A Prime Time in Ottawa summary – Part 2
The Wonk Panel – Focus on TalkTV
This panel was tough to pull off because we don’t know what the decisions will bring, although of course everyone has a theory. Although there wasn’t much new on this panel, what struck me was the amount of general agreement on most of the issues from a diverse group of panellists – something that moderator Peter Miller pointed out but that the panellists don’t think will last. Right now, everyone’s business is being negatively affected by the slow-drip method of releasing decisions and the uncertain environment this creates. No one wants to sign a deal when the environment could change drastically, and Kevin Goldstein from Bell pointed out that the Commission doesn’t seem to have any problem messing with already signed agreements through regulatory action, a prospect he described as “terrifying”. The panellists all agreed that we are heading into a time of great disruption and transition, but no one really knows how it will play out.
The other thing the panellists agreed on was that the TalkTV proceeding was not the proceeding that we thought we were getting, although no one seemed to agree on what they thought they were getting. Jay Thomson from the CMPA mentioned that he thought the proceeding began with a conversation about balancing consumer choice with driving independent creation forward, but that got jettisoned. Goldstein said that they were hoping for a forward-looking policy that will help them compete but instead we seem to be debating irrelevant things that never should have been on the table. All in all, there was dissatisfaction with the Commission on all sides.
An interesting viewpoint was added to the panel from the consumer side, represented by Alysia Lau from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and to a certain extent by John Simcoe from PricewaterhouseCoopers who started the panel off by presenting some research they have been doing on what consumers are expecting. Compared to other panels, though, this was one panel where the audience wasn’t talked about as much as in other areas. Asha Daniere from Blue Ant did speak up for the Commission protecting consumer choice, however, she made the point that consumer choice is not the tyranny of the majority. As an independent broadcaster, it is only natural that Blue Ant would be concerned about the implications of any pick-and-pay policies that come out of the decision; Daniere’s point was that consumers can’t pick something if there is no way for them to find out about it.
A highlight for me and some of the other wonkier wonks in the room was Jay Thomson’s (feigned?) incredulity at Kevin Goldstein’s admission that the Crave TV when offered through the BDU had Cancon requirements as a VOD service, but when offered as only an internet service, it is completely free of any requirements. Goldstein agreed with Thomson that this may seem ridiculous, but also pointed out that it is equally ridiculous that Netflix has no requirements. But in the end, the panel adopted a wait and see attitude; there’s not much more they could do until the rest of the decisions come out.
Kevin Crull Keynote
Bell Media President Kevin Crull’s Friday lunch speech seemed to be a summary of the case Bell will be making before the courts in their upcoming CRTC appeals. Although this was off-putting for some in the room, people at my table were convinced.
He started off by asking the audience about the type of broadcasting system we want to have – one with Canadian content, local news, diversity of voices – and then saying that if none of those things are important (which they obviously are, to that crowd) then we are on the right track. In his view, the private broadcasting system we have now is not sustainable and we either need to make some changes or give up and leave all the Canadian content creation to the CBC (with more funding, at taxpayers’ expense, of course).
As proof of the private system’s unsustainability, he offered up the fact that while CTV is having an immensely successfully year in the ratings, they aren’t making any money.
The fundamental flaw in the private system, as Crull sees it, is that there is no legitimate Canadian rights market. Broadcasters all over the world buy foreign (U.S.) content to attract audiences and subsidize the creation of their domestic content. It is only in Canada that audiences have direct access to that U.S. content, undermining broadcasters’ ability to make money from it.
In Crull’s view, letting Canadian cable systems deliver American networks into Canadian homes was one of the first steps in ruining the Canadian rights market and simultaneous substitution was an inelegant and insufficient system to protect Canadian rights. He argued that the channels should have been blocked in the first place and that this would still have given Canadians lots of choice in programming because the broadcasters would still bring those shows in.
I found it curious that someone whose business includes a distribution service, one that is partly built on delivering U.S. channels to Canadians, now wants to end that practice. Or more accurately, regrets that the practice ever existed in the first place. Clearly we would have had a different broadcasting system, and Bell would have had a different kind of business, if cable (and satellite) companies had never been allowed to distribute U.S. channels here.
At the same time, Crull went on to defend simultaneous substitution rigorously, pointing out all the good things that it brings to the system – advertising dollars to the tune of about $40 million for CTV, the ability for small Canadian businesses to reach local audiences, and American programming as a platform to launch and promote Canadian shows.
It’s impossible to know what will happen over the next few months and years, but it’s clear that Bell has established what they are willing to fight for, and protecting Canadian territory rights for their programming seems to be at the top of the list.
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Although it may not seem like it, I have left off a lot of what happened at Prime Time this year. I heard from many people that this was one of the most interesting and engaging Prime Times ever, so kudos to Marguerite Pigott and programming consultant Kelly Lynne Ashton for putting together a great couple of days. And I encourage people to look up any and all of the sessions – I’m definitely going to give Michael Gubbins another listen.