The professional life of a cultural policy nerd is a lonely thing. No conference calls with the Governor of the Bank of Canada; no annual convention in Banff, Alta. I've been excited just to be invited to publicly discuss issues in the field on no less than two occasions in the past nine months – a sure sign, I optimistically predicted, that Canada is finally awakening to a crisis.
The policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada's cultural industries since the 1970s are unknown to transnational distributors of foreign content – that would be Google, YouTube and Netflix – while Canadian consumers are increasingly sidestepping the domestic distributors who, whether by inclination or by regulation, produce Canadian content.
How big a crisis? A new report prepared by the research firm Nordicity for the annual Digital Media at the Crossroads gathering held at the University of Toronto last weekend assembles some shocking economic evidence. Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada; YouTube is taking an estimated $22.5-million in annual advertising revenue out of Canada; iTunes and Google Play are taking $50-million in annual music sales out of Canada. And half of the estimated $432-million in ad revenues that the newspaper and magazine industries are losing every year to digital platforms is also leaving Canada.
The report is a powerful reminder of the ripples that spread out from the cultural industries: As consumers shift to digital platforms and digital formats, they export not only their media spending but also the ad revenue that follows their viewing, reading and listening. Here's a wake-up call to government: Canada is now bleeding $700-million to $800-million in cultural spending every year – dollars that used to support, whether directly or, more often, indirectly, the creation of Canadian films, TV shows, recordings, books, newspapers and magazines.
What's to be done? There are practical steps that could be taken – you could ask Internet service providers to start contributing to the Canada Media Fund just as cable and satellite providers do – but since there is often public hostility to and misunderstanding of such measures, it might be a good idea to lay a bit of philosophical groundwork first. Why can't we just leave Canadian producers to compete in an international marketplace? Why do we need Canadian content in the first place?
Preparing for the more recent of those rare invitations, an event in which I was going to be moderating a panel, I suggested my panelists justify public investments in the cultural industries. At that, a groan came down the conference-call line. Do we really have to go into that old stuff again, the panelists asked. Do we really have to explain a country's need of culture?
Indeed, when I got to Ottawa and the C.D. Howe Institute's policy conference on the future of telecommunications and broadcasting, I found many people who were happy to expound on the challenges facing their particular sector or industry, but few who could offer more than platitudes when asked why any of this mattered. Perhaps few of us question the importance of our own fields; perhaps many in the cultural industries feel there is no point engaging in shouting matches with the libertarian trolls who drown out the more reasonable voices, but I found it surprising that none of the conference participants would begin to debate whether Canadian culture is, in the C.D. Howe's terms, "a general public good."
If the crisis is going to be addressed, somebody is going to have to start talking about why culture is a public good. Somebody needs to explain to a sometimes skeptical public that this is about something more than Paddle to the Sea and The Beachcombers; that in a world where narratives and images are as powerful as money and guns, a successful society does not import every single cultural good that it consumes; that a creative society is one that creates things. Deeper thinking and clarion calls are required.
The previous federal government was certainly in no mood to hear this; the new one has promised money for culture, but has yet to reveal whether it grasps the extent of the problem. Since the file has been neglected for the better part of decade, even the most basic fixes haven't been made.
For example, Canadian businesses get tax credits for advertising on Canadian TV and radio, a mechanism originally designed to repatriate ad revenues that might have gone to U.S. border stations. For about a decade now, various advocates, including this one, have been suggesting those credits be extended to websites that cross some basic threshold for Canadian content, but so far this tweak to tax legislation remains nothing but a good idea.
On the other hand, creating new levies on digital distributors would be highly controversial while solving the problem of discoverability – there is no point subsidizing Canadian content online if nobody can find it – will take some clever innovations. First of all, however, there is a need not merely for conferences and panel discussions, but also for a collective sense of urgency before Canada's cultural industries are decimated.