Irene S. Berkowitz is an Instructor in Ryerson University's MBA program at Ted Rogers School of Management and a PhD Candidate in the Ryerson-York University Joint Program in Communication and Culture
To paraphrase Sally Fields at the 1984 Oscars, the CRTC gets it. They really get it.
Yesterday's announcement that the CRTC is relaxing the rules on Canadian content is a clear sign the Canadian television system needs a reboot, from its 20th-century purpose to 'correct and protect' our tiny domestic market, to a 21st-century freedom to 'send and receive' seven billion potential viewers.
Since, as the CRTC observed, it is true that viewers watch content and don't care how it gets to their screens, it's time to focus on how we might go about future-proofing the Canadian media system for the digital age.
If, as CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais aptly observed, "content is king" and "viewer is Emperor" – isn't hit content God? From Big Bang Theory to Breaking Bad to The Affair to Silicon Valley, television programming is all about quality and popularity. It's never been otherwise, since the days of I Love Lucy, back in 1951. Just ask our Canadian broadcasters; they've been monetizing Hollywood hit content since then.
A question is whether our broadcasters want, or need, to be in the original content business. Time will tell, because it's not an easy gig. It turns out that if you break the TV value chain into three phases (create, manufacture, monetize), it becomes clear that Canada must put far greater emphasis on the 'create' phase (known in the TV biz as 'development.') But, achieving creative excellence isn't all about the creative: it means following the money.
It won't be easy to pivot our content priority from 'making shows' to 'making hits,' in order to seize the thrilling opportunities in the golden, global age of TV. Making great TV is so excruciatingly difficult that the only way it appears to work, well, is if creative effort is ruled by a relentless need to succeed, with no safety net for failure. Development needs a well-aligned set of vested, financial interests, mutually risked and relentlessly pressured to achieve one singular goal: a hit.
Upgrading any cluster – from production to R&D excellence – is a tough challenge. Success requires a concerted effort by government, industry, and lobby organizations. As one of my interviewees put it (a Canadian, who has become an A-list Hollywood showrunner): "You need to reach 20 million people. And be terrified you won't."
At the moment, the problem with our Canadian value chain appears to be a certain lack of need to succeed at monetizing the asset created, a fault in our system which ripples backwards, resulting in a creative development phase (in the words of another Canadian, A-list Hollywood showrunner) which is a "warped, broken, bridge to nowhere."
To date, our Canadian system has emphasized the 'manufacture' phase, where results are tallied in supply metrics, such as jobs, shows, investment. As Mr. Blais pointed out on Thursday, this been awesome for building our world-class production sector; but now that digital disruption and disintermediation have arrived, we may need to step up our game. As another interviewee said, "If we made the rules, can't we change them? Let's start before it's too late."
Future-proofing the Canadian media system will mean moving our content priority from 'domestic supply to global demand' and from 'investment to return on investment.' This won't just be good business; it will be great culture. What could be more in synch with the spirit of Canada's Broadcasting Act than Canadian-created stories getting global applause?
As for another recent content hullaballoo, simultaneous substitution; it's a truly brilliant innovation (invented by CTV entrepreneurs), which helped finance CanCon for the 20th century – so what if that game is winding down? It's been a great run. Let's put our heads into the new game, and get in to win it. Global attention should be ours.