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opinion

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former publisher of the Calgary Herald and a previous vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The fundamental weakness in Canada’s Online Streaming Act will be exposed for all to see on Nov. 20, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) comes face-to-face with American streaming companies.

For the first time, the regulator will be dealing with companies that, if they don’t like the rules and the financial burden the CRTC imposes, are free to leave the country.

To be clear, neither Netflix, Disney+ nor any other company has yet suggested they are prepared to quit Canada. There have been no threats to do anything similar to what Meta did and Google might – stop carrying news – in response to the Online News Act. But there is nothing that compels foreign companies from continuing here if CRTC decisions make it no longer sensible for them to do so.

That shapes the conversation in a way that the commission, which commences a three-week-long hearing Nov. 20 involving 127 intervenors, isn’t accustomed to. Throughout its history, the primary players in CRTC procedures have always been captives of “the system” – domestic companies that depend for their existence on a commission license or rely upon the regulator’s decisions for their sustenance. They may not like the rules the CRTC comes up with, but they have to live with them.

Not so when it comes to global streamers that, as it turns out, are global.

Netflix’s base here is robust – 6.7 million subscribers – but that is just 10 per cent of its U.S. audience and only 2.8 per cent of its global subscriber base. According to its submission to the CRTC, it has already invested $3.5-billion in film and TV production since launching here in 2010 – roughly equivalent to the Canada Media Fund’s spend over the same period. And, it claims, people are 1.8 times more likely to view a Canadian production on Netflix than on TV. Let that sink in.

Disney+ makes similar arguments. It has 4.4 million Canadian subscribers out of a global total of about 147 million (down significantly this year). It points out that it has invested $1.5-billion in Canada, which is one of its top four production markets. As it gently states in its submission to the CRTC: “We encourage the commission to adopt a modernized contribution framework and a revised, modern definition of a ‘Canadian program’ that provide sufficient incentives for global producers and foreign online undertakings to continue to bring large-scale productions to, and make capital investments in, Canada.”

Large domestic companies that have been forced by regulation to contribute to the production and airing of certified Canadian content, meanwhile, argue for their “burden” in that regard to be reduced and shifted onto the backs of foreign companies.

In its submission, BCE Inc., which has a current profit margin of 21.2 per cent, describes the broadcasting system as in crisis, accuses streamers of having “contributed precious little to the Canadian system” and calls for its contributions to be reduced from 30 per cent to 20 per cent of the media division’s revenue – a figure it believes should be applied to all offshore streamers with more than $50-million in Canadian revenue.

BCE Inc. goes on to argue that if the commission takes its advice and forces the streamers to pay 20 per cent of their revenue directly into Canadian content funds, an additional $457-million – growing to $678-million by 2026 – will pour into the pockets of ACTRA, the Writers Guild and others involved in the creation of certified Canadian TV and film content.

And that, right there, is where Netflix, with a profit margin of 13 per cent clears its throat. Politely but firmly, it says the CRTC appears to have already made up its mind that streamers should be paying into funds and “submits that this is not an appropriate starting point.”

The decade prior to the introduction of the Online Streaming Act was by far the most prosperous in the history of the Canadian film and television industry, including in terms of Canadian content production.

Most of that growth took place beyond the reach of the CRTC, which was in charge of an increasingly irrelevant system upon which many legacy companies had grown dependent. But instead of fostering what was working, the government chose to sustain what wasn’t.

So now, as with the Online News Act, it’s playing at a table where it no longer holds all the cards.

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