Current Priorities

Introduction

Many of the WGC’s current policy priorities ultimately relate to the impacts of the Internet and the digital revolution. Digital technologies have introduced new tools and platforms for creators, distributors, broadcasters, and consumers. These represent both opportunities for Canadian content creation as well as challenges to established business models. While the digital revolution has changed — and is changing — much in the media landscape, other things remain unaffected. Canada is still a small national market, and a linguistic and geographical neighbour to the largest media producer in the world. High-quality film and television production, particularly drama, is still an expensive and risky enterprise. Talent still requires opportunities to flourish, and talented people still need a way to earn a living if they are to continue to create in this country. For all these reasons, Canadian cultural policies like CRTC broadcast regulation, copyright law, production funding, tax credits, and stable support for the CBC remain as relevant today as ever.

Group-based television licence renewals

In May, 2017, the CRTC released a series of decisions renewing the broadcasting licences for the television services of the large English-language ownership groups — the broadcasting conglomerates of Bell Media, Corus Entertainment, and Rogers Media, who together own and control the lion’s share of English-language television services and revenues in Canada. 
 
These renewals included the decision to slash minimum spending requirements on “programs of national interest” (PNI), defined to include drama (including dramatic series, comedy, animation, and similar programming that is targeted to children and youth) and long-form documentary — in other words, the core of what WGC members do. The CRTC cut PNI requirements from their historical averages — calculated to 8%, 9%, and 5% of broadcasting revenues for Bell, Corus, and Rogers, respectively — to a flat, lowest-common-denominator level of 5%. The WGC has co-commissioned research showing the potential impact of these cuts could exceed $200 million in reduced broadcaster spending over the five years of the next licence term, with further multiplier effects on other funding that are typically triggered by broadcaster licence fees.
 
Such an impact would be disastrous for Canadian English-language domestic television production, and especially to the Canadian screenwriters who rely almost entirely on that sector to survive. In the past, the CRTC has recognized that, “Drama programs and documentary programs are expensive and difficult to produce, yet are central vehicles for communicating Canadian stories and values.” Reducing financing for this programming will diminish Canadian cultural voices and cost jobs in the Canadian creative economy. The WGC is now looking to the federal government to review these decisions, and is working to get the CRTC’s decisions set aside and sent back for reconsideration.

The federal digital content review

The WGC feels that many of these issues would be best dealt with in a national digital strategy emanating from the federal government. The WGC has advocated for just such a strategy for years. On April 25, 2016, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly announced a major review of Canada’s cultural policies, called Canadian Content in a Digital World. The WGC is hopeful that this review will result in a true, robust national digital strategy that fully responds to the challenges of the digital revolution, particularly as it relates Canadian content and culture.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen on its own. Some believe that deregulation is the way to go — that the Internet has eliminated the need for content support, and that regulation of traditional media should be eliminated to “level the playing field” with online services. The WGC believes that these views are uninformed and short-sighted, but they nevertheless have their advocates.

The WGC is working hard to communicate to the federal government the ways in which our sector contributes to Canadian employment, our national dialogue and identity, and the creative economy. WGC members participated in events across Canada this past fall, and the WGC submitted a major policy paper to the government in November. (You can read our paper in full here.) We firmly believe that the way to support our sector is not by abandoning it to global behemoths but by ensuring that so called "over-the-top services" (OTT) such as Amazon, Netflix etc. contribute to Canada in the way that broadcasters have always been expected to.

The WGC will continue to work to ensure that the views of Canadian screenwrters are heard in Ottawa.

Importance of Canadian Talent

The Internet is international in scope, and has helped to erode national boundaries when it comes to how audiovisual content is produced and distributed. Companies like Netflix seek global programming rights, and producers increasingly consider not just Canada but the world to be their market. Policymakers are taking note of this trend, and some believe that the Canadian system alone can no longer support the industry.

With the growing focus on international financing and distribution has come increased pressure to make “globally competitive” Canadian content, which to some means engaging international talent to appeal to that market. We can see this in the CRTC’s “pilot projects” that were announced in the “Let’s Talk TV” decisions of last year, and in particular in the CRTC decision with respect to “Certified Independent Production Funds” from August, 2016. (The WGC expressed its strong disappointment in the latter in a press release that you can read here.) Those decisions were bad, but applying a similar philosophy to the Canada Media Fund would be disastrous, and we know there are calls to do so.

While international financing represents an opportunity to the Canadian industry, the WGC believes that it cannot be pursued at the expense of Canadian creative talent. A film or television show is Canadian because of the artists who make it, and the screenwriter is among the most important creative force in the medium — we believe the most important, particularly in television. Canada cannot build a globally competitive creative industry by jettisoning its creative talent. Canadian content has both an economic and a cultural imperative, and we can't lose sight of the latter in our quest for international dollars, lest we relegate ourselves to being a virtual service provider to the rest of the world’s stories and creators.

The changing nature of development and its impact on writers

In years past, much television development was done with the financial support of broadcasters, who entered into development partnerships with creators and producers early on, and funded many stages of development. Increasingly, however, broadcasters are looking for more and more of that work to be done up front, before they will commit any money to the project. This has put increased pressure on writers to work for free, and frustrated development funding models that may have been designed in an earlier era. The WGC is closely following this trend, and is working with policy-makers to find solutions.

Support for the CBC

It's no secret that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is facing significant challenges. Its Parliamentary appropriation has declined by close to 40% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1990-91, in an era when production costs have increased significantly. Its per-capita funding is amongst the lowest in the developed world, yet it must provide services in two official languages and across the second largest country by landmass on the planet. More recently, a softening advertising market has also hurt the CBC. This has affected all over-the-air broadcasters, but large, private broadcast groups like Bell Media and Corus Entertainment can better weather the storm by relying on their specialty channels which also receive subscription revenues. The CBC does not have that option. Clearly, we have not been treating our national public broadcaster well, and this is showing in successive lay-offs and shifting programming strategies.

The Liberal government has committed to inject $150 million annually into the CBC. This is an important first step. The Liberals have also pledged to reform how the CBC is governed, which is another key initiative to move the CBC away from political machinations and towards a focus on providing more and better Canadian programming. The WGC will continue to discuss these and other potential issues with government decision-makers. At a time when the digital revolution is threatening to undermine some sources of funding for Canadian content, a public broadcaster is even more relevant, not less.


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

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