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Is ‘made in Canada’ really important to TV viewers?

How do people find the TV shows and movies they want to watch?

It used to be pretty simple: You'd hear about something from a friend or an ad or maybe an article, and you'd tune in (or go to the cinema). The network TV model depended on viewers' tendency to turn on a channel and leave it on – yes, even in a remote-control world – for the duration of prime time and late night.

How quaint that seems now. Over the past decade, billions of dollars have been spent developing businesses designed to disrupt the natural human impulse of inertia. Algorithmic tools assist what's known as the discoverability of content: Netflix and Amazon learn what you like, and then recommend more stuff just like it. Facebook, Twitter and other social networks point us toward relevant stuff. Google serves up ads and search results based on our web surfing.

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If it's not yet an existentialist threat to Canadian content, it has the potential to be. Canadian programming isn't as easily discovered in a globalized entertainment landscape that favours algorithms and social recommendations. Which is why so many players in the domestic broadcasting system – from the regulators to the programmers and distributors – are suddenly talking about the importance of promotion.

It began in March, when the chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Jean-Pierre Blais, told an industry crowd that, rather than being a protectionist, "I'm a promotionist." To which everyone chirped, "Me too!"

Last week, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television convened a panel discussion in Toronto featuring representatives from Bell Media, Rogers Media and the CBC on how the industry could better promote domestic productions. All three have learned how to craft muscular campaigns for their Canadian shows. Bell drove more than two million viewers to Flashpoint for its finale last December, and more than 400,000 to last month's premiere of Orphan Black on Space.

But all of the networks have, on occasion, seemed indifferent to Made in Canada TV. When Global cancelled Bomb Girls last month, viewers and a number of people in the industry blamed it on poor promotion and a perceived preference by the network, which is owned by Shaw Communications Inc., for cheaper U.S. fare. Though more than $3.1-billion was spent on the creation and promotion of Canadian programming in 2011 (the last year for which complete figures are available from the CRTC), it's still viewed in some quarters as a tax that must be paid by companies that want to enjoy Canada's regulatory protections.

Making the case this week for their $3-billion acquisition of Astral Media, Bell reps quoted Mr. Blais's speech back to him, and declared they shared his vision. Kevin Crull, the president of BCE Inc.'s Bell Media unit, pledged to use the enlarged company's power to create a Canadian star system, adding: "We are promoting our original Canadian shows like no one else in the country." (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)

Astral CEO Ian Greenberg noted the CRTC had just completed a two-week hearing in which Starlight, a fledgling all-Canadian film channel, lobbied for a place in the TV lineups of every subscriber in the country to give Canadian movies the profile they deserved. Mr. Greenberg said that he was thrilled that, with a merger, the movie service TMN might be promoted on CTV, just as Bell promotes some of its other TV properties. "Astral alone cannot afford … to buy national time across the country for pay-TV," he said.

While that kind of cross-promotion is valuable, its efficacy is in decline as algorithms take over our lives. This summer, Rogers Communications Inc. is introducing a Netflix-style recommendation engine that will offer up suggestions to its cable subscribers based on their viewing history. David Purdy, the senior vice president of content at Rogers, acknowledged that might make it harder to promote Canadian content.

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"People nowadays, they want to go to an objective recommendation engine, and if they feel it's being skewed – either by the regulator or by a corporation – they feel manipulated and they stop using (it)," he said.

"We can't take a paternalistic, force-feeding mentality in the video space," he added. "We have to let customers feel that they have the tools necessary to find the content they want."

There are a few good tools in the arsenals of cable and satellite companies that could be used to promote Canadian content. Many video-on-demand contracts allow the companies to insert a short trailer in front of movies or TV shows. There are dedicated barker channels and network air time they get as part of their deals to carry specialty services.

It's in all of their interests to become successful "promotionists" of Canadian content – if only because there are already too many places for viewers to get the other stuff.

Join the conversation

On Twitter: Follow us at @CanadaCompetes.

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On Linked In: Be involved in a broad discussion on Canada's future on the Conversations for Change page: tinyurl.com/czz9koq

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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