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Television producers predict another shakeup by CRTC

The success of Corner Gas proved that Canadian TV programs don’t have to mimic the U.S. network style and content.

As the television industry weighs the impact of a 67-page regulatory decision that will reshape the way Canadian content gets made, its leaders are already looking ahead to a ruling expected next week that could yet overshadow major changes made so far.

New rules from the federal broadcast regulator on Canadian-made TV are drawing mixed reviews. But many of the industry's most prominent companies are reserving judgment until they see whether the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decides to unbundle cable and satellite packages, as is widely expected.

The decisions released Thursday drastically reduce the number of hours of Canadian programming that must be aired each day and remove the protected status of some specialty channels. The goal in relaxing the quotas is to boost the quality of shows produced and seen at home, as well as exported abroad.

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But those most affected by the new policies are well aware that scrapping parts of a long-standing support that has fuelled much of the country's TV content for decades will lead to some difficult choices for some stakeholders.

"It's a brave decision," said John Barrack, strategic counsel and partner at Don Carmody Television, an independent producer. "It's big."

For his company, which aims to make high-end drama, the shift in focus is "long overdue." Canada has spread its TV resources too thinly by dictating that more than half the day should be filled with domestic shows, he said. And while there is no magic formula to produce good TV, "your likelihood of creating hits is enhanced if you invest appropriately," Mr. Barrack said.

But he also acknowledged the new regime will put some smaller producers under more pressure, in an already difficult environment. And not everyone is convinced that making fewer hours of Canadian content, even if that means fewer reruns, will improve Canadian TV.

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), a union that represents 22,000 performers, argues that with the vast American television machine still pumping out shows next door, the successes born in Canada have been built on public support and content requirements.

"To weaken or destabilize the foundation of the industry in this way is not helpful," said Stephen Waddell, ACTRA's national executive director. "I appreciate that [CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais] is suggesting that we need quality as opposed to quantity. But there are many Canadian jobs that are dependent on this industry, and quantity is an important element of sustaining an industry in this country."

Mr. Blais insists that quotas are "anachronistic" in a world where viewers now have such a huge array of options on television and online, much of which is available any time on any screen.

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"There's a realization in this entire framework that the audiovisual world is changing," Mr. Blais said in an interview on Thursday. "We're going from an era where there were only a limited number of channels. That's all exploded."

Many of the most powerful players are taking a wait-and-see approach, withholding judgment until the CRTC issues its ruling about so-called "pick-and-pay," a policy that could give TV subscribers more freedom to choose their channels but which broadcasters have warned will hurt their bottom lines. Spokespeople for Rogers Communications Inc. and BCE Inc. said the companies are still reviewing the decisions. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail).

"It will be interesting to see what broadcasters have to say," said Adam Shine, an analyst at National Bank Financial Inc., in a research note. "Of course, the decisions that matter most to our coverage have yet to materialize."

But while the precise impact of Thursday's decisions is still unclear, even to experts, Mr. Waddell said said some of the industry's talent is already fearing the worst.

"What's being tweeted from quite a few of our leading (ACTRA) members is, it's time to begin looking for an apartment in Los Angeles," he said.

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