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Open letter to Konrad Yakabuski

August 21, 2017

Konrad Yakabuski published an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail on Aug. 17 with the headline How ‘bold’ will Mélanie Joly’s broadcasting policy be?. It’s a good question, and one the WGC is keen to have answered, hopefully via the Minister’s “vision statement,” upcoming in September. The WGC also agrees that it’s essential to find new funding models that will take Canadian programs into the future, something Yakabuski’s colleague, Kate Taylor, astutely points out in an Aug. 18 article (Cancon television regulations need updating in the age of streaming). And it goes without saying that we want to see more Canadian programs viewed the world over. But just as there is no perfect formula for hit shows, nor is there a magic potion that creates “export potential.” First, you support your creators, and make sure that the support evolves to reflect the new technological realities.
 
But we’d be remiss not to point out that Yakabuski’s article contains some incorrect information about the industry as it stands today, and draws some dubious conclusions. Firstly, he gets his fact wrong when he talks about private TV broadcasting revenues. He says that revenues for conventional private broadcasters fell at a compound annual growth rate of almost 5% between 2011 and 2015, and conflates that with “private TV broadcasting” overall. But these conventional stations are just one part of private TV broadcasting, and not even the largest part. While the CAGR of private conventional stations fell by 4.8%, it grew by 5.0% for specialty channels, which are almost entirely owned by private broadcasters. Moreover, since the speciality sector is nearly twice the size as the private conventional sector, that means that a 5-year decline of $382 million for private conventional was more than offset by $624 million in specialty growth over the same period. Yakabuski’s error puts him in a puzzlingly long line of commentators whose eulogies for television remain largely untroubled by the facts.
 
Of course, there are a number of challenges facing the traditional broadcasting sector, and the WGC has commented on them publicly in numerous forums. For example, we went into great detail on the subject in our submissions to Minister Joly’s digital consultation. It is here, and we would encourage Yakabuski to read it. It’s weighty, yes, but it would relieve him of needing to speculate on what the WGC “seems to prefer.”  If he had read it, he would see that the issue the Minister recently sent back to the CRTC is just one of the policy tools currently utilized in Canada to support Canadian film and television production (albeit a currently vital one), and that the WGC has proposed a number of options to continue to do so in the digital age. He would also know that other countries — presumably even some of the ones that he thinks are more “innovative” than Canada — spend more on the “protection” of their national content production than English Canada does. For example, even including programs of national interest (PNI) spending in the mix, the WGC has calculated that the United Kingdom spends roughly $9.45 CAD billion annually on U.K. content, through a combination of government funding and mandated contributions, compared to $1.88 billion for English-Canada. That’s over five times more money, and works out to nearly double on a per-capita basis.  Even the U.S. does more than we do, typically in the form of state-level tax credits. The thing about “innovation” is, you need to invest in it. Other countries are doing exactly that.
 
Yet what Yakabuski proposes is an approach that would not just put Canadian creators in the back seat, it would leave many of them standing by the side of the road. Yakabuski seems to imagine that investing in international co-productions (presumably other than official treaty co-productions, because we already have those), to ostensibly teach parochial Canadian creators how to be creative, or innovative…or, something, will bring international money into Canada with no strings attached. Yakabuski doesn’t work in this sector, so he can be forgiven for not understanding. But it doesn’t work that way. Just about all money comes with strings attached, and international strings for international money generally involves international creative control by international creators, i.e., they are not creatively-driven from Canada. This is especially true for Canadian screenwriters seeking to tell Canadian stories or reflect a Canadian sensibility. 
 
Truth is, we actually already have Yakabuski’s model operating in Canada now, and it’s called “service production.” Hollywood studios develop projects in California, driven by largely U.S.-resident writers, and then they come up to shoot in Canadian studios, using Canadian crews, to be sure, but employ nominal Canadian talent and no Canadian screenwriters in telling American or “international” stories. The Expanse, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, Power Rangers, The Strain. Is this what Yakabuski thinks should replace our own, Canadian television programming?
 
And while it is, for reasons we can only speculate on, popular in some quarters to bash Canadian shows and their audiences, it’s erroneous to say that “few Canadians actually watch Canadian shows.” Whether made by the privates or CBC, there are plenty of examples of Canadian shows regularly watched by over a million Canadian viewers (the benchmark of success in a market Canada’s size) per episode, from Private Eyes to Saving Hope to Murdoch Mysteries. Not to mention the critical success and rabid fan followings for Canadian shows such as Orphan BlackWynonna EarpLetterkenny, 19-2 and so on.
 
Crucially, we are talking about the production of content, not furniture or auto parts. It matters who makes it, and it matters what it’s about. Try applying Yakabuski’s theory to his own profession, also in the content business: journalism. The New York Times has higher circulation and revenues than the Globe and Mail. Does that mean the Times, or some other major U.S. newspaper, should “co-produce” all Canadian journalism? Think about it. U.S. journalists could teach Canadian journalists how to write, and be innovative. Of course, our news would be mostly about the U.S. and world affairs. But maybe if “being innovative” is the primary goal, we can throw the rest of it out the window.  Or, maybe, we can’t act as if Canadians — journalists or creators — have some predisposition towards mediocrity, and we can do what virtually every other developed country does for their own. We can support them.



Canadian Screenwriter summer 2017 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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