Would it be okay if I told you about a movie that's not on Netflix?
I ask because, for the past couple of weeks, it has seemed as if many of my colleagues in the Canadian media, having grown bored of doing PR for Apple Inc., have turned their promotional energies toward helping out that other beloved little tech upstart, the TV and movie streaming service based in Los Gatos, Calif. One after another, in column after editorial after column, the greybeards have sided with Netflix in its fight to keep its business information out of the hands of our bothersome broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
For an encore, some in the press practically swooned when Netflix announced this week it would begin streaming the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the same day that The Weinstein Company releases the film in Imax theatres next August. (They were more muted when the company said on Thursday it had signed a four-picture deal with Adam Sandler. Because, well, Adam Sandler.)
Netflix is convenient, consumer friendly, inexpensive (especially compared to the cost of cable TV) and, best of all, the sexiest beast in the business animal kingdom: a disruptor.
Which is why I was watching that non-Netflix movie I mentioned: the maddening 2005 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. In the film's opening minutes, a former manager for the big-box retailer recalls how the company's planners would drive through towns where they were setting up shop, and chuckle over how many months it would take for each mom-and-pop store to close. "Six months; three months; six months," he says, mimicking his former co-workers.
I wouldn't be surprised if Corie Wright, Netflix's director of global public policy, had a similar response to the Canadian film and TV producers and distributors she met in the Gatineau, Que., conference room last month, when she flew up from her base in Washington, D.C., to address the CRTC's Let's Talk TV hearing. If Netflix gets its way, it will only be a matter of time before many of them disappear, too.
Good riddance, you will say: You are tired of being force-fed Canadian culture. Worse, you are tired of paying for it.
Fair enough. It can be teeth-grindingly frustrating to pore over your cable bill and think of all of the channels and shows that you're paying for and not watching, especially when you realize that you're not just subsidizing the salaries of thousands of regular Canadians who work in TV, but also the pay packages of BCE Inc.'s chief executive officer George Cope (who pulled in a sweet $10.9-million in 2013) or Rogers CEO Guy Laurence (eyeing $8.3-million this year).
Besides, you say, sputtering about The Beachcombers and The Littlest Hobo and Little Mosque on the Prairie, Canadian TV and movies suck. Make good shows, people will watch and the money will flow: It's as simple as that.
Most industrialized countries subsidize domestic television and film production, partly because of scale: It costs a lot of money to make shows look even half as glossy as the stuff coming out of Hollywood, and if there's a limited audience (say, because you've set your miniseries in the shipyards of Gdansk because you think it's important that your fellow Poles know about their history), you're probably not going to make your money back. American film and TV studios have global marketing machines to get their shows in front of consumers.
As it happens, Canadians do watch plenty of homemade TV, and not just hockey: Last month's season finale of The Amazing Race Canada on CTV was the most-watched show of that week, with more than three million viewers. (Necessary disclosure: CTV's parent company BCE Inc. owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail. Unnecessary disclosure: I've never watched The Amazing Race Canada.) Scripted dramas and comedies are popular, too – though they certainly don't pull in the numbers here that Big Bang Theory does. Millions still tune in to domestic news and current affairs shows. And just try telling Mike Holmes, Sarah Richardson, Debbie Travis and, frankly, Ben Mulroney that Canadians don't watch Canadian-made TV.
If you're fine with all that disappearing because hey, Netflix is awesome and a sexy disruptor, so be it: That's your choice, and you're free to make it. Plenty of people love their weekly pilgrimage to Walmart and Costco, too.
But please, at least be honest with yourself and recognize that Netflix, like the retail disruptor Walmart before it, is a parasitic enterprise. Netflix is currently pocketing an estimated $300-million a year from Canadian consumers. Its total investment in original Canadian programming so far? One season of Trailer Park Boys: 10 half-hour episodes of cheaply made TV.
At least, we believe that's the case; we don't know, because Netflix won't share any of its data with the CRTC, since it says it is worried the information won't be kept confidential. (This is a company whose business depends on millions of people trusting it to keep their credit-card data safe. It is also the same company that, back in the summer, told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that it should force Internet companies to be more transparent in their operations.)
Stephen Harper says that's fine. This means we have a Prime Minister who has now sided with an economically and culturally parasitic foreign entity, one that doesn't even remit taxes in this country, over one of his own government agencies.
All of which, indeed, may be fine. But don't you think we should talk about it first?