On Documentary and CBC’s License Renewal

DOC advocates for increased commitment to documentary at a time when CBC is reducing investment in docs.

10 mins read

Twenty years ago, it was a fraught affair for industry groups and filmmakers to intervene on public and private Canadian broadcast license renewals. I know because I used to intervene on renewals on behalf of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC).

The structure of the dance was always the same: Broadcasters ask for less Canadian Content requirements – usually phrased as “MORE flexibility on CC” — and creators ask for more. After our submissions, we’d often hear that our concerns about access, airtime, and financing were all just a bunch of whining. Or we’d encounter disdain from the CRTC itself — as though even they’d forgotten that granting and holding a license was a right, and not in fact a privilege granted on behalf of the citizens in a democracy.

I recall the 2014 structural hearing that saw the free market-minded former CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais take a withering view of just about everybody, especially content creator serfs. We had asked for OTTs like Netflix to be regulated, against the Harper government’s strenuous blather about “no Netflix Tax!” At best, Blais gave Netflix a tongue lashing, but I digress….

Things have evolved immeasurably in recent years thanks to enormous OTT growth and with solid personnel changes both at the CRTC and at places like the CBC/SRC, which just completed their license renewal hearings. (Nerd Alert: their license expired in 2018 and was extended until August 31, 2021.) 20,000 submissions were received and 70 intervenors were invited to present, including DOC. 20,000 interventions! A pretty remarkable degree of citizen and industry engagement, I must say.

So what are the broad terms of reference? The CRTC states:

  • We must make sure that CBC/Radio-Canada continues to carry out its mandate so that Canadians have access to predominantly Canadian programming services that:
    • are relevant and reflect Canadians across the country in both official language communities while meeting their needs and interests
    • reflect the multicultural and multi-ethnic nature of Canada, including Indigenous peoples
    • are of high quality and support Canadian creators and producers
    • are accessible and discoverable in Canada and abroad
    • contribute to democratic life in Canada by providing high-quality and reliable news and information.

Not a phrase about digital. Yet digital took up a good deal of airtime during the proceedings and for good reason. Indeed, CRTC Chair Ian Scott’s goal from the Commission’s perspective was to understand from the “40,000 view” just what a digital regulatory framework could look like. What growth parameters, financial transparency reporting, and discoverability could look like in the digital stream of things, especially in these COVID and (hopefully) post-COVID times ahead. True to form with the “dance of the ask,” the CBC/SRC’s asked for more flexibility as it seeks to shift programming requirements away from traditional primetime “linear” TV programming towards its on-demand digital platforms ICI TOU.TV and CBC Gem.

To complicate matters – and I’ll only point to them here – is that not all Canadians have ready access to robust or any internet services. Further, this all comes in the midst of the federal government’s Bill C-10, which seeks to amend the Broadcasting Act so that digital OTT’s like Netflix will finally be brought under regulation. It’s not legislation yet, but it is precisely what DOC et al., asked for in 2014!

DOC’s board chair Ina Fichman and executive director Sarah Spring presented oral remarks noting that the CBC has become a collaborative and transparent partner with many producers and filmmakers. Full disclosure: I myself am included here. The platforms up for discussion in terms of committed dollars and hours for docs include the digital platforms CBC Gem, ICI TOU.TV (I believe the documentary Channel as well, even though it has its own Category A specialty channel license and obligations therein), and, of course, main network strands like The Nature of Things, CBC Docs POV, and CBC Short Docs. (DOC’s report was in reference to CBC’s English language content.) On the francophone side, SRC’s only window is Doc humanité, while RDI has Les grandes reportages. Clearly, it’s a more challenging picture for francophone producers and filmmakers, to say the least.

DOC is not convinced that documentary as a genre is considered strategically important enough by the Corporation – especially in linear television. As evidenced by data up to 2017, there’s a steady decline and a projected decline into 2023 in dedicated slots, budgets, and promotion for documentaries across all platforms; and a lack of details for a plan of support for racialized filmmakers and producers. And like most broadcasters right now in Canada, the CBC/SRC’s definition of flexibility is the demand to share their promise of performance fulfilment across whatever platform – linear or digital – that they chose without prior commitment or oversight. This is the heart of the matter: DOC is asking the CRTC to be very careful in allowing a shift away from main network commitments to digital, in the absence of clear, transparent commitments to time slots, robust budgets, and to plans for both discoverability and romotion. In other words, digital programming is great and is adjunctive to — but should not replace — linear offerings that in and of themselves, should be enhanced, especially at SRC.

DOC’s recommendations for license conditions were hobbled by the fact that CBC/SRC never provided data on committed hours and dollars for docs for the years 2018-2020. Hopefully the Commission will have the data by the time it issues its license verdict.

So the ‘ask’ is straightforward: That for both long-form features and short-form docs, the public ‘caster not be allowed to reduce its commitment on either hours of programming or dollars of investment and acquisition to the genre, and that at a ‘minimum’ – whatever the benchmark was for ’18-’20 years — that they at least maintain it. In other words, that firm quotas be in place. DOC’s best guess, based on available data – indicates that there has been a reduction in hours and budgets for original commissions since 2014, with a growing reliance on acquisitions.

For the 2013 license period, CBC agreed to a minimum of nine hours of prime-time original Canadian programming, with a minimum of two of those hours devoted to documentaries. In this current application, the CBC is asking for flexible allotment of 10 hours per week. That could be a big net loss. The concern may be that they want to spend more for less. (CBC’s Barb Williams did this when she was head honcho at Shaw/Corus, spending enormous sums for the commission of single shows like the costly Big Brother Canada.)

I actually find this number shockingly low for both main networks, their windows, and their two digital offerings in English and French. We may have to get some follow up clarification on that. In any case, whatever the ask, the point is: There is a proposed removal of any minimum requirement for long form documentaries. In fact, there’s a projected decline proposed: For English main and digital networks for instance, there’s a projected loss of about $2 million in commissions/acquisitions from 2019 -2023.

What we need, which DOC asked the Commissioners for, is robust annual reporting on expenditures (hours, dollars), on investments in discoverability and promotion, and most critically, reporting on meaningful support of and collaboration with BIPOC companies and creators.

The CRTC will render its decision likely by the late spring, 2021. POV will update on any forthcoming data and new information.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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