Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has $5.3-billion burning a hole in his pocket. That was the sum raised at last week's auction of an invisible but very valuable public commodity: the air above our heads. In 100 rounds of bidding, telecommunications companies manoeuvred frantically to acquire the rights to spectrum that can be used for their wireless signals. The government hopes that by expanding the number of telcos operating in each region, it will produce more competitive wireless rates for consumers.
There has been much discussion about whether this plan will actually work but little talk about what the government will do with those surprisingly large proceeds. The money goes into the government's consolidated revenues and is "reinvested in priorities that matter to Canadians."
Here's a modest proposal for what some of the priorities should be: a couple of billion should be set aside to help Canada's creative community produce more content for those public airwaves, whether that is for the Internet or for television broadcasting, two media that are becoming increasingly indistinguishable anyway. Some of it should be directed toward the Canadian Media Fund, which helps producers make TV shows, webisodes, online games and other interactive content; some of it should go to Telefilm Canada, which underwrites feature films. Some of it should go to the National Film Board of Canada, which produces docs and animation, and is increasingly experimenting with interactive. And at least a billion should be directed toward producing new content on all platforms at the CBC, the country's best bet for reaching the largest audiences with Canadian programming.
We need more mainstream hits like Republic of Doyle and Murdoch Mysteries; we need bigger audiences for audacious specialty dramas like Orphan Black and Call Me Fitz; we need Internet users to flock to silly webisodes like Versus Valerie and Space Janitors; we need Canada to gain international recognition for award-winning documentaries like Stories We Tell and Watermark; we need the world to savour an interactive version of Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, a snowboarding video game and a new wine-tasting app – all of it Canadian content underwritten in part by public funds.
Why? For all that Canadians like to groan about whichever CBC show currently peeves them the most, Canada has only carved out cultural space for itself in the shadow of Hollywood by subsidizing content and regulating it onto the airwaves. Canadians, who tend to compare their system to the Americans' and no one else's, may be surprised to know that most other Western democracies subsidize their cultural industries more heavily but also that Canada's inventive content regulations were once the envy of European policy-makers. Today, however, those regulations are coming under increasing pressure from the more-or-less borderless Internet: How can you keep asking CTV and Global to air Canadian shows when Netflix doesn't have to?
The traditional broadcasters soldier on with Canadian content but viewers are often not satisfied with the quality – not surprisingly since Canadians routinely compare domestic shows to American ones that benefit from much larger budgets. As the regulations become harder to enforce, subsidy will become more important. Cutting budgets, as the government has done mercilessly at the CBC and to a lesser extent at the NFB, is not the solution if you want higher quality programming. Abandoning the field would mean acknowledging that Canadian producers are not players in old or new media and that Canadian consumers will always be satisfied with exclusively foreign content. It would tell young Canadians, in particular, that creativity is something that only happens in Palo Alto or L.A. Governments are great at talking about the creative economy; they are much less good at channelling money to the creators, whether that is by funding public institutions or lending money to commercial producers.
There would also be a certain justice in awarding some of the proceeds of the auction to TV production in particular, since the spectrum is available because the big broadcasters moved aside. In 2011, by order of the government regulator and at their own expense, the over-the-air broadcasters switched over to digital signals, thereby reducing the space they took up and allowing more efficient use of spectrum. That was particularly onerous for the CBC, because it has an obligation to reach all Canadians and thus has a huge broadcasting infrastructure. The $60-million it spent on the digital project was money that could have gone to creating new shows.
People on the street groan about Cancon; the chattering classes lament that Canada is not participating in TV drama's golden age – an "age" that is comprised of a handful of shows that act as loss leaders on a handful of cable networks in one country, the United States. These are very similar to the complaints you used to hear about Canada's poor performance at the Olympics, but now Own the Podium has thrown money at the problem and everyone seems delighted with the results. Try the same approach with the country's creators and Canadian media content could also be a huge source of national pride and international attention. Flaherty surely won't miss a billion or two.