Is the funny gang at This Hour Has 22 Minutes a good use of tax dollars? What benefits accrue to Canadians from Tatiana Maslany's acclaimed performance in Orphan Black?
Artists are often inept at explaining the value of what they do – their art would seem to be its own explanation – and many tire of seeing culture judged for its social utility. Think tanks, on the other hand, are great at declaring what is useful and what is efficient. So no surprise that as Ottawa belatedly awakens to the reality that it needs to revise federal broadcast regulations, the policy wonks are all over the issue. This week, both the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute released reports recommending that Canada dispense with Canadian-content rules forthwith.
Even the most ardent cultural nationalists know there's a problem. On television, regulations requiring that about half the programming day be devoted to Canadian shows were created for linear schedules; they make little sense in an on-demand environment. Also, unregulated foreign services – that would be Netflix – face no such requirements. Nor does Netflix contribute to the Canadian programming funds underwritten by the cable and satellite companies. So you have an uneven playing field: The old television players face Canadian-content obligations that the new Internet players don't.
In a report entitled Technological Change and its Implications for Regulating Canada's Broadcasting Sector, the Fraser Institute (right-wing or libertarian, depending who you ask) argues that in a world of infinite digital content, the regulations are no longer necessary: There will be plenty of Canadian shows.
But where will they come from? In the optimistic analysis offered by the report's author, Steven Globerman, production and distribution costs are now so low that Canadian content no longer needs subsidy. Hailing the rise of YouTube and Hulu, he cheerfully glosses over the differences between amateur and professional content and the reality that, for all the accessibility of digital production and Internet distribution, big-budget, high-quality U.S. television shows still dominate the cultural landscape. He also doesn't address how viewers will find specks of Canadian programming in a sea of content.
Believing the market can be counted on to provide domestic commercial entertainment and preferring direct subsidy to the CBC rather than indirect ones to commercial broadcasters, Globerman also argues the public broadcaster should focus narrowly on public-interest programming. So the Fraser Institute believes digital realities make regulation obsolete – along with the subsidy of anything that might make the mistake of being entertaining. (It's adapt-or-die time, 22 Minutes!)
If you were wondering what the government might really be considering doing, the report from the C.D. Howe Institute (centrist or right-wing, depending who you ask) offers some ideas in Changing the Channel on Canadian Communications Regulation. Authors Benjamin Dachis and Daniel Schwanen also conclude the programming quotas should go, but argue that if Canadian programming is deemed a public good, the government must subsidize it directly. They, however, are willing to countenance grants to commercial networks. Rather than the current indirect system in which Canadian programs are underwritten with grants and tax credits to producers, the authors suggest the Department of Canadian Heritage could simply contract a network such as CTV to produce a Canadian schedule.
That might seem like a rather obvious overlap with the CBC (the folks at C.D. Howe also want CBC to focus on non-commercial programming, while making the contradictory stipulation that its funding should be based on the viewership it can attract!). Still, one of the strengths of the Canadian system has been the variety created by giving both the public and the private broadcasters a Canadian-content mandate, so the idea of the directly subsidized private schedule merits debate.
The report recommends that broadcasting and telecommunications regulations be merged. It also makes the controversial suggestion – a topic for another day – that restrictions on foreign ownership in both sectors only block Canadian companies from getting the capital they need, and should be abolished.
But the C.D. Howe authors largely accept the notion that Canadian culture is a public good, and one that is not easily produced by free markets. The Fraser Institute, on the other hand, is at great pains to explain why we don't need Canadian content in the first place. Globerman examines traditional nationalist arguments that Canadian television solidifies Canadian identity, and finds them unconvincing.
That's hardly surprising since the arguments are largely out of date and can easily be made to look ridiculous. Seriously, did anyone really ever argue, even in the heady 1970s, that watching home-grown television shows would make Canadians more likely to vote or pay their taxes? By not considering more recent and more complex notions of identity and community, Globerman can easily sidestep all cultural arguments and conclude "the main arguments for the protect-and-subsidize model for financing Canadian content entertainment are difficult to defend."
Reading that kind of stuff only reminded me of what a paradoxical affair cultural policy can be for those who do believe we need Canadian content as we try to justify the ineffable or codify the instinctive. It's a field that can leave any practitioner looking like someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.