03/18/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT

CRTC quest for quality set to shake up Canadian production

The federal broadcast regulator says its new rules on Canadian content are about creating better quality TV, but industry watchers are divided over whether the new regime will work.

In releasing new rules about Canadian content last week, CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais seemed to be posing the same questions Canadian TV consumers might ask — how can we be in the golden age of TV when Canada has not produced any shows with the stature of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones?

The CRTC has redefined what is considered Canadian TV and revamped old-style quotas for TV stations.

It's about time, says Irene Berkowitz, an instructor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Looking for hits

Canadian TV production has been "geared toward deliverability, not popularity," she said in an interview with CBC News. Canadians have unprecedented choice — both from the 500 channel universe and online — and they're looking for hits, she said.

"The CRTC is opening the door and inviting Canadian producers to take advantage of a global playing field," she said.

Berkowitz argues Canada's production sector is already "world-class" and could be selling TV drama to HBO and Netflix if it got its creative priorities in order.

"If they embrace a show, they will buy it. There is tremendous demand around the world for great TV drama right now," she said.

But the production sector is not so sure the CRTC  has it right, saying there likely will be less Canadian programming made under these new rules. The Canadian Media Production Association estimates TV production volume in Canada was $2.3 billion in 2014 with more than 125,000 full-time jobs associated with the sector.

"It’s disappointing and it will cost jobs," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director of actors union ACTRA. "The industry as a whole is likely to diminish as a result of this decision and it will affect performers, directors, producers, crews.”

CRTC proposals for Canadian content

Among the measures announced last week:

- For specialty channels, the overall requirement for Canadian content is 35 per cent and they are no longer restricted to content in their genre.

- For network channels, the daytime requirement is dropped, but the prime-time requirement remains at 50 per cent Canadian content.

- A pilot program will recognize as Canadian content live-action drama and comedy productions based on the adaptation of bestselling novels written by Canadian authors.

- A second pilot will allow productions with a budget of at least $2 million per hour with one Canadian producer, one Canadian performer and a Canadian screenwriter to be considered as Canadian content.

- The CRTC will host a discoverability summit to incubate ideas on drawing attention to great Canadian productions, especially online.

The thrust of the CRTC's new regime is to promote big Canadian drama — $2 million being multiple times the average cost of making drama or comedy in this country.

Waddell points out that the first CRTC decisions in the Let's Talk TV series that is to reshape television in Canada have already removed dollars from the production pot.

Removing the right to run Canadian ads on the Super Bowl simulcast will cost CTV considerable ad revenue, he said. And last week's announcement that more expensive dramas are to be encouraged could remove money from genre productions, such as cooking shows, children's programming and documentaries, areas where Canada already has proven excellence.

Waiting on cable bundling announcement

"We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on the third announcement out of Let’s Talk TV," Waddell said.

That announcement on how cable is bundled is to be made Thursday. If smaller specialty channels are left to battle for consumer dollars on their own, instead of being bundled in packages by the cable and satellite distributors, some will have less money to spend on production.

"Thursday's decision will have an impact. It will be a challenge for the smaller broadcasters,” Waddell said, predicting there might be casualties among the stations.

Brian Baker, national executive director of the Directors Guild of Canada, said he believes Blais displayed a fundamental misreading of the industry when he said no more resources were needed to turn Canada's industry into a hit machine.

“He actually said in his speech that there was enough resources right now in the system. We challenge that,” Baker said. "We agree that we need to have more successful Canadian programming and we really feel strongly that the way to do it is to empower us — and we need more resources."

No quality without quantity

The Directors Guild also objects to defining a production as Canadian without insisting on a Canadian director, as the CRTC proposes to do in its pilot projects for big drama.

“It conveys a profound misunderstanding of how storytelling on the screen actually works,” Baker said. “It’s a visual medium and … a director and his key creative collaborators are what’s needed to tell a story."

Baker argues that there is no formula for making a hit — and giving it a $2 million an hour budget is not going to solve the quality problem.

"We need quantity, just like they do elsewhere in this world, especially in the U.S. and U.K., where they have a tremendous quantity of shows so a few of them can rise to the top," he said.

The association representing Canadian producers agrees and wonders how many independent producers will survive.

CMPA CEO Michael Hennessy points out that producers are at a disadvantage in negotiating with broadcasters in Canada, as vertically integrated companies such as Bell and Rogers own the networks, cable, pay-per-view and online distribution channels and are demanding to license productions for all platforms.