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. 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.
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 in the screen-based sectors. 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.
As such, the WGC will be 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. We will further argue that the way to support our sector is not by abandoning it to global behemoths but by ensuring that over-the-top services contribute to Canada in the way that broadcasters have always been expected to.
The federal review is expected to take place over the fall and winter of 2016-2017. The WGC will be active in this process, and encourages members to participate whenever possible.
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 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, as well as in calls for more “flexibility” with respect to funders’ CAVCO point requirements.
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.
Group-based television licence renewals
In 2010 the CRTC announced “A group-based approach to the licensing of private television services,” a television policy that was intended to respond to the advent of digital technologies and the consolidation of broadcasting companies, among other things. This policy included spending requirements on Canadian programming as a key method of ensuring that such programming is available to Canadians, in furtherance of the objectives of the Broadcasting Act. The policy was implemented in 2011, with most large broadcast groups given a five-year licence term. Following a one-year extension, those broadcasting licence terms will expire in 2017, at which time the Bell Media, Rogers Media, and Corus Entertainment licences will be up for renewal.
The CRTC officially announced the start of the renewal process in June, 2016. The WGC will participate in this proceeding, arguing that broadcaster groups must maintain their support for Canadian production and development.
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 funders like the CMF to ensure that development financing is up-to-date and industry-relevant.
Monitoring outcomes from “Let’s Talk TV”
In February and March, 2015, the CRTC released a series of decisions arising from its major review of television policy, called “Let’s Talk TV.” This review purported to deal with many of the changes wrought by the digital revolution, and represented an increased focus on Canadian consumers. In a series of decisions, the CRTC:
• Retained simultaneous substitution, except for the Super Bowl and for discretionary channels;
• For conventional stations, eliminated daytime exhibition requirements while retaining those for primetime, and for discretionary channels harmonized exhibition requirements at a (generally reduced) 35%;
• Retained spending requirements for Canadian programming and “programs of national interest”;
• Eliminated the genre exclusivity policy for discretionary channels;
• Introduced certification “pilot projects” for drama/comedy productions that are adaptations of Canadian novels or that cost over $2 million per hour, which will require that the screenwriter(s) be Canadian;
• Eliminated the requirement that broadcasters sign a Terms of Trade Agreement with the CMPA;
• Maintained a hands-off approach to regulating “over-the-top” services such as CraveTV, shomi, and Netflix; and
• Unbundled cable/satellite TV packages.
The WGC shared preliminary thoughts with members about the March 12 decision here and the March 19 decision here. (Members must be logged on to the WGC website to view the March 12 document.) Ultimate impacts of these decisions will take months if not years to become clear. As such, we will continue to follow developments and monitor outcomes. Where these decisions affect screenwriters, the WGC will ensure that the CRTC and the federal government are made aware, and we will advocate for changes where necessary. We rely on writers’ experiences to better inform our positions, so don’t hesitate to contact us as you see these or other CRTC policy changes impacting you.
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 1990-1991, 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.