Canada has outstanding filmmakers, and few would argue about the importance of that fact, the value of having Canadian stories told on film. Their work is an assertion of Canadian culture, of the distinctiveness of this place and its people. Yet, with few exceptions, if you want to see a Canadian film you pretty much need to fly Air Canada and tap its dedicated Canadian film channel.
Starlight, a proposal for a dedicated Canadian movie channel, would change that – and more, by reinvesting 70 per cent of its earnings into making new Canadian films. It is a compelling idea, in that it would give Canadians better access to our films (our stories) and give Canadian film makers better access to our wallets. The question is whether this curious idea, the dream child of Robert Lantos and one that is supported by some of Canada’s greatest filmmakers, among them David Cronenberg, Deepa Mehta and Paul Gross, should benefit from mandatory carriage on our cable and satellite packages?
Mandatory carriage is one of the hottest buttons this year at the CRTC, which is reviewing applications for both new and renewed carriage orders. As part of our cultural policy, TV consumers are required to buy certain channels such as Newsworld, the Weather Channel and Aboriginal People’s Television Network. Six of those channels have applied for renewal. Among the 16 new applicants seeking mandatory carriage, Starlight may be the most genuinely needed. Its rivals include the money-losing Sun News and more peripheral bids for stations specializing in gay issues, faith matters and natural resources.
Cable, satellite and other television providers stand in opposition, casting themselves in an unusual role as consumer advocates. On that count, at least, they have a sympathetic CRTC chairman in Jean-Pierre Blais who observed recently: “These services have a direct impact on consumer bills.”
We share that concern. Mandatory carriage has become a misdirected tool of cultural engineering, with few clear cultural benefits and much higher cable bills. It is true, a purely free market would not be good for Canadian culture. But let us also recognize that consumers are being forced to pay for services that do not always represent or enhance Canadian culture. One need only look at this weekend’s movie offering from APTN, consisting of a loop of the Clint Eastwood gem “Escape from Alcatrez.”
Without any proof, some of the applicants have argued they need to be “lower on the dial” to get audiences – as if anyone uses a dial anymore. They and the CRTC need to be more honest about the seismic changes underway in TV technology. It is not just the Internet and digital services such as Netflix and Apple TV; oldstyle broadcast channels are being revolutionized by search – and recording-based controls that allow consumers to make their own schedules.
Yet, in the face of change, producers and promoters are demanding more of the same, as long as they get a cut. The time has come for Mr. Blais to turn over a few tables in front of the regulatory temple. Perhaps he is not able to dismantle mandatory carriage. Pity. He should at least give a stern warning to those who are given a free reach into Canadian pockets, that they live up to their end of the bargain, most of all to invest in Canadian production. Additionally, he might spare a few stern words for the public broadcaster, which continues to fall short of its Canadian mandate as it spends heavily on American entertainment, sports rights and news content that the private sector covers adequately.
The current applications for mandatory carriage speak volumes about the shortcomings of our state-owned broadcaster. On the cultural high grounds that the CBC has largely vacated, Starlight says it can provide viewers with a 24-hour per day, seven-day-a-week Canadian film channel, and fund up to 12 new movies a year, and ensure some return to its investors – all for 45 cents a month, or a little less than a dollar once the providers take their share. That would go a good distance in meeting Mr. Blais’s clarion call for services that help “all Canadians recognize themselves in their broadcasting system.”
Inspiring words. But as the CRTC decides what Canadians will be forced to buy, it should signal more of its vision for carriage. It might even concede that in the Internet age, “mandatory” is a word we can soon delete.
An editorial on the CRTC hearings said CBC Newsworld enjoys mandatory carriage and that some new applicants are seeking mandatory carriage, including one specializing in gay issues. In fact, while CBC News Network (formerly known as Newsworld) has mandatory carriage in French markets, it lost that designation in English markets several years ago. Also, OUTtv, Canada's only GLBT-themed channel, is currently seeking a licence renewal but is not asking for mandatory carriage. A reference to the Weather Channel should have said the Weather Network.