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Policy Matters: Pushing the CTF Buttons

“JR [SHAW] IN HIS FOLKSY WAY, SAYS HE LEARNED AN IMPORTANT LESSON EARLY IN HIS CAREER: ALTHOUGH CABLE WAS A MONOPOLY, IT WAS NOT A LICENCE TO PRINT MONEY—IT IS, IN FACT, A LICENCE TO SPEND MONEY.” —Gordon Pitts; Kings of Convergence: the Fight for Control of Canada’s Media.

You may have heard a lot about Jim Shaw lately. J.R.’s son is the self-cultivated shoot-from-the-hip-cowboy CEO of Shaw Cable Systems. You may also know that he’s likely the most powerful communications executive in Canada.

Shaw has caused a storm in the production industry this winter by freezing his company’s federally-required contribution to the Canadian Television Fund (CTF)—the prime source of much production financing in the whole TV infrastructure. We’re talking here about 5% of annual posted revenue. Not much of a spend from the Cable side of things is it? Since Videotron joined the “strike,” the two companies are withholding at least 5 million a month. That is a lot, to Canadian producers anyway.

But Mr. Shaw claims there are problems with CTF governance, and that heck, he just isn’t sure that Cancon programs are very good or memorable. Now, Shaw, like Rogers, has reps on the CTF’s board. It’s a hard working board and yes, public and private interests bedevil it. But there’s little that should really surprise Mr. Shaw.

There should be no surprises too, for another, more salient reason. Shaw Cable System’s sister entity, Shaw Communications, spun off a separate company called Corus Entertainment to manage and “own” the specialty channel and radio assets (and Nelvana) that it hoovered up in the last decade. But make no mistake: the connection is still there. Corus’s Chair is Jim Shaw’s sister Heather and another Shaw offspring sits on the board. These specialty channels are recipients of the CTF through commissioned projects by producers. So why would Mr. Shaw threaten the very structure that has kept these assets within the regulatory fold by fulfilling their Canadian content requirements? If CTF funded programs aren’t to his liking, to whom should he really lay the blame? Broadcasters like Shaw’s former assets? Many of us have lamented the dumbing- down of CTF-applicable programs forced on us by many specialty channels in their drive for profit. Why would he pull at that particular thread, too?

Some would say that Mr. Shaw wants to bring the whole thing down into a deregulatory vortex: no Canadian content, therefore no need for specialty channels to be sandbagged by Cancon, and therefore no need for the CTF. Win/win all all-round, eh? Seems Jim has forgotten his dad J.R.’s lesson about cable.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. She produced Phyllis Ellis’s Toxic Beauty and is currently threading the needle of safe shooting on her feature documentary Unloved for the Documentary Channel. She is a member of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s COVID-19 Production Committee.

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