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Policy Matters: The Five Percent Problem

or, Are We Strangers in our Own Land?

Illustration by Dave Donald

TO READ THE MEDIA BIZ PRESS, you’d think things were pretty terrific in Canada’s non-scripted land. Yet many factual and documentary producers and filmmakers are feeling parched. Industry consolidation and channel group ownership by cable and “telephony” conglomerates have created an oppressive environment in which broadcast executives are running to “safe” shores and almost certain crazy high ratings by programming Canadian-made American (or other foreign) format shows. If you’re wondering why there’s a glut of shows like Amazing Race Canada, Bachelor Canada, Big Brother Canada and Storage Wars Canada, not to mention a slew of lifestyle formats, this is, in part, why.

What role has current policy played in this cultural ass-kicking?

Consider the following.

The CRTC requires that broadcasters spend 30 per cent of their revenues on Canadian content, but only five per cent need be spent on documentaries, dramas, children’s or comedy programmes—what’s classified as “programmes of national interest” (PNI). The other 25 per cent can be on reality shows, lifestyle, entertainment, sports, etc. Five per cent is clearly an appalling minimum, but the broadcasters got away with it because the CRTC caved. Like an indulgent parent, they rewarded bad behaviour by allowing the historically shameful rate of spending to be used as a “floor.”

The point is that competitive reality shows based on American (or British, or otherwise foreign) original formats are permitted to be classified as part of that remaining 25 per cent portion of Canadian content spending. To complicate matters, some of these shows are enormously expensive. Big Brother, for instance, is alleged to have cost over $10 million in licence fees. It’s an unprecedented figure for a non-scripted programme, but Shaw could spend it because, since 2010, the CRTC created “group-based licencing” rules, allowing the big channel owners to pool their financial resources to meet CanCon requirements. Put concretely, pooling money allows, say, CTV to put more money into a big tent-pole drama show (thus potentially causing a significant drop in Bravo channel programming), or Shaw to spend that $10 million-plus on a Big Brother, thus depriving their lifestyle channels of money for new programmes. Media associations and lobby groups have yet to analyze fully how much this has caused shifts away from certain types of programming in favour of others.

In the meantime we can ask at this stage a few key questions: is five per cent spending anywhere near adequate for programmes of “national interest”? And should reality branch plant shows be considered CanCon at all?

According to CRTC rules, to formally qualify as Canadian content, all programmes must be substantially developed by Canadian creators in Canada. Given that these foreign shows are created and formatted by non-Canadians—right down to camera angles and lighting cues—it would insult any producer in the land to argue that these shows meet the “substantial” test in whole or in part (aside from adaptation of creative elements and logistics).

The problem isn’t that these shows are getting commissioned. I may be alone in this, but I’m glad the networks are getting great ratings. I just hope they’ll roll their ad revenues back into real Canadian programmes! And if the programmes do so well for them, gosh, let them pay for them entirely.

No, what’s disquieting is what might be getting bumped off or overlooked in TV schedules in favour of these shows. With broadcasters blowing their wads on big reality shows, the CanCon cupboard is bare for anything else, especially when they’re not compelled to pony up for PNI beyond five per cent of revenues. (Call it a CanCon tax if you must; I’m sure the broadcasting troika does.)

It’s little wonder that many producers and filmmakers are fed up with the Canadian market and welcome new funding forms like Kickstarter.

Unless the CRTC can be persuaded by powerful lobby groups like the Writers Guild, DOC and the Canadian Media Producers Association, we won’t get the chance to revisit program categories and this group licencing regime until the Rogers Media group comes up for renewal in 2014.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning independent producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She is in development with the Documentary Channel on her next film with White Pine Pictures in Toronto.

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