Policy Matters: Remaking Canadian Broadcast Culture in a Digital Age

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This February Canadian Heritage released the first of many results from the nation-wide cultural policy consultation they initiated in April 2016. Let me remind you of that initiative’s goal: “to strengthen the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content in a digital world.” The key word is digital, meaning any content through the internet pipe; not cable, not even satellite, for those are old, dying delivery mechanisms.

Any takeaways for documentary and factual filmmakers and creators? Short answer—yes and no. Yes, because there’s some room for hope to be teased out of the rhetoric; but no if you’re looking for new sticks to hit broadcasters with, compelling them to pony up once again for one off docs. Reading their paper, you learn they are clearly trying to look forward; they are done tinkering with the old corrupted system.


The consultation paper runs 55 pages and is authored by Ipsos Public Affairs Canada, an Ottawa-based market research firm. The key focus was to think about how to keep Canadian creation alive amidst Netflix, Facebook and their American cousins, opening up borders, as part of a whole new level of U.S. and globalised cultural dumping. Here are the buzzwords du jour: “empowering” creators and supporting “new pathways” to global markets, and new mechanisms to keep the middle class and a chunk of its media sector jobs alive. In turn, they ask us creators to get ready for some big shifts ahead.

Under a re-thought and combined Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act (which will likely take years to create), expect a push away from 70-year-old ideas of “protection” of Canadian culture and towards notions of promoting and strengthening it. Similarly, the traditional focus on the domestic market will give way to helping creators grab a piece of the global market. Instead of subsidising CanCon, the new Liberal government lingo is to “invest” in Canadian talent and “incentivise” risk taking in a “platformagnostic” way. Nestling in all this is a lofty idea of shifting the focus from culture as an “industry” to culture as a social enterprise that in turn drives the economy.

All of this may just be semantic hair splitting, but it does mean an entire programme review of all pillars of what traditional support has entailed. And this is happening now in Ottawa. From tax credits to the NFB, the Canadian Media Fund (CMF)/Telefilm, and even the CBC (which is angling for more money in an ad-free world)—everything is up for grabs. The key will be understanding how “creators” are defined, because right now the broadcasters (old media) are fighting to be considered just that, which is why they’ve been very busy these past two years grabbing rights traditionally held by independent producers.

In the March 22 federal budget, there were signs that meat on the rhetorical bone of “investment” will be found in a new commitment of an additional $1.8 billion (over 10 years), starting next year. Will this new funding flow through the CMF or a new innovation fund? Who knows? Nor is it clear whether the “innovation” drive will be supported by new monies from internet service provider (ISP) and over-the-top (OTT) contributions (also known by detractors as the horribly misnamed “Netflix tax”). This is something many creators and stakeholders have been demanding. In a recent press releas, the Canadian Media Producers Association wrote that whatever form a new Media Broadcasting Act takes, it “must ensure that ISP, wireless services and OTT platforms contribute to the growth and success of the Canadian production sector from which they benefit” (my emphasis added).

Heritage Minister Joly has teased us with the suggestion that some kind of “contribution” model will happen from OTTs; it just won’t be an “internet tax.” So what will it be? Heritage is talking now with France and Germany, trying to understand how those countries have begun to navigate this new digital world with value-added taxes (HST), and with investment requirements from OTTs in programmes of national interest. This is a good sign. But wherever Canadian policy lands on it, be prepared for a long, protracted fight from the vertically integrated broadcaster/ISP groups, who will try again to pit consumers against producers and filmmakers, thumbing their nose entirely at the idea of cultural production as social enterprise.


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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