If a headline with "CRTC" in it makes your eyes glaze over you are probably not alone. But the reasons the CRTC is making headlines lately should matter to all Canadians.
As you may, or may not know, the CRTC governs Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications. Some of the decisions it made in the spring about Canadian TV programming have contributed to a startling number of appeals to our government asking for the decisions to be rejected or sent back to the CRTC for re-evaluation. As was pointed out recently in a HuffPost Canada blog, "Leaderless CRTC Is Adrift And Without A Mission," the CRTC has, for some time, been in a bit of a mess. We hope with the very recent appointment of a new chair this will change.
Regardless, what's more important than organizational disarray at the CRTC is the actual content of the appeals. In the case of the Writers Guild of Canada appeal, and a joint appeal from the other major organizations in the "screen-based" industry, the real issue is the future of Canadian culture. In a nutshell: do Canadians want to create our own, screen-based culture, arguably the most influential global cultural medium today? Or are we willing to be swallowed in one super-sized gulp by the U.S.?
Here's the backstory. The Canadian industry that creates new shows, whatever screen you watch them on, is very small, as is the Canadian marketplace. And, as in most of the western world except the U.S., new shows are subsidized by government regulation. Why? Because it's extremely expensive to make programming like drama, for instance, whether it's for traditional broadcast or streaming. So, all those unique shows from around the world we love to watch — Denmark's Borgen, England's Broadchurch, or Canada's Orphan Black or Letterkenny — don't get made without some kind of regulation. It's called supporting our own culture. It's called having our own Canadian communities, histories, ideas, quirks and humour represented, written by the people who can best do that: Canadian screenwriters.
But, obviously, the money has to come from somewhere. In Canada, part of the financing to create shows comes to a significant degree from the revenues made by three big companies that own Canada's private broadcasters: Corus Entertainment, Bell Media, and Rogers Media. Under current regulation a small percentage of those companies' revenues goes to the creation of "programs of national interest," drama, documentary, comedy, kids shows etc. The recent CRTC decisions leading to the flood of appeals is because these "expenditure requirements" were slashed to the tune of 40 per cent, which could lead to over $200 million less for Canadian drama, comedy, kids' shows etc. in the next five years. This is not money from Canadian taxpayer's pockets; this is financing from large and profitable corporations.
The fact that Canadian broadcasters don't make much Canadian programming certainly isn't due to lack of talent in this country.
Another recent HuffPost Canada piece, "The Golden Age Of TV: Too Much Of A Good Thing Or Not Enough Quality," called Canada's private broadcasters "merely playback machines for American content." This is largely true. The private broadcasters buy much American content and create little that is Canadian. Not only that, but by law the Canadian broadcasting system is protected, it must be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians. Canadian broadcasters reap the benefits of protection from direct competition. Yet, where are their obligations to the culture of this country?
The fact that Canadian broadcasters don't make much Canadian programming certainly isn't due to lack of talent in this country. Hundreds of Canadian screenwriters, many of whom openly state their preference to write and live in Canada, have already moved to L.A. because Americans want to make content, and need talented screenwriters to do it. With the CRTC cuts to Canadian broadcaster expenditure requirements, opportunities to create Canadian programs are likely to shrink even more, and increasingly screenwriters will have no choice but to leave. It's also worth noting that, unlike some other industry professionals, Canadian screenwriters don't work on so-called "service productions," primarily American shows shot in Canada.
While the loss of middle-class Canadian jobs due to shortsighted regulation is lamentable, the potential devastation of Canada's own cultural expression is even more so. After all, screen-entertainment really is the most popular cultural medium of our time. And, once the talent pool leaves this country, they don't come back. It's impossible not to wonder what Canadians will be left with at the end of the day. A Canadian culture that can't speak to the many variations of Canadianness through its own storytelling really doesn't seem like much of a Canada at all.
And here's a truth that often gets overlooked when talking about Canadian shows: Canadians — and audiences around the world — watch them. If you need evidence go on Twitter and take a look at #WynonnaEarp #DarkMatter #OrphanBlack #MaryKillsPeople #Cardinal etc. Or check out the Numeris Top 30 — just last week Canadian shows Private Eyes and Saving Hope were on that list competing with U.S. content like The Big Bang Theory. Or have a look at this stat: Canadian shows are already sold to upwards of 200 countries and territories around the world. The fact is, the world wants more Canada.
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