Policy Matters: Ring the (inter)Net

Will the new Bill C-10 provide help for Canadian productions?

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Canadian Hertiage’s Bill C-10 sets forth amendments to the Broadcasting Act, following a recommendation by the Yale Report to tackle the dominance of tech giants in Canadian screen culture. The centrepiece is a radical departure from the past, with internet “over the top services” (OTTs) like Netflix being asked to contribute significantly to our production system. Yet the proposed amendments are complex and could usher in potentially unpleasant unintended consequences.

The issues and risks are varied and complex, and far exceed what I can breeze through here. Here are just some top line thoughts. First, the 1991 Broadcasting Act can’t touch online undertakings like Amazon Studios or Netflix. This “hands off” approach was repeatedly reinforced by the Harper government’s slogan, “no Netflix tax.” At the moment, these streamers are exempt from licensing and most other regulatory requirements, including contributing production funds directly to various genre envelopes at the Canadian Media Fund.

Instead of a long, painful process of a complete overhaul of the Broadcasting Act (like the multi-year exercise in the 1980s), Bill C-10 offers a set of important amendments that modernize the Act. After a good 10 years in the courts and at various Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearings, producers, filmmakers, actors, and writers asked that the CRTC figure out how to regulate the OTTs. So here we are: Bill C-10 seeks to bring the streamers into our regulatory system, grant more powers to the CRTC, and bring new money into the CMF/Telefilm.

Specifically, “online undertakings” would now be subject to the Act. This doesn’t apply to personal media sharing. Create content for Instagram or TikTok? No problem. You won’t have to register with the Commission. But if you’re an independent podcaster or streamer, you may indeed have to or get an exception. And if you make big bucks with it, you may have to pay into the Cancon system. This, to me, is the overreach.

Canadaland’s Jesse Brown is right about this part of his concern about the bill: the system should be supporting start-ups and new entrants, especially in current affairs and news (as a bulwark against the growing duopoly in the English market), not potentially scaring them off with surveillance and regulations.

A looming problem is that the Bill itself is vague. It leaves the nitty gritty, the how and wherefore, entirely on the table for the CRTC to clean up. That’s dangerous. The regulator is not exactly a nimble agency. And we don’t know what the timeline will be, nor if the CRTC will get a significant boost in resources to design the detailed rules, consult on them, test them, and deliver them. The University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist is especially vexed– 10-will-mean-a-crtc-approved-netflix-service-reduced-consumer-choice-and-less-investment- in-canadian-culture/. about what lies ahead. He thinks Bill C-10 will cause less investment in the short term because a fuzzy horizon of change will cause too much production uncertainty, creating a risky environment that could scare off precious growth opportunities (whatever those are).

And then there’s the likely struggle over intellectual property (IP). Conventionally, the big OTTs take all the rights. Appearing before the Heritage Committee, producers Erin Haskett and Damon D’Oliveira, along with Canadian Media Producers Organization (CMPA) president and CEO Reynolds Mastin, asked that Terms of Trade be added to the legislation to protect producers. “Global streaming platforms are not just aggregating unprecedented catalogues of content, they are amassing enormous control, leverage, economic power, and cultural influence,” argued D’Oliveira in Playback. Mastin said deal-making is increasingly done on tech-giant terms. “The result is a vacuuming sound that’s getting louder by the day. The sound of Canadian IP, and the revenue it generates, being sucked out of Canada by foreign web giants.”

The Canadian state by its nature is timid and too often late to the game. Forgive me if I retain some pessimism and fear that Heritage and the CRTC will lumber along to some indefinite point that deliv¬ers an out-of-date blueprint, or that a snap election will stall all the progress. We deserve a thoroughly modern, robust system that’s short on bureaucracy and long on supports for great, diverse storytelling across many platforms—but will we get one?

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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