As the chair of Canada's broadcast regulator rides off into the sunset, he has been tossing a few last coins at the many supplicants who follow him wherever he goes. Cantonese and Punjabi newscasts; measures to slow the loss of local TV; more opportunities for female directors, writers and producers; more flexibility for broadcasters – the benevolent Jean-Pierre Blais, outgoing chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), seems to have a little something for most.
He doesn't leave much of a legacy for himself, however. Once again, his piecemeal approach offers no consistent strategy to address the challenges facing Canadian television production in the Netflix age.
Monday's CRTC announcement renewing the licences of all the major English and French TV groups for another five years is the last major broadcasting decision on Blais's watch – his term ends June 17 – and it's couched as an even-handed political pleaser. Blais has found a way to revive Rogers Media's multicultural channel OMNI Regional by giving it a spot on basic cable. He has stuck his finger in the dike to protect local news: Broadcasters must now give the CRTC 120 days notice if they plan to close a station and are obligated to broadcast at least six hours of local news every week. And he wants broadcasters to start reporting to the CRTC the number of senior female creatives in the productions they air – a move that may yet shame the male-dominated TV industry into more gender equity.
But the CRTC is also offering the broadcasters "flexibility" on programming requirements by cutting the percentage of their revenues they have to spend on "programs of national interest." That category includes scripted dramas and comedies, feature documentaries and scripted children's shows; previously in this area Bell Media and Corus Entertainment were required to spend 8 per cent and 9 per cent respectively but Rogers, because it traditionally did less scripted and more sports, was only required to spend 5 per cent. The new decision reduces everybody to 5.
Similarly, when it came to protecting local news, the CRTC also took a lowest-common-denominator approach: That six-hours-a-week minimum is well below what some larger broadcasters, such as Bell's CTV, traditionally produce. In an environment where broadcasters find it increasingly difficult to make any money on local news, the floor may rapidly become the ceiling.
Meanwhile, on the scripted side, the guilds that represent the actors, directors and screenwriters who make TV shows have calculated that the decision to go with the lower percentage for dramas, docs and kids will take at least $200-million out of scripted television production over the next five years. The broadcasters still have to spend 30 per cent of their revenues on Canadian programming in general but now they can shift money over to reality or lifestyle shows.
Both Blais and Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly have stressed the need for Canadian shows to be internationally competitive. In a news release announcing these licence renewals, the CRTC trumpeted its support for "the creation of diverse, compelling and original Canadian content," but the move to cut spending on programs of national interest seems calculated to do the reverse – and sends an oddly mixed message.
Previously, Blais has sliced away at Canadian-content quotas, a method of support that is becoming less effective anyway as people watch less linear TV. Specifically, in 2015, the CRTC dropped the content requirements for daytime TV, a move that was justified as a way of letting broadcasters concentrate their money on higher-quality shows in prime time. Yet, this week's decision actively encourages the broadcasters to shift money out of quality scripted programming toward areas – reality TV, talk TV, lifestyle shows, sports or possibly news and current affairs – that are not considered of "national interest" nor likely to raise international interest either.
Having started by trimming the Canadian programming requirements, Blais is now cutting the money, subtracting from the other side of the equation that is still an effective support for Canadian TV production. Following a decision last fall that reduced the number of Canadian creatives who need to be involved for shows to qualify for investments for certain production funds, this latest move continues a pattern of chipping away at supports randomly without offering a clear vision of what might replace them or where that "compelling and original Canadian content" is going to come from.
As Blais packs up the coffee mugs and family photos, the pressure is now on Joly. She needs to offer clearer solutions in her forthcoming cultural-policy review – and appoint a new CRTC chair who will help carry them out.