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Tatiana Maslany, Canadian star of sci-fi series Orphan Black, is getting Emmy buzz, an excitement no one missed at this week’s Banff World Media Festival. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Tatiana Maslany, Canadian star of sci-fi series Orphan Black, is getting Emmy buzz, an excitement no one missed at this week’s Banff World Media Festival. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

TV’s new equation: Content bonanza meets revenue crisis Add to ...

Social media can do more than engage viewers and promote content – done right, it can hand crucial qualitative data, and an e-mail address to broadcasters struggling to figure out who is watching what, where, and maybe even why.

“If the medium is the message and the audience is the medium, then what does that actually mean?” asks Ana Serrano, chief digital officer at the Canadian Film Centre. “How do you play with your audiences in such a way that you give them a starring role in whatever property it is that you’re developing?” Audience behaviour, she says, is one of the key metrics being tracked as a way to determine the value of content online, in an effort to convince advertisers that they’ll get bang for their buck. “The producers who are able to actually make a case for true participatory audience behaviour are the ones who can win.”

If all this may not be brand new, observers say we’re at a tipping point: A growing number of producers and writers are willing, even eager, to create digital content first – and not just as a stepping stone to the big(ger) screen. Scoring a broadcast deal is a great way to access funds, but, as one conference attendee put it, it’s not the victory lap any more.

Basking in Maslana’s victory this week, Michael Hennessy, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association, noted that there’s been a 25-per-cent increase in domestic production, but a decline in the number of programs being made. The reason: Canadians are making bigger-budget and better-quality shows. Productions, dare we say, that don’t look Canadian. They are sent out into the global marketplace where Cancon means nothing and they must compete on their own merits. Canadian-content creators are waking up to the need to go big or stay home.

“The real issue is: How do you, in that world where there’s more fragmentation, afford to make the quality programming that people actually want to watch? ... And what is the role of Canadian content in there?” asks Hennessy. “From a producer’s perspective, we understand it is a very simple equation. It’s totally different from the old days. You have to make stuff that people like to watch, period. If you’re not doing that, you’re not relevant any more.”

In the midst of this new world, it’s the old guard that stands to lose the most. Traditional broadcasters and distributors are trying to navigate through all the change, with fragmented viewing, advertising dollars lost to Facebook, people cutting the cord entirely, and digital natives interacting with technology seamlessly and fearlessly (and not always legally). And they have to do it, they are quick to point out, under regulatory controls that currently do not apply to over-the-top services such as Netflix. “I believe that Netflix is having a significantly greater impact on the industry, on consumption habits, on the cost of our content, on the advertising revenue that we’re generating, I think a significantly greater impact than is currently appreciated,” Bell’s Crull told the festival.

Depending on your perspective, Netflix is either a new (if markedly less inflammatory) N-word, or it’s a land of opportunity, eager for great original content that can drive up subscriptions, and that has the big bucks to pay for content.

But on that same panel, Rogers Media president of broadcasting Scott Moore warned the audience – made up largely of Canadian producers – that Netflix is not their white knight. “The people in this room should not want Netflix to succeed. Because Netflix is not a part of the Canadian broadcast ecosystem,” said Moore. “They have no Canadian-content requirements. They don’t have to spend money on Canadian producers. …They’re not out there actively promoting Canadian shows the way all of us are.”

Moore pointed out that broadcasters’ conditions of license dictate that they have to spend a certain percentage of gross revenues on Canadian production. So when profits drop 85 per cent, there are implications for Canadian shows. That same CRTC report shows that despite the decline in revenues, private conventional stations invested 17.6 per cent more on Canadian programming in 2012 than the year before.

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