My post this week on the recent CRTC’s television licensing decision elicited a strongly worded response yesterday from the Writers Guild of Canada. My original post made two key points. First, responding to Kate Taylor’s assertion that CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais has offered no consistent strategy to the challenges facing the Canadian television production industry, I noted that over the course of the past five years, Blais has charted a very clear path toward making Canadian policy and regulation relevant in the digital age by promoting a competitive marketplace for Canadian creators, consumers, broadcasters, and broadcast distributors.
Second, I defended the recent CRTC decision on several grounds, including the need to address the gap between regulated and unregulated services (such as Netflix), the already-significant public support for Canadian content creation, the incentives for Canadian broadcasters to invest in original content, and the fact that Canadian broadcasters contribute a very small slice of the overall financing of domestic fictional programming which suggests that the harm to the sector from a further reduction is overstated.
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Last week’s CRTC decision on group licensing for the major Canadian broadcasters has the creative community in a panic, claiming that it could “mean the devastation of Canadian domestic [television] production.” The decision, which set a uniform spending requirement of 5 percent on programs of national interest (PNI, which includes dramas, documentaries, some children’s programming, and some award shows), means a reduction in spending requirements for some broadcasters. The Writers Guild of Canada fears that the decision could lead to a reduction in spending on PNI of $200 million over five years.
Groups have heaped criticism on CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais, whose term ends next month. The WGC labels him a “Harper appointee”, while Kate Taylor says “he doesn’t leave much of a legacy for himself” and that “his piecemeal approach offers no consistent strategy to address the challenges facing Canadian television production in the Netflix age.”
Blais may have his faults, but claiming that he has not had a strategic vision for the digital age is not one of them. He recognized that the advent of the digital networks, an abundance of consumer choice, and the effective removal of longstanding analog protections for Canadian creators would gradually reduce the relevance of the regulator and leave it with two choices. The first – favoured by the creator groups – was to temporarily prolong the protections by extending Cancon regulations to Internet services and increasing regulatory costs on broadcasters. The second was to jump on the digital bandwagon, gradually removing the safeguards and creating a regulatory environment premised on competition at all levels – creators, broadcasters, and broadcast distributors. Anyone following the CRTC broadcast and telecom decisions in recent years knows that he chose the latter.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly travels to California this week with an agenda that includes meetings with Internet giants such as Google and Facebook. Given the recent announcement in the budget that the government plans to “review and modernize” the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, the discussions may help shape an issue that could have a profound impact on the Internet in Canada as there are concerns the government may attempt to shoehorn Canadian cultural policies into telecommunications law.
My Globe and Mail column notes that Ms. Joly’s consultation last year on Cancon in a digital world revealed there is a strong appetite within the traditional Canadian culture lobby for bringing policies such as cultural taxes and mandated Cancon requirements to the Internet. The groups claim the Internet is rapidly replacing the conventional broadcast system as a means of distributing cultural content and that the longstanding analog rules should be shifted into the digital environment.
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Canadians appear to have become so accustomed to an uncompetitive cable and satellite market typified by frequent price increases and restrictive options that many are failing to recognize the arrival of greater consumer choice. Last week’s launch of the new $25 basic “skinny” cable packages mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) left many underwhelmed, as the patchwork of channels and hidden fees seemingly confirmed critics’ claims that consumers would be better off sticking with their existing, pricier packages.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) acknowledges that there is plenty of room to criticize the cable and satellite companies. They have no intention of actively promoting the cheaper options and some seem determined to make them as unattractive as possible. However, the reality is that the combination of basic television service and the pick-and-pay model that must be offered by the end of the year is changing the marketplace for the better.
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Rogers Media’s recent decision to slash 110 jobs and end all newscasts at OMNI, its multicultural channel, has sparked outrage among many ethnic communities, who have lamented the cancellation of local news programs in Italian, Punjabi, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Supporters argue that OMNI programming is essential to those communities and worry that the cancellations will mean that viewers become less politically engaged.
Last week, a House of Commons committee held a hearing on the OMNI cuts as members of Parliament from each party took Rogers executives to task. Rogers was unsurprisingly unapologetic, noting that the decision was based on simple economics as it pointed to declining advertising revenues that made the programming unsustainable.
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