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opinion

The cast of "Schitt's Creek" with (left to right) Annie Murphy Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara and Daniel Levy.CBC

Richard Stursberg is the former head of all English services (TV, radio, digital) at the CBC, former CEO of Telefilm Canada, and former chairman of the Canadian Television Fund.

When does a television show or film officially become Canadian?

The Senate is currently examining this question in its hearings for Bill C-11, which, if passed, would introduce Canada’s first-ever Online Streaming Act. The debate over C-11, in legislative hearings as well as the public sphere, has been contentious on several fronts, particularly because the bill would require Netflix, Amazon, Disney and other streaming-service providers to contribute to the financing of “Canadian content” out of the revenues they earn in Canada. But the question of when, exactly, content should be deemed “Canadian” has sown division between Canadian producers and American streaming-service owners.

For their part, Canadian television and film producers want to hold on to the current definition of Canadian content, which is a designation given to content that earns enough points on a certification scorecard overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). According to this point system, a show is also deemed Canadian and qualifies for public financial support if the company that produces it is owned and controlled by Canadians, and the key creative jobs are held by Canadians.

Under Canadian rules, a production is scored on a 10-point scale, where the writer is worth two points, the director another two, and the lead actors, composer, editor and designer are all worth one point each. A show that scores a minimum of six out of 10 points is eligible for tax credits, and a production that receives a full score can receive tax credits as well as support from the Canadian Media Fund.

This is a weirdly industrial and employment-based definition of “Canadian,” as the point system makes no reference to the actual content it is scoring. It allows films and TV shows to be subsidized with taxpayer dollars even if their subject matter has nothing whatsoever to do with Canada. This has often led to the creation of “Canadian” shows that are really ersatz American ones, with American characters, settings and stories.

The other problem with the traditional definition of “Canadian” is that it is completely unacceptable to the big streamers. When they commission a show, they buy it for all their markets throughout the globe; they retain “worldwide rights” and own the show in its entirety. This is the core of their business model and completely incompatible with the idea that the shows must be Canadian-owned and controlled in order to obtain public funding for their productions.

One simple way through this seemingly intractable problem is to redefine “Canadian” in a way that solves both of these difficulties. Fortunately, there is a model available that has been tested for many years and works extremely well: the British system.

Britain has taken a completely different approach to defining its domestic content. Their system, like Canada’s, is based on points, but the points are awarded for different elements, which are culturally based. Of 35 points on the British scorecard, the first 18 are concerned with whether the characters are identifiably British, whether the program is clearly set in Britain, whether it is based on British subject matter, and whether or not it is made in English. A production can add another four points to its score if the show offers an interpretation of British culture, heritage or diversity, and only eight of the 35 points concern the creative team. The British system pretty well guarantees that when a TV program or movie is made with British taxpayers’ money, it looks, sounds and feels British.

The British system also does not require production companies to be British-owned and controlled to qualify for subsidies. It simply requires that the company be incorporated and pay taxes in Britain. Thus, the big American streamers can make and commission “British” shows while also retaining the worldwide rights that are at the core of their business models.

While the adoption of the British system might cause some gnashing of teeth among the Canadian guilds and producers, it would seem a small price to pay to ensure that taxpayer money was spent to a real cultural end, and not just to enrich producers or provide employment. It would, as well, ensure that Canadian productions that are distinctively Canadian were distributed all over the world through the streamers’ vast international networks.

In Britain, the system seems to have worked very well, and does not seem to have disadvantaged British talent. The country’s writers, directors and actors are more in demand than they have been in decades. And British cultural exports have boomed.

For Canada, how we define Canadian content going forward will be the most important cultural decision we will make. We should adopt the British approach to ensure a successful future for CanCon.