Canada's private broadcasters have a love-hate relationship with their masters. They hate it when regulators make high-minded declarations about protecting Canadian culture and force them to buy domestic shows when they'd rather just import popular U.S. ones. But they love it when regulators block Canadians from watching these same American shows on U.S. networks.
They clamour for a "level playing field" and call on Ottawa to slap taxes and Canadian-content quotas on Netflix, while waving the maple leaf to seek special treatment and protection for themselves. In other words, they're as two-faced as your typical roommate on Big Brother.
Bell Media is again asking the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to reverse an earlier decision that allows Canadians to see much-hyped U.S. ads during the Super Bowl instead of having to watch Canadian ones in their place. The Federal Court of Appeal this week dismissed Bell's lawsuit challenging the CRTC's suspension of its so-called simultaneous substitution rule for the Super Bowl. Simsub continues to apply in all other cases where Canadian networks broadcast U.S. shows in the same time slot as U.S. networks, which is most of the time.
But Bell is hoping the CRTC's new Liberal-appointed chairman will revisit the Super Bowl decision made under the agency's former Conservative-named boss. And it's invoking a Canada First credo to makes its case, which is ironic considering this whole dispute involves Bell's desire to make money off what is perhaps the biggest American cultural symbol that exists.
Bell's CTV network saw its share of the 2017 Super Bowl audience plummet 39 per cent after Canadian viewers were given the option of watching the game, with U.S. ads, on Fox. Bell says this led to an $11-million drop in advertising revenue from the game, while depriving the creators of Canadian ads of critical income and slashing the size of the audience for Canadian advertisers.
"A broad range of Canadian creators, producers, unions and advertisers are asking the CRTC to prevent further damage by rescinding its decision," Bell Media spokesman Scott Henderson said after the court ruling.
That's funny, because these are the same "creators, producers and unions" that Bell is fighting with over CRTC rules that require Canadian private broadcasters to spend about 30 per cent of their revenue on typically forgettable Canadian shows with ratings that range from mediocre to awful, with the recent exception of CTV's hit Russell Peters vehicle, The Indian Detective.
In a new C.D. Howe Institute paper, the former top lobbyists for Bell and Rogers – Lawson Hunter and Ken Engelhart, respectively – state: "Canadian over-the-air services rely on profitable U.S. hits. The returns on these Hollywood hits have allowed them to break even or lose a bit on their Canadian content and still generate a financial return. Until recently, then, they have been able to view their Canadian drama shows as a cost of doing business."
So, Bell, CTV, Rogers City-TV and Corus' Global network don't buy Canadian content out of any abiding devotion to their home and native land. Canadian shows are just a "cost of doing business."
The problem is that this basic compromise – by which Canadian broadcasters agree to buy money-losing Canadian shows that keep domestic actors, directors, technicians and producers employed in exchange for getting to stuff their schedules with lucrative U.S. dramas, sitcoms and reality shows – is breaking down as Canadians turn increasingly to Netflix and other online streaming sources for entertainment content.
Hence, Mr. Hunter, Mr. Engelhart and co-author Peter Miller, a former chief lobbyist for CHUM Ltd. (which Bell bought in 2006), argue that Canadian-content rules need to be loosened to allow private broadcasters to partner with foreign producers on shows with greater export potential. Allowing domestic broadcasters to own, in part or in whole, the domestic, international and online rights to these shows would give them a greater incentive to make them.
Currently, generously subsidized independent producers in Canada typically own all rights to their shows, while CRTC rules limit broadcaster-owned production companies from accessing subsidies or tax credits.
Bell Media made a nearly identical argument to the "skin-in-the-game" one advanced by Mr. Hunter and his co-authors in a submission last year to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, whose review of the regulatory framework governing Canadian broadcasters is unfinished. But just because it's a self-serving argument on Bell's part doesn't mean it isn't worthy of consideration. Indeed, Ottawa may have no option but to consider it if it wants to save domestic private broadcasters from a slow death.
"What is a Canadian story?" the authors of the C.D. Howe study ask. "Presumably, encouraged and subsidized content would be about Canada and Canadians. But would it matter if the actors, directors and camera crews are not Canadians?"
Well, it would matter a lot to Canadian actors, directors and camera crews. But sooner or later, Madmen-era Canadian-content rules will need to catch up with a Handmaid's Tale world.