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John Doyle: Canadian TV’s phony war against Netflix

No Netflix tax. Yada yada. The CRTC is redundant and should be abolished. Yada yada. Cultural protectionism is old-school and out of date. Yada yada. Regulation is wrong in a borderless, digital age. Yada yada.

There's a lot of yada yada. And there's a phony war unfolding. It's Netflix versus cultural protectionism. And the key question is this: What are we protecting?

Back on that Seinfeld episode "The Yada Yada," there were a couple of interesting media references. Jerry and George were discussing Marcy, the woman who used "yada yada" to gloss over details. Of Marcy's succinctness, it was said, "It's like you're dating USA Today." True.

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Also on that episode, Jerry remarked: "I gotta get on that Internet. I'm late on everything." That was 1997. So here we are, 17 years later, and the entire Canadian TV industry is, like Jerry, late on everything.

That's the gist. That's why there's panic. The vast public, uncaring about complicated broadcast regulations, sees Netflix as a saviour. It's cheap, there are great TV shows and movies, and no commercials.

In contrast, cable packages are expensive and people pay for channels they never watch. Also in contrast, if you use Canadian on-demand services to watch a show you missed, you can be forced to watch commercials and your normal PVR controls are disabled. In contrast to what Netflix offers, Canadian TV series can seem dull, mediocre and half-assed. Much of it reeks of what a reader called "imposed Canadian culture."

Of course a case has to be made against the anarchy that an unregulated Netflix represents. Netflix is a library. Its original content is a teensy fraction of that library. Once you've consumed what interests you in the library, where does the new content come from? There are no pixies making it to entertain you 10 years into the future. There are certainly no pixies out there making great Canadian stories to make the culture richer and better entertained. Without a system to support it, the content evaporates.

And no, that's not the victory of consumer choice. It's the victory of giant corporations who will, in the end, bleed you of money by offering as little as possible at any cost to them.

The problem facing the Canadian TV industry – from the big three commercial outfits to the guilds, unions and lobby groups representing the creators – is that cultural protectionism is a very, very hard sell. And it's a hard sell because there is so little Canadian programming that is truly cherished and admired by the public. In this, everyone, from the top executives to the creative end of the industry, must face blame.

What are we going to the wall for? Let's say Republic of Doyle. (Returning soon for its final season on CBC.) Some people would go to the wall for it. Its plainness as zippy entertainment and roots in Newfoundland are what endear it. It's regional, see. It is us. But is it worth promoting cultural protectionism to save Package Deal (perhaps 100,000 viewers on a skeleton network) on City or Saving Hope (doing nicely with about 1.2 million viewers) on CTV? Are these the stories to protect? Is it all about jobs for people who make slick but empty-headed TV? These are questions to be answered.

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The public, given this shiny new thing called Netflix, is not interested in tortured policy discussion, nor is it interested in the angry blather of an industry that looks out of touch and is scrambling desperately to catch up.

And back to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which began the massive yada yada with its "Let's Talk TV" campaign and hearings. Of course there is a role for the CRTC and a good deal of the yada yada in Canada is based on the notion that the CRTC exists as a Canadian anomaly, required to impose protectionism. This is mad. The FCC in the United States regulates like nobody's business.

An example – Revolt TV, the in-your-face, hip-hop urban channel co-owned by Sean (Diddy) Combs, in partnership with Comcast, would not exist without the FCC's insistence. When Comcast wanted to acquire an interest in NBCUniversal, it got permission because it promised to launch and carry several minority-owned networks. Regulation made it happen. Sometimes, regulation works.

Here, the war over regulation and protection is phony because we have failed to define what we protect and what needs regulating. Yada yada.

Airing Thursday

Stalker (CBS, Global, 10 p.m.) arrives. Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott play mismatched cops running the LAPD's Threat Assessment Unit, which deals with stalkings, cyber harassment and similar creepiness. A honcho at CBS called it "the scariest drama to ever air" on the network. Rolling Stone said, "File it away under the category 'SODL,' or Stacks O' Dead Ladies."

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