The Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel report places considerable emphasis on the need to support the “discoverability” of Canadian content. The term appears repeatedly in the report as discoverability of Canadian content is treated as an equivalent goal to creation and production. Given the panel’s view of its importance, it recommends that all media content undertakings (other than some news organizations) be subject to discoverability requirements:
The CRTC must also be able to impose discoverability measures on media content companies. Consumers now have access to an endless choice of content, making it difficult to find, or simply recognize, Canadian content. In fact, a majority of consumers have said that they have difficulty finding content they want to watch. Further, algorithms and AI-based processes have a major influence on program recommendations with a consequent influence on the discoverability of content.
With respect to news content, the panel report features one of the most controversial recommendations that would see the CRTC identify “trusted” news sites and require news aggregators to link to them:
We recommend that to promote the discoverability of Canadian news content, the CRTC impose the following requirements, as appropriate, on media aggregation and media sharing undertakings: links to the websites of Canadian sources of accurate, trusted, and reliable sources of news with a view to ensuring a diversity of voices; and prominence rules to ensure visibility and access to such sources of news.
With the panel recommending an incredibly far reaching regulatory framework to support discoverability, one would have expected detailed evidence of a problem. Yet a deeper dive into the report indicates that the evidence presented of a problem is remarkably thin. This post examines the online streaming world, though a look at news aggregators – where searching for Canadian stories is trivially easy – is also warranted.
First, what is the evidence that consumers have difficulty finding Canadian content as the panel suggests? The paragraph cited above concluding that the CRTC must be able to impose discoverability measures because Canadians have difficulty finding Canadian content contains two footnotes that point to two reports: a 2017 Price Waterhouse Cooper report called How Tech Will Transform Content Discovery and a 2016 report from Telefilm Canada titled Discoverability: Toward a Common Frame of Reference Part 2: The Audience Journey (the Telefilm Canada report is incorrectly cited as a 2018 report but actually dates to 2016).
The Price Waterhouse Coopers report involved a survey of 1,000 U.S. residents, had nothing to do with Canada, and said absolutely nothing about the ability to find or recognize Canadian content. The Telefilm Canada report was focused on Canada but did not find that Canadians have trouble finding Canadian content. Rather, it found a range of experiences and emphasized that “word-of-mouth is Canadians’ main discoverability method.”
It may be that there are discoverability challenges. As an upcoming post will highlight, it is certainly difficult to identify what content counts as certified Canadian content since it is often indistinguishable from foreign content filmed in Canada. Yet given the significant regulatory framework envisioned by the panel, surely a stronger evidentiary record of an actual problem is needed. Two reports – one from the U.S. and the other four years old – does not make the case for new regulations requiring the CRTC to regulate the way thousands of online services make their content available to subscribers in Canada.
In fact, it is not hard to discover Canadian content on Netflix. Last year, I wrote specifically about this issue, creating a fresh Netflix account to see whether I could find Canadian programming and if the Netflix algorithm would adjust to my interests. The reality is that “discovering” Canadian content on Netflix only requires typing Canada into the search box. That immediately generates a Canadian Movies and TV section that features many shows and movies. Typing “Canadian” generates tabs for Canadian TV Shows, Canadian Movies, and Critically-acclaimed Canadian Movies, Canadian TV Comedies, and much more.
The panel would like the CRTC to require Netflix and other services to place Canadian programs on the front page, but this is precisely what happens when users demonstrate an interest in Canadian programs as the algorithm recognizes the preference and suggests similar kinds of content. It wasn’t regulation that pushed Netflix to promote Canadian programs such as Schitt’s Creek or Workin’ Moms to a global audience. It was subscriber demand. Why a regulated solution is needed is not entirely clear.
It is worth considering why discoverability has been such a focal point for the Canadian creative sector when much of the evidence suggests that users need do little more than put the term Canada in a search box. Canadian film and television production has long been a product of regulatory requirements with broadcasters required to air a certain percentage of Canadian content as a condition of licence. With a few notable exceptions, Canadian content has played second fiddle to more popular U.S. programming, which has meant that broadcasters are more likely to air the Canadian programs at less popular times. Moreover, given the reliance on simultaneous substitution, changes in U.S. programming times has had a spillover effect on Canada, with Canadian broadcasters forced to change their schedules in response to U.S. changes. That has meant that Canadian programs often lack a consistent time in the programming schedule.
Years of this experience may leave some fearing that their programs won’t be found unless efforts are made to make them more discoverable. Yet the reality of streaming services is that they have no reason to make it hard to discover programs that their subscribers want to watch. Indeed, in a very competitive market in which subscribers can cancel at any time, the opposite is true. For companies such as Netflix, they must ensure that subscribers find the content they want to watch or they risk losing them as customers.
For years, the Canadian cultural sector has claimed that Canadians want access to Canadian programming. If that is true, that provides Netflix and its competitors with all the incentive they need to ensure that they offer Canadian programming and that it is easy to find. With no long term commitment and plenty of competition, subscribers will leave if they do not find programming that appeals to them. If the culture sector is right, Netflix success in Canada is directly linked to offering Canadian programming and ensuring that their subscribers are able to find it. In this scenario, it is not regulation that drives access to Canadian content but rather subscriber demand. Yet despite those market realities – and an absence of evidence cited in the report – the panel concludes that all media content providers (including news aggregators) should be subject to discoverability requirements imposed by the CRTC with the regulator determining in some cases to which sites to link and how to ensure that such links are sufficiently prominent.