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People flocked to the Puffin Patrol documentary on CBC because it was recommended in this column. (C MacDonald)
People flocked to the Puffin Patrol documentary on CBC because it was recommended in this column. (C MacDonald)

John Doyle: CRTC should listen to TV critics, just like everyone else Add to ...

Hands up those of you who watched River on Netflix because it came with a solid recommendation here. Great, thanks. That’s a lot of people.

Hands up those of you who watched the Puffin Patrol documentary on CBC because you heard about it here. Okey dokey, that’s a lot of people, too. I’m speculating, but I’d say a bunch of you tried out This Life on CBC because the information and analysis contained here was a better guide to the show’s merits than CBC’s marketing of the series.

Thus, it might come as shock to many of you to realize that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, in one of its more curious endeavours, has embarked on a series of “summits” about what it calls “Discoverability.”

The endeavour is promoted with the slogan, “In a world of choice … in the age of abundance … discoverability is key.” That is, it ponders how consumers discover TV content when there is a lot of choice on a lot of platforms.

Today’s epistle is not about me. Okay, it is, in part. But it’s really about the CRTC and the Canadian TV racket, and the bizarre, head-in-the-sand thinking that is behind the “Discoverability” road show.

Already one “summit” has taken place in Vancouver and another in Montreal, the latter being about the French TV market. And, already, there has been a lot of chatter from alleged experts about algorithms, data and analytics.

The portion of the CRTC’s website devoted to “Discoverability” stands as an indictment of the entire process. An article titled “3 ways to discover your new favourite show” is posted by “the Discoverability summit team” and invites people to read a a piece from a U.S. website that states: “Lots of television shows are flocking to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, and other video streaming services to reach more viewers. That means you can watch your favorite shows any time you want even if you don’t have cable.”

Well, duh. But, you know, Amazon Prime and Hulu are not available in Canada. No, they’re not. Not unless you fake a U.S. address to access them.

Further, the CRTC’s site contains a piece called, “So, has anybody seen any good shows?” written by “CRTC Staff.” It says, plaintively, “It seems as though every time my husband and I sit in front of the television to watch something, we end up spending more time scrolling through the vast abundance of shows and movies rather than actually watching any of them.”

It then casts aspersions on the Netflix algorithms that attempt to recommend content, declaring, “What is problematic about these options is that it is difficult for a computer to tell me what I want to watch when I can’t even figure it out for myself.”

Hello? Have you and your husband heard about newspapers and websites that have, you know, these people called “TV Critics”? No? That’s sad. Really, really sad. And you work at the CRTC, you say?

Where to start with this CRTC tomfoolery? The narcissism beggars belief.

Now, I know that part of the exercise is meant to encourage the Canadian TV industry to talk about using data to determine what viewers will like and watch, and to talk up the possibility that social media is the way to reach potential viewers.

But I also know that in the United States only a tiny percentage of the national conversation about television takes places on social media. Any network or cable exec can tell you that. The phrase “Twitter don’t pay the bills” is commonly used to explain that your show can generate chatter on Twitter but that doesn’t reflect what people actually watch.

I also know that there is some research, publicly available, about how audiences discover what they watch. The Hot Docs Festival carried out a study not long ago. In there, you’ll find this: “Participants in this study discover documentaries via articles and reviews (in any media, including online, radio, in a newspaper or magazine or on television), friends and family and to a lesser degree social media.” In fact, in the study, 80 per cent of respondents said they discovered docs “via articles and reviews.”

It seems to me that this – the so-called discoverability issue – is a circumstance in which new media can learn from old media. Critics matter. A third-party, independent assessment and recommendation drives viewers to a TV show. Some of the most popular columns written by yours truly are lists of shows to try on Netflix.

Algorithms be damned; people want an experienced critic’s recommendation. Then they might tell their friends or mention it at work. But it starts with the critic.

And in the matters of data and research, it is a fact that this newspaper is a commercial outlet that spends time and money determining what readers want. One thing they want a lot is coverage of television.

Also, I belong to the Television Critics Association, which represents more than 220 journalists writing about television for print and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Twice a year we gather in L.A., where an ever-expanding number of network, cable and streaming services present their content to us and and ask us to assess and recommend. It costs them a lot. (And it’s not a junket, we pay our own way.) But they do it because critics matter and matter even more as there is yet more content across more platforms. Unlike the CRTC, they have, in fact, figured this out.

Remember that doc about the puffins? The one you watched because it was recommended here? One fact doled out is that puffins spend eight months wandering the seas and then come back to land, always to the same place.

People are like that. They might wander off to algorithms but they come back to the place where actual living, breathing critics recommend what they consume. “Discoverability” my Irish posterior.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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