With Parliament ending June 23, Bill C-10 is on the clock.
The bill was tabled on Nov. 3, purportedly to modernize Canada’s 1991 Broadcasting Act and meet challenges and opportunities presented by the global, online era. Many (including myself) assessed C-10 as lacking astute analysis and bold vision. Then things got worse. A clause that exempted user-generated content from regulation was removed, igniting debate by top experts about C-10′s impact on Canadians’ rights to free speech and an open internet. Last week, the bill was further politicized and made even more controversial when the Liberals and Bloc Québécois limited committee debate, and then, with the NDP, introduced amendments without making them public, in an attempt to rush the bill to the House of Commons, pass it and send it to the Senate.
C-10 should not be political. There’s more at risk in this legislation than many realize.
The world is in the early stages of the unstoppable fourth industrial revolution. It’s digitizing everything, disrupting every business and won’t end until it alters what it means to be human. The awkward thing about C-10 is that media disruption kicked off the revolution, but it is the least complex of the changes now evident in manufacturing, medicine, mobility, money and more.
Sadly, Canada can’t even deal with media transformation. In a study of 138 countries, the World Economic Forum (WEF) found Canada’s number-one pain point is our lack of capacity to innovate – nearly equal to our number two: crippling bureaucracy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his first visit to WEF’s Davos forum, promised Canada would be known, not for its resources, but for “resourcefulness.” Where’s that forward-facing vision now?
My research on legacy and new media presents evidence that the borderless, online era has brought new opportunities for Canadian consumers and creators. This global ecosystem solves five decades of whining about Canada’s too-small media market and makes clear that bordering the U.S. has always been an advantage, never a threat.
Amidst pandemic-era joblessness, our legacy content makers – 1 per cent of our national work force – are fully employed. Netflix has spent $2.5-billion on Canadian productions since 2017, saying they’re in for the long haul because “the density of talent in Canada is remarkable.” Anne with an E, Jusqu’a Declin, Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek are just a few shows that appear when you click “Canadian movies and TV” on Netflix.ca.
On YouTube, Canadian creators have taken the world stage, without any need for quotas or subsidies. According to a study I led at Audience Lab, a research group at Ryerson University’s faculty of communication and design, 16.5 per cent of Canadian creators were from Quebec, 18 per cent were people of colour and 9 per cent had a physical disability. About 160,000 Canadian creators of varied ethnicity, gender, and ability lead YouTube genres and generate millions, even billions of views.
With 90 per cent of views coming from outside the country, Canadian creators rank first in export on YouTube, underscoring those creators’ dependence on monetizing Canadian content around the world. We found a majority of Canadian creators reject government meddling in “discoverability” because they fear forced prioritization in Canada could trigger deprioritization elsewhere, undercutting earning power that they’ve built without government help, using a timeless media model: competing for popularity.
Our study found that 84 per cent of Canadian users did not want the government to play a role in what they watch on YouTube. We had many responses like this one: “We live in a global world.”
All this Canadian media exuberance would seem to make a case for simplifying regulation, but the opposite is happening. C-10 faces backward, toward Canada’s regulatory bureaucracy, which I call the “mediaucracy.”
The 2020 report by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR), among 97 recommendations, suggested expanding the jurisdiction of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to the whole internet, a clunky way to justify collecting revenues from global streamers to subsidize Canadian content.
C-10 adopted this recommendation. Preposterous expansion of our media bureaucracy would be needed to enable the CRTC to monitor more than 100 million active global websites (of more than one billion total). On YouTube’s global platform alone, more than 500 hours of video are uploaded every minute. How will the CRTC keep up?
In the case of television, a languid medium compared to the internet, five decades of CRTC regulation did not convince Canadians to watch English-language Canadian content, which consumes the majority of Canadian television’s public funds. Now, with C-10, the CRTC’s reward is jurisdiction over the world wide web?
Few will remember Canada didn’t collect revenues from 20th-century global giants such as ABC, CBS and NBC. In 1970, Canada worked with U.S. broadcasting to strengthen our media system. Astute analysis led to a brilliant policy innovation: simultaneous substitution, the practice of placing Canadian ads in American broadcasts, in real time. This singular regulation kick-started our TV advertising and made our cable and broadcasting sectors so profitable that since then they’ve subsidized Canadian content.
Linear broadcasting and cable are in a sunset phase, but serendipity has emerged. The online era has delivered opportunity to make Canadian TV an economic driver as envisioned in Mr. Trudeau’s first media policy framework, which was spearheaded by former Liberal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly. What we need now is policy to incentivize global reach and content popularity.
In contrast to C-10′s approach to the internet, an opposite response is worth noting. The goal of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 was deregulation to stimulate innovation and competition. In 1997, Netflix was invented. Why not by a Canadian?
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any way will get you there.” That’s the Cheshire Cat’s warning in Alice in Wonderland, and it seems perfect for this moment. Everyone senses historic change. In response to the biggest communications disruption in 600 years, is C-10 the best we can do? Facing backward with the same old policies will embarrass Canada on the world stage, and certainly won’t advance a global reputation for resourcefulness.
Irene S. Berkowitz, PhD, is a policy fellow at Audience Lab, a research group at Ryerson University’s faculty of communication and design, and lead author of the faculty’s YouTube report, Watchtime Canada. She is also the author of a new book on Canadian television, Mediaucracy: Why Canada hasn’t made global hits and how it can.