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Renée Sigouin, Cindy Salgado, Rena Narumi, Tiffany Tregarthen, Matthew Peacock, Jermaine Spivey, David Raymond, and Doug Letheren.Michael Slobodian/Handout

That English-speaking Canadians don’t watch as much homegrown television or film as folks in other countries has been bemoaned by creators and cultural nationalists for generations.

But the pandemic has really provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse that tendency.

So it’s frustrating it is passing us by because of the CBC’s prioritization of wringing revenue out of its streaming service Gem over connecting it to as many couch-bound, content-hungry Canadians as possible.

Stuck at home, people around the world are devouring TV and movies like never before – and, trying to satiate that appetite, many cord-cutters and the never-corded are finding the monthly costs of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Crave and so on adding up quickly.

So, you’d think Canadians must be downloading the free Gem app in droves – and binging its sparkling trove of Cancon past and present. Right?

No, I’m really asking, because CBC – currently in CRTC hearings regarding its program licensing renewal – won’t say. You can look at Bell’s reports to investors to learn how many Canadians are signed up for Crave (answer: 2.8 million by the second quarter of 2020), but CBC, which all Canadians invest in at $34 per capita a year, says the number of downloads of the Gem app or paid subscribers to its Gem Premium version is “confidential for competitive reasons.”

In the absence of numbers, I only have anecdotal data – that is, my own viewing habits as a theatre critic sans theatre and starved for quality content.

And, most nights, after briefly highlighting the Gem icon on my screen and considering clicking, I end up scrolling over to Netflix and jumping into another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race or what-not instead.

There’s one reason for this: ads.

It’s not like there are that many on Gem really, but even the thought of interruptions from Cold FX or Swiffer is a mental roadblock in this era of ad-liberated viewing. Having seen the ad-free city, it’s hard to get this boy back on the ad farm.

Of course, there is a $4.99-a-month option to subscribe to no-commercials Gem Premium – but I can’t do it. It’s the principle of the thing: CBC News Network may have opened up the door to paying CBC for content through cable packages long ago, but the explicitly two-tier nature of Gem is a particularly in-your-face cash grab.

Daniel Bernhard, executive director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, agrees a premium version of a public service is problematic. “I don’t think people would like it if you could pay $5 or $50 or $500 to skip the line for a COVID-19 vaccine, for example – not to say that Kim’s Convenience is a matter of life or death,” he told me.

Bernhard points out that $60-a-year for Gem Premium is almost twice what Canadians pay per capita for all CBC’s services in multiple languages and time zones – which at once shows how underfunded the CBC is as a public broadcaster (compared to the average in industrialized countries of $90 per capita), and how outrageous Gem Premium’s fees are.

I’m a Canadian who would happily see the CBC get more funding if it meant eliminating ads – and I think younger generations would likely see the value in a public broadcaster that cost Canadians less than half of what they fork over to Netflix monthly if it involved a free, ad-free streaming service.

But few are going to be converted to that cause while the Mother Corp. is happily semi-privatizing itself through Gem Premium.

The biggest two-tier travesty is Gem’s “Premium exclusive” content: shows available to paying subscribers first – and then eventually available to the rest of us plebs.

CBC says this is usually only for two or three weeks (see the BBC miniseries Les Misérables, currently half-available on ad-supported Gem, binge-able in full on Premium) – but sometimes shows return behind that subscriber wall. The hit Radio-Canada 1970s-set crime drama C’est comme ça que je t’aime is currently on Gem only for Premium subscribers; I missed it in its two-month free window, apparently.

There’s a clear slippery slope here that ICI, CBC’s French-language streaming service, has already slid down. It routinely offers certain shows to paid Extra subscribers first – and then makes them available more widely three to six months later, a practice CBC execs were quizzed about by the CRTC last week.

I do appreciate how Gem has gone some way to solving the delivery and discoverability problem that has constantly grown for English-language Cancon since I was a boy in 1980s Montreal and CBC was one of the only two anglophone channels on my dial.

Not long ago, it was nearly impossible to catch up on a Canadian movie like 2013′s Empire of Dirt (with its breakout performance by The Expanse’s Cara Gee) if you missed its week on a screen in Toronto or Vancouver – and I carted around my VHS copies of the 2003 Stratford Festival-inspired Slings and Arrows for more than a decade, passing them from theatre friend to theatre friend like samizdat, when the cult series was hard to track down.

Thanks to Gem, however, any Canadian can stream those any time – if they know they exist – as well as, I just happily discovered, a full film of Revisor, the latest show by dance-theatre geniuses Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young.

But I fear Gem has not yet fully caught on and, if its “free” version continues to have ads, it will soon get lost in the coming onslaught of ad-supported streaming services with Hollywood stars and huge promotional budgets. And yet, I don’t think it’s too late for it to go ad-free and become perhaps as popular as universally accessible, ad-free CBC Radio is – and for my clicker-wielding hand to scroll over to Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ less often.

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