Discoverability by Shawn Honnick (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Discoverability by Shawn Honnick (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The Broadcast Panel Report and Discoverability of Canadian Content: Searching for Evidence of a Problem

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.


  1. I wish they would stop hiding behind the false issue of Canadian content and admit that it’s all about the money.

    Simultaneous substitution was about increasing the advertising revenue of Canadian networks.

    The various TV funds and programs are about subsidizing the TV and movie industries and not about promoting Canadian culture. If it was about culture then shows like Stanger Things, Preacher, Watchmen, and Salvage Hunters (a UK American Pickers) would not have received Canadian government money.

    The current proposal is really another form of subsidy by trying to drive traffic, and therefore revenue, to the CRTC favoured sites/shows. It’s a Field of Dreams type mentality – if Canadians know about it then they will watch it. And that is simply not true. It doesn’t work for the CBC and it won’t work here.

    CBC English TV spends a little over 50% of its advertising revenue on Sales and Marketing (Bell and Rogers about 10%, Corus about 3%). It uses billboards, ads on radio, and endless plugs on HNIC, and yet it still has poor TV ratings. All these numbers are from reports filed with the CRTC.

  2. Discoverability is an essential element in the marketing of audiovisual content once that content has been conceived and produced. Since Canadian film and television content cannot compete with the waves of publicity flowing from the U.S. entertainment industry’s machinery (Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, TV Guide, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, U.S. television networks, magazines and newspapers), there have been various efforts to level the playing field and give Canadian content greater visibility. These include priority distribution lists for broadcasting distribution undertakings (BDUs), requiring certain Canadian services to be carried in basic BDU programming packages, and Canadian program scheduling requirements in the peak viewing hours. None of these policies require Canadians to watch Canadian programs; they aim simply to bring Canadian programs to the attention of the public. Now the objective is to adapt some of these same marketing policies to the more open-ended Internet environment where program scheduling is no longer dominant.

    The discoverability problem has nothing to do with searching a particular site using the word “Canada” or “Canadian”. Any search engine can perform that function. The discoverability problem concerns the massive waves of publicity given to US programs and the Hollywood star system which, unfortunately, drive much of consumer demand in English Canada, and the attendant lack of prominence with which online sites available here give to individual Canadian programs and their performers.

    To say that “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” is nonsense. Canadian broadcasters elect to exercise their right to simultaneous substitution and are absolutely free to choose whether to do so.

    While it was not regulation that pushed Netflix to promote Canadian programs such as Schitt’s Creek or Workin’ Moms, it may well have been fear of regulation. Just as the fear of imminent unionization often leads to improved wages and working conditions in a workplace, so the fear of potential regulation can lead the large multinational media players, such as Netflix, to amend their ways, a little…

    • To regulate something you need to first show there is a problem and that regulation will be an effective fix for that problem. This proposal does neither.

      Produce some evidence that Canadians actually try to find Canadian content and have problems doing so. Then show that the proposed regulation would be the best solution. Being in peoples’ faces isn’t working for the CBC so why would it work for other shows?

      If there really is a large unmet demand for finding Canadian content then the Canadian TV industry should start a website that would promote Canadian shows and show it doesn’t work before calling for heavy-handed regulations.

      This whole proposal is about subsidizing an industry and protecting Bell and Rogers from competition.

      • Netflix adapt to your taste! I watch mostly anime, kdrama, Chinese drama and British show. The algorithm only show me that kind of programming… if I was watching only Canadian stuff it’s what the algorithm would show me. Beside annoying the consumers the force Canadian content in the recommended section would bring any more customers … and slippery slope from imposing a % of Canadian content and bringing back illegal downloads in Canada !

  3. Jean-Robert Bisaillon says:

    Proper discoverability is not only about Canadian content, but it is also about relevant content for one’s interests profile. It becomes very important considering the costs that the consumers face when subscribing to streaming offers. We have found evidence that the platforms are not so god about doing this. It is notably true when they need to suggest content outside the mainstream scope.

  4. Brent Martin says:

    Let’s also consider the laughable term “Canadian Content”. The CRTC rules don’t actually require a program to actually have anything to do with Canadian culture, they’re really more about jobs. So the Canadian cultural sector’s claim that Canadians want access to Canadian programming doesn’t withstand even the most basic review. Here’s a few examples that are all CRTC certified Canadian programming:

    The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco – UK-CDN production – Two Brit codebreakers move to San Francisco in 1942 to solve a crime. On screen it has absolutely nothing to do with Canada.

    Dark Matter: A space opera. Takes place in undefined outer-space some time in the future. No nations referenced. Ever.

    Orphan Black -UK-CDN production: Near future sci-fi drama about a bunch of clones around the world. Primarily set in “Generica”.

    Stargate Atlantis and SG1- US-CDN production: Military sci-fi drama about the US military using an ancient device to travel to distant planets.

    • The Canadian cultural sector doesn’t claim that Canadians want access to Canadian programming, it only want the programming to be available and discoverable. The CRTC doesn’t certify Canada-UK coproductions; they are made eligible for recognition through coproduction treaties negotiated by Canadian Heritage (on which the CRTC has no say). Any Canada-US production is either ineligible or else certified as a co-venture under relaxed rules (the US does not have a coproduction treaty with Canada).

      As I explained in my comment of Michael Geist’s misguided January 30th blog, the least effective way to certify the huge annual volume of Canadian programs produced annually would be to mandate an army of civil servants to rely on subjective, arbitrary, discretionary or qualitative criteria to determine what constitutes a Canadian program by examining its content. The existing approach to Canadian program certification is relatively objective because it rests on quantitative measures involving Canadian production elements. In a world of second best solutions, it’s workable and effective most of the time…

      • Canadian content is available and discoverable as any other content. I suspect very few people actually search for Canadian content. Instead they search based on their own interest like drama, action, new releases, etc.

        Another issue is that the definition of Canadian content used to get government subsidies results in a lot of shows that most people would not consider Canadian being designated as Canadian.

        Canadian producers need to stop whining that they face unfair competition and recognize the opportunity streaming provides in reaching a worldwide audience.

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