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CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais dropped into the annual prime-time industry networking conference last week. (Blair Gable For The Globe and Mail)
CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais dropped into the annual prime-time industry networking conference last week. (Blair Gable For The Globe and Mail)

TV executives praise Canadian content, try to bury it Add to ...

Kids are always on their best behaviour when the principal drops by. So it is with broadcast executives. Last week, when hundreds of TV producers and broadcasters clustered in downtown Ottawa for their annual prime-time industry networking conference, the air was thick with loving paeans to Canadian programming. On the closing day, with the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais looking on like an approving father, four executives from the country’s most powerful media companies even took part in a panel titled Canadian Content as a Competitive Differentiator.

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And yet, behind the scenes, many are busy manoeuvring to reduce the Canadian-content obligations of their own TV channels.

So far, those attempts have flown under the radar, because most people have been focused on another series of proposals that the Canadian Radio-television and Television Commission will hear next month. (In those hearings, which have sent hordes into the streets with pitchforks and torches, almost two dozen TV services, including the polarizing Sun News Network, are asking for “mandatory carriage,” which means every Canadian TV subscriber will pay for and receive the channels whether they want them or not.) But this month’s efforts are probably more consequential.

For here is Zoomer Media’s ONE (a.k.a. The Mind, Body, and Sprit Channel), asking for a reduction in both the amount of money it is obliged to spend on Canadian programming and the percentage of airtime it must devote to it. The LGBT-themed OUTtv wants to do the same. Ditto for Stornoway Communications’s iChannel, and two channels belonging to Blue Ant Media. And Bell Media, which has unfurled the Canadian flag repeatedly in its second attempt to buy Astral Media, is asking for permission to cut the minimum amount of Canadian programming on its Comedy Network from 65 per cent to 50 per cent of prime time.

Then there’s the proposal by the pay-TV service Super Channel, which makes you wish there were a uniquely Canadian word for chutzpah.

Here’s the background: More than 30 years ago, the CRTC brought premium pay-TV to Canada as a way to broaden consumer choice and, just as important, create a dependable source of new funding for the small domestic film industry. The early licensees blew their brains out competing for programs and audiences, until only two remained standing. They split up the country into a pair of regional monopolies: TMN in the East and Movie Central in the West.

But about 10 years ago, the CRTC felt there was finally room for competition that could push even more money into domestic production. So it granted a licence in 2006 to the Calgary-based Allarco Entertainment Inc. for a national channel.

The company made bold (and, in hindsight, brash) promises that sent the CRTC swooning. It pledged to spend 32 per cent of its gross revenues on Canadian programming. Over and above that, it promised $14-million over the seven-year term of its licence for script and concept development. It would also spend $7-million on so-called “regional outreach,” positioning a senior creative executive in each province to cultivate strong connections with local producers. It promised to create a channel dedicated to domestic programming called Proudly Canadian.

To a regulator charged with helping to develop a culturally and economically rich broadcasting system, it must have sounded like nirvana. You can understand why the CRTC chose the Allarco proposal over three others that promised less.

Within three years, the venture was in shambles. Super Channel took 18 months to launch and only another 19 months to ask for court protection from creditors. Financial statements filed with the CRTC show almost $100-million in losses over three years before it finally turned a pre-tax profit of $11.3-million in 2011.

Which is why it is now going to the CRTC on bended knee, asking for relief. It would like its Canadian programming expenditures to vary between 22 per cent and 30 per cent, depending on the number of its subscribers, rather than 32 per cent. It wants to cut its regional outreach budget in half, and slash its script and development commitment by three-quarters. That is, it would like to eliminate one of the main reasons it was granted a licence in the first place.

Somebody should make a comedy about the sleight of hand that Canadian broadcasters perform for the CRTC. Except, you know, there’s probably no funding available.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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