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How Digital Distribution is Transforming the Canadian Television Industry

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"Nobody watches just television anymore," reads front page of the Bell Fund website, an independent production fund that supports the development of new media projects in Canada. A prevailing truth in today's industry, it seems, as new technologies and emerging distribution channels are increasingly being considered more standard than they are new/emerging. The Bell Fund encourages the development of non-linear, multi-platform projects -- original screen-based content (video games, podcasts, mobisodes and the like) designed specifically for digital networks to complement traditional TV. Last year, convergent digital media (the umbrella term for the above) yielded $35-million in Canadian production volume alone. It's a small segment of the wider industry, sure, but a sign that online audience engagement is becoming as important to content producers as 'just television,' if not more. But while our industry model is focused on funding the creation of new, digital content in an effort to stay innovative, the evolution of content distribution channels is allowing new competition to bypass funding regulations, posing a potential threat to the entire system itself.

Canadians are leaders in digital media productions, says Andra Sheffer, Executive Director of the Bell Fund, mostly because they recognize that online content will enhance their core television business, rather than threaten it. The Bell Fund, which receives annual contributions from broadcaster Bell TV, among others (more on this below), has supported projects across all demos: from rich, interactive gaming experiences for kids, to linear webisodes for adults and lifestyle social media programming for tweens in between. In 2012, the Bell Fund alone invested nearly $13-million in 150 digital media-related projects. Meanwhile, its sister not-for-profit org the Canada Media Fund promotes similar innovation -- content creation/distribution across multiple platforms -- delivering more than $360-million in annual funding. This shift towards online is evident -- in May of last year, the Academy of Cinema & Television merged the Genie Awards with the Gemini Awards to create the Canadian Screen Awards, now collectively recognizing excellence in digital media. It's a "true reflection of the multi-platform universe of today," said Academy Chair Martin Katz, where "entertainment comes to us on screens of many sizes".

A burgeoning trend in digital media development doesn't necessarily suggest a supply-and-demand market model, however -- while new kinds of content's being created, it's not exactly a result of new revenue streams. Most of the funding for television projects in Canada, both digital and traditional broadcast alike, comes from taxpayers and broadcasters. The CRTC (Canada's TV regulator), along with other industry orgs, fund an array of both federal and provincial initiatives (a slew of tax credits, to start) in an effort to contribute to the creation of Canadian content. Most notably, Canada's Broadcasting Act requires television services (Bell, Rogers, Shaw, etc.) to contribute a percentage of their earnings towards Canadian programming (5 per cent of their gross annual revenues). In 2012, these companies put close to $900-million back into the system, with a current projection that spending will surpass $3-billion by the end of 2013. Our producers are leading in online innovation because they've been awarded a flexibility to innovate. It's a time of unprecedented funding for Canadian screen-based content, but a significant portion of those funds are coming from traditional TV broadcasters.

So what happens when a content delivery platform lives exclusively online -- a digital provider that circumvents the traditional broadcast system altogether, as well as its subsequent membership fees? Enter Netflix, a video on demand service that's doubled in subscribers in the past year alone (now serving 30 million in the US and an estimated 2 million in Canada). They're the current leader in the internet television phenomenon and a clear threat the Canadian system, considering we spend so much time online. According to comScore, Canadians have the second highest online engagement rates in the world, consuming an average of 25 hours of video per month. Low-cost Netflix then, is relatively well-positioned to swoop in and collect Canadian viewers. Further, they're web-based -- with no tangible national borders -- therefore conveniently exempt from the CRTC's regulations and any ensuing financial contribution requirements towards Canadian programming. "The competition in digital is, more or less, border-less" says Neil McEneaney, Interim Executive Vice-President of CBC's English Services, "and many of those competitors have access to vast content resources and deep pockets." The American video streaming giant has been flexing its content muscle recently as well, by financing its own exclusive television series with top-tier talent (along with Amazon, Hulu and YouTube), nabbing 14 Emmy noms in all major drama categories as well. "It's very validating for Internet TV," said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, "Television's not defined by how it gets to the screen, but by what's on the screen."

So while our self-funded Canadian market model, held up largely by revenues from the traditional broadcast system, is industry-leading so far as convergent digital media content, what happens if our traditional broadcasters start losing revenue to foreign online channels? If Netflix and its counterparts are delivering content to Canadians, should they not be subject to the same rules & regs as our domestic broadcasters, and be required to subsidize homegrown productions? Or does the Canadian funding system need to look past simply creating innovative digital media content, and focus instead on alternative distribution channels able to compete in today's market?

Meanwhile, Canadian television companies continue to blur the lines between traditional broadcasting and digital innovation, bringing their own online solutions to market. Bell Media's Bravo GO and TMN GO are now available, making Bell the first Canadian broadcaster to offer live and on demand video content in a unified multiplatform product suite (with flagship brands CTV, TSN & Discovery scheduled to follow). Meanwhile, Shaw just partnered with Whizbang Films on the development of His Turn, a half hour comedy part of the Bell Fund's TV Development Digital Pilot program (available exclusively on GlobalTV.com) and a case study example of distributing content online in lieu of living rooms. Moreover, the CBC is reporting higher growth numbers in some of their online productions than on traditional TV (Mr. D). "Conventional broadcast is still dominant, by far," said McEneaney of CBC, "but we're preparing for an audience-choice-driven content distribution model looking down the road." Regardless of the platform, according to McEneaney, as Canadians we have an inherent edge -- we're all tremendous storytellers. And after all, the story really is all that matters.

Dan Fricker is a Marketing Communications professional in Toronto with a focus on connecting people with brands. He has a specific interest in the intersection of audiences and online conversations. Learn more about Dan and his work at danfricker.com.

Special thanks to Andra Sheffer, Neil McEneaney, Frank Siracusa and Sasha Boersma for their help in the researching of this piece. Your time and expertise are more than appreciated.