Policy Matters: Requiem for ‘Independents’?

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A heretical stance: I actually feel a bit bad for most broadcasters these days. Here they sit, sharing a common language next to the biggest unregulated TV market in the world, and they’re ‘saddled’ with regulations and a mandate to deliver a morsel of Canadian content (i.e., culture). The ’casters are forced into making promises they’ll inevitably break, and find themselves dealing with pesky independent producers. Meanwhile, they’re under enormous pressure to compete for eyeballs with the likes of Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty.

The ’casters knew what they were in for when they signed up for this regulated game. But they’ve had help. For decades the CRTC has allowed them to stray from their mandates, not merely to ‘survive’ but thrive. Channels licensed to showcase the arts and foreign and Canadian films are now stuffed with police procedurals and celebrity-esque docu-soaps, with nary a hand-slap. OLN used to be about the outdoors. The W channel—which obtained mandatory cable carriage with the lofty programme promise to give voice to women’s varied experience—has become a contortion of real estate and lifestyle TV with a hodgepodge of foreign formats (save for Love it or List It).

With consolidation in the market and only about four doors left to knock on if you have a programme idea, these same broadcasters have become rigorously risk-averse and seek to ape all things American. Since they’re obligated to show factual material, they’re dipping into the bin of comedic doc/reality TV to keep advertisers engaged (and shareholders happy), adhering to the only mandate that really matters to them: to get those eyeballs at all cost.

Yet even that is proving increasingly difficult in our current volatile TV market. Audiences are proving to be rather fickle these days. After one season, even blockbusters like Undercover Boss often underperform once the initial novelty has worn off. The ’casters are making increasingly desperate moves by hoovering up vast sums of money from their kitty to role the dice with such formats as Amazing Race and Big Brother.

It makes one shudder that this portends television’s demise. Brand identity is falling apart and predictability has collapsed. Viewers are fighting cable fees and want more of a ‘pick and pay’ world. They don’t want to pay for offerings like W, Vision TV or APTN if they’re not watching them.

These concerns will weigh heavily on the CRTC this spring as it considers who to renew or grant new mandatory carriage to—that ultimate prize for channels as it guarantees millions in carriage fees from the cable companies. The cablecos are of course up in arms. (And I don’t feel sorry for them at all.) They’re in a massive conflict of interest with their own competing offerings, they aren’t keen on adding new basic fees, and they want to cut some of the channels they have been carrying until now.

Like Vision TV.

Moses Znaimer of ZoomerMedia, and Vision TV’s owner, is fighting very hard to maintain the station’s coveted mandatory carriage. It’s vital to their survival: $8.6-million of its $26-million in revenue comes from mandatory subscription fees from Canadian television subscribers. And frankly, regardless of what you think of their offerings, in our current doc-ecology we need Vision, especially a hipper, more invigorated version of it.

In a recent Globe and Mail interview, Znaimer not only touted the channel’s stellar record of documentary programming (a contentious claim for some), but said that if they’re bumped off, then it’s time to ask whether the cable and satellite companies are calling the shots or the CRTC. If it’s the cablecos, he suggests, maybe it’s time to consider deregulating the country’s broadcast sector. “This is a watershed moment,” he said, “that could determine if there are any independents left at all in the Canadian broadcasting system.”

Yes, the cable companies are calling the shots, and yes, folks like Moses are a rare species. But no, deregulating the sector is not the answer. What exactly is, I can’t say. Perhaps a first step is to remind the players (again) that a licence is like a public utility; it’s a privilege, not a right, to hold one and for now, that comes with obligations that one hopes aren’t hollow.

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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