Canadian Cultural Policy Must Adapt to an Internet World

My weekly Law Bytes column (Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) focuses on the need to adapt Canadian cultural policy to an Internet world.  Given our easy access to Hollywood movies and U.S. television programming, it is unsurprising that Canadians have long placed great emphasis on cultural policies. To avoid marginalizing homegrown talent, Canada has set Canadian content as a key objective in the Broadcasting Act, established foreign ownership restrictions within the cultural industries, and safeguarded cultural policies in its international trade agreements.  

As a result, Canadian television and radio broadcasters must be Canadian-owned and comply with Canadian content requirements, while funding programs at the federal and provincial level help the Canadian cultural sector compete on the global stage. These policies have enjoyed a measure of success – Canadian musicians and children's television programming are particularly noteworthy in this regard – however the emergence of the Internet and new media is rendering many current policies increasingly irrelevant.

I argue that two pillars of Canadian cultural policy need to be reconsidered.   First, the "walled garden" approach that promotes Canadian content by limiting access to foreign content is increasingly being surpassed by technologies that provide universal access to near-unlimited content regardless of the country of origin.  Conventional broadcasters may rely on "geo-gating" technologies that seek to replicate offline borders on the Internet, yet the growth of user-generated content and the ready availability of technologies that by-pass porous electronic borders render content requirements almost meaningless in the new media environment.

Second, the emergence of the Internet as the cheapest and most effective distribution platform in the world points to the need to rethink Canadian funding programs. Many programs and policies (foreign investment restrictions, tax credits, movie co-production treaties) are geared chiefly to support either the production or distribution of Canadian content, which was once viewed as the primary barrier to global success for the culture industries. To date, far less attention has been paid to creation, marketing, and access side of Canadian content, yet in the Internet world that is precisely where support is most needed.

Canadian content requirements will unquestionably remain relevant for conventional television and radio for the foreseeable future, however, the more challenging question is whether – or for how long – conventional television and radio will itself remain relevant, particularly in light of Statistics Canada data released last week that found that younger Canadians are abandoning radio en masse.

As the importance of the Internet and new media grows, the Canadian cultural strategy must surely adapt to this new reality.   The CRTC showed signs of recognizing this with its 2005 satellite radio decision that implemented Canadian content safeguards better suited to the technology. Internet-based content presents an even greater challenge since there is no hope – nor any need – to bring Canadian content requirements to the likes of Joost or YouTube.  The policy emphasis must instead shift toward creating Canadian content and touching as many people as possible involved in the creative process.

Funding for new media is an important part of the equation.  Last month, Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda committed $29 million over the next two years to the Canadian New Media Fund, warning that Canadians were falling behind in the new media arena.  That funding will help, yet it pales in comparison to the $1 billion invested in television production by federal and provincial governments.  

Moreover, there are other fiscal possibilities, such as tax incentives that place new media on an equal footing with newspaper and broadcasting advertising as well as funding programs that recognize that Canadian creative opportunities extend well beyond the large production companies.  Ensuring access is also an important part of the equation, as regulators should preserve the right of Canadians to access the content of their choice on the Internet through net neutrality legislation.

One Comment

  1. Creekside
    Did you know about this?
    The CBC has a little known, exclusive advertising deal with a wholly owned subsidiary of U.S. Internet giant America Online.
    Since August 2005, advertisers who want to buy ad space on, the public broadcaster’s web site, are directed to AOL Canada.

    [ link ]