A recent online survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that three-quarters of Canadians think there is a unique Canadian culture and it's "something special." And they believe it needs government protection to thrive.
So, let me ask you, which do you feel is more worthy of protection: reruns of Corner Gas on Saturday afternoons on CTV or new episodes of the Vancouver cop show Motive on Sunday nights on the same network?
Unsure? Me too, which is why I am not working for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The CRTC has decided that what we want to protect is quality not quantity. In a Thursday decision, the latest from its 2014 Let's Talk TV hearings, the regulator killed Canadian content quotas for daytime TV but maintained them in prime time. Since broadcasters also have expenditure requirements – that is, certain amounts they have to spend on Canadian programming – the idea is to encourage them to spend their money commissioning high-quality shows destined for prime time rather than spreading it around the schedule. And so, with all its eggs in the prime-time basket, Canada will join the so-called golden age of television.
Or maybe not. The history of Canadian television regulation is littered with examples of unintended consequences as broadcasters find creative ways to wiggle around the rules.
First of all, in the cultural industries, quantity is often what creates quality as producers and distributors spread their bets around. Which big-budget shows will succeed with viewers and which will flop? Which low-budget sleepers or critical darlings unloved by the populace will eventually find their audiences and which will vanish without a trace? If producers knew the answers to these questions they would only make successful shows but – guess what? – they don't.
If you really wanted to be certain of increasing the quality of Canadian TV programming you would also have to increase the expenditure requirements, which the CRTC did not do. (That is probably because the CRTC is about to make another decision that will cost broadcasters money – if the scuttlebutt is correct and the regulator gives Canadians some form of the much anticipated "pick-and-pay" for cable pricing. )
Second, the CRTC has left in place a powerful disincentive for broadcasters to put Canadian programming in prime time, the notorious sim sub – or simultaneous substitution. The networks make their money simulcasting big U.S. shows because of these regulations that let them drop their Canadian ads into the competing U.S. signals. Back in January, the CRTC announced it was maintaining sim sub – except for the Super Bowl and the specialty channels (where sports would be the only large category of simulcast programming).
At the time, I complained this was a populist, piecemeal approach in an era when the Canadian TV regs are in need of a complete rethink because both linear television schedules and geographic protections are under threat from Internet TV. To be fair, this most recent decision is much bigger picture and recognizes the central conundrum of nurturing Canadian content outside of a sometimes cumbersome system of protections that will eventually be bypassed by borderless services such as Netflix. This time, the CRTC promises an industry summit on the key issue of "discoverablity," recognizing that, in an on-demand environment, you could wind up producing a whole lot of Canadian content that nobody ever accesses.
Still, Thursday's decision, which also freed the specialty channels from rules that force them to program within their assigned genres, begins the dismantling of the Canadian content regulations yet offers only the first hints of how the CRTC plans to help Cancon thrive in a digital, on-demand environment. Today, many in the TV production industry will remember the notorious 1999 television policy – it relaxed the rules by redefining "priority programming" to include reality shows and thus greatly reduced the amount of Canadian drama that was being made – and will greet this most recent decision with foreboding. In a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa Thursday, CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais warned his listeners not to let industry lobbyists distort their notion of where the true public interest lies – in other words he knows the producers and the artists' unions are about to cry foul.
Does anyone else care how much Canadian programming shows up on our multiple screens? Yes, three-quarters of Canadians do. That is the conclusion suggested by the Angus Reid online survey of 1525 randomly selected adults, which found a strong belief in the notion of a unique Canadian culture and, interestingly, a great deal of realism about the fact that it takes government protection to maintain it. It also found high levels of support for the CBC and the CRTC. Apparently, Canadians, when they are not hoovering up American content and screaming for pick and pay, are committed to the idea of Cancon.
The survey also found that those who believe that Canadian culture needs protection are those most likely to endorse the CRTC's role. The regulator can take comfort – or hear a warning – in that.