OK, it turns out this decision is so huge it needs three posts.
If you are a creator of Canadian programming, or a fan of Canadian programming (and I’m assuming that you are one or the other if you are on this blog), then you may be wondering what impact this decision will have on the independent production sector and therefore the Canadian programs you work on or watch. It’s hard to say but here are some of the issues.
Throughout Jean-Pierre Blais’ speech and the decision there is the underlying philosophy of ‘quality over quantity’. That is a shift from the balanced ‘both exhibition and expenditure’ approach of the last TV Policy which sought to provide Canadians with both high quality entertainment but also a choice of diverse entertainment as required by the Broadcasting Act. [emphasis mine]
By removing all day quotas and focusing the exhibition requirement for conventional broadcasters on prime time, the CRTC has prioritized big budget drama. Yes, there are still Programs of National Interest (“PNI”) to support documentaries and award shows as well as drama but the flexibility of PNI has allowed broadcasters to put most of their money into the higher audience big budget dramas. The CRTC seems ok with that. I suspect documentary producers are not.
Without daytime quotas broadcasters will be less interested in running older Canadian dramas during the day (we may finally see the last of “The Littlest Hobo”) or in airing domestic daytime programming like “The Social” or “Cityline”. Often the daytime shows were inexpensive programming produced in-house by broadcasters so that may have little impact on the independent production sector. However, one of the reasons cited for this change was the broadcaster habit of amortizing their costs and filling their quotas across their services with the same programming. Is it a bad thing to miss opportunities to watch “Corner Gas” ten gazillion times on each Bell Media service as they wring every last CanCon quota out of it and instead get perhaps another “Orphan Black”? Perhaps not but the CRTC may have gone too far in the extreme if all we get are a few dramas on each service.
More evidence of the ‘quality over quantity’ approach is the two exceptions to Canadian certification, one for literary adaptations and the other for budgets over $2million per hour. Leaving aside the affront to Canadian screenwriters’ originality (hey, I worked at the WGC for 6 years so I’m still sensitive to these things) by seeming to say that adaptation is automatically better than original (apples and oranges but adaptation is easier to promote), that exception together with the big budget exception is encouraging broadcasters to commission more expensive but less Canadian programming (they don’t have to be owned by a Canadian company or shot in Canada as long as the money is spent 75% on Canadians) and still get CanCon credit for it. These exceptions won’t qualify for most other Canadian program funds (as they are now) so few may be able to take advantage of it but they do demonstrate a bias. More importantly, the exceptions have the potential to undermine a domestic independent production sector.
The other theme of the decision that impacts independent producers were the statements that there are too many independent producers and the industry must move towards sustainability. The CRTC is not completely wrong that the industry needs to be more sustainable but the decision does reflect a poor understanding of how shows are financed, produced and exploited. Many of the 900 television production companies referred to in the decision were incorporated solely for a particular production for tax credit and other funding reasons and are actually owned by a larger, permanent company.
The decision goes on to say that most producers act like service producers, unable to exploit their content. In my experience, most producers work very hard to exploit their productions throughout the world and on every possible platform in order to earn maximum possible revenues. The Canadian presence at international markets is quite significant. The harsh reality though is that increasingly jurisdictions favour domestic programs over international ones.
It’s been said before but sadly I feel like I need to say it again – the independent production sector is trying to create and produce hits but there is no magic formula to follow to achieve them. I don’t know anyone trying to make mediocre crap that no one wants to see. Even if that was true at one time, the CMF funding model based on audience success motivates everyone in the production and broadcast chain to produce popular programming.
The other impact on independent production is the announcement that adherence to Terms of Trade will no longer be a condition of licence. That means that not having a Terms of Trade agreement will no longer be a breach of that licence. At a time when broadcasters are fighting back and trying to get out of Terms of Trade agreements, the producers have lost their one big stick to keep them at the table. The larger producers will probably be fine because they have enough bargaining power to negotiate their rights but small to medium size producers will have no choice but to again take whatever deal is presented to them.
It appears that the CRTC has taken this step because it believes that if broadcasters were able to acquire international rights (which they cannot do under Terms of Trade), then the broadcasters would do a better job of promoting the programs. Leaving aside the issue of whether Canadian broadcasters have any skill in international distribution (they do not), if they had international rights as well as domestic then the producer would start to look more like a service producer than they do now. Isn’t that what the decision railed against?
[For added reaction to the Terms of Trade issue, check out the tweets of the CMPA’s Michael Hennessy, Storify’d here.]
The larger production companies will likely be able to weather this regulatory storm but I am concerned about the small to medium sized companies across the country. That means I am also concerned about the diversity of programming and choice that will be available to consumers like myself. That’s not me trying to wrap myself in the public interest but a genuine concern as an avid viewer of Canadian television.