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Policy Matters: “The Future of Television Will Not be Televised”

The future of TV, currently being considered by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), is going to come down to whether they decide to regulate Internet video services like Netflix, and whether the unbundling of TV channels will actually unfold. They engaged recently with Canadians by offering a set of questions in a “Choice Book”—a ridiculously lopsided affair that essentially gave one the clear and dismal impression that the Commission hasn’t got a handle on anything remotely resembling the future of media consumption in Canada.

To the challenges posed by the reality of convergence, net neutrality violations and global Internet media services, they simply asked Canadians if they’d be willing to pay more (!) for everything to maintain Canadian media jobs and Cancon, as though that were the only option. The CRTC didn’t use the exercise to think about how to build a media landscape with open boundaries and new media platforms for creators. Its thinking is still firmly in the mindset of maintaining the primacy of the big TV/ISP [Internet service provider] companies and their control of the industry, their markets, their hopelessly overpriced bandwidth and your choices.

Consider the framing of Netflix, the big bogeyman on the scene since 2010. The “Choice Book” asked Canadians whether they’d be willing to pay regulatory fees for such a service. Now, why would a meter on Netflix even be considered, were it not to please an Internet provider, like Bell, who is threatened by Netflix? And threatened they are: at the moment, for instance, there is a complaint before the CRTC that Bell is charging customers $40 for 5GB [gigabytes] of Netflix content download, versus $5 for 5GB worth of its own content (see Ben Klass vs. Bell Mobility on the CRTC website). Pretty outrageous!

So what’s so scary about Netflix? One, it exists outside the loop of conventional broadcasting as we know it. Two, it offers cheaper, more accessible content. Three, it actually buys programming from Canadian producers and doc filmmakers, and finally, it’s perceived as a drag on bandwidth from the same networks like Bell and Rogers, who are also Internet service providers. They’ll be damned if they’ll be forced to sell data at bargain prices just to give consumers access to competing programming. This is where the Harperites are on the consumer’s side, and It’s why the big players are in Industry Canada’s cross hairs.

Instead of actually making good on promises to use their own very rich, Web-based assets to generate new digital content from producers, and actually compete, they’d sooner fight hard to make the nation an inhospitable market for that Netflix bogeyman. Look at Web series developments being undertaken by Yahoo, Amazon and AOL. Where is that happening in Canada? In nooks and crannies at best; not in a big Web platform tent-pole to call our own. One reason is that conventional ’casters don’t want to drive Canadian viewers any further away from their television screen, as that’s still where all the bigger ad revenue is. The future will definitely be this fight between TV screens and computer/tablet/smartphone screens.

In any case, my advice to my fellow filmmakers is that they should be fighting any attempt to impose regulation on the Netflixes of the world. The landscape for documentary funding is mighty parched and could use the infusion of potential new players—distributors and partners—like Netflix and others from outside our borders. The ironic thing about Netflix, by the way, is that it programs a lot of Canadian content and documentaries, and if you love to watch them, their algorithm will feed you more! That’s the game changer here: they’re all about algorithms and data, not ratings and ad dollars.

The community of documentarians is no doubt thrilled that the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) has indeed finally allowed foreign players to be part of the funding mix to trigger documentary funds. It’s a harbinger of where things need to go. More international distributors, services and broadcasters will have to be increasingly accommodated in new ways if we want to tell our own stories, regardless of form, delivery technology or viewing mode. With filmmakers selling North American or global viewing rights to the likes of Netflix, hopefully the CMF will be open to such services being one of those new ‘foreign’ players that can help get docs made. It sure beats demonizing them!

Read Rob King’s rebuttal to this column here.

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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