame. I guess I just don’t see anything innovative about documentary filmmakers standing at the end of a long line of creditors.

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.

View all articles by Barri Cohen »