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 productions, particularly drama, are still expensive and risky enterprises. 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.
"Creative Canada" and beyond
The WGC has long felt that many of these issues would be best dealt with in a national digital strategy emanating from the federal government, and advocated for such a strategy for years. On April 25, 2016, Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly announced a review of Canada’s cultural policies, called Canadian Content in a Digital World. The WGC submitted a major policy paper to this proceeding in Nov. 2016 (you can read it in full here) in which we argued that the way to support our sector is not by abandoning it to global behemoths, but by adopting smart regulation to ensure that digital entities contribute and that Canadian talent is front and centre.
On Sept. 28, 2017, Minister Joly announced her "Creative Canada" vision statement, flowing from this consultation. "Creative Canada" included plans to review the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act, "top up" funding for the Canada Media Fund (CMF), and a five-year, $500 million investement in original programming in Canada by Netflix.
These were important steps forward, and the WGC supports them. They are not, however, long-term fixes for the challenges facing our sector, and many questions still remain. The WGC will continue to follow developments and advocate for cultural policies that support Canadian content and Canadian screenwriters, and we look forward working with new Minister of Heritage and Multiculturalism, the Honourable Steven Guilbeault.
Review of the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act
As described above, the “Creative Canada” announcements included plans to review the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act.
Broadcasting regulation has been a crucially important part of Canadian cultural policy for decades. Regulation under the Broadcasting Act currently includes spending requirements for private broadcasters on Canadian programming, in particular for “programs of national interest” (PNI), the CRTC category that includes drama, comedy, much children’s programming and animation, and long-form documentary — i.e. the main genres that WGC members work in — and on which Bell, Corus, and Rogers have spent roughly $300 million annually of late. Broadcasting regulation also obliges “broadcasting distribution undertakings” (BDUs), the cable and satellite TV providers, to contribute to production funds like the CMF. BDUs contribute currently over $200 million annually to the CMF under these regulations. These two regulatory components — spending on PNI, and BDU contributions — currently combine to provide over $500 million annually to the creation of Canadian programming. This is a very significant part of our industry, and it wouldn’t exist to nearly the same degree, if at all, without the Broadcasting Act.
As Canadian content viewing moves from the traditional broadcasting system to Internet-based “over-the-top” (OTT) services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and AppleTV+, the suite of regulatory tools like PNI and BDU contributions do not move with it, since broadcasting and Internet/telecommunications have traditionally been viewed as separate from a regulatory perspective. The WGC has argued in favour of having OTT services, both foreign and domestic, be subject to PNI-like CanCon spending requirements, and in favour of Internet service providers (ISPs), as the new “pipe” for content distribution, having CMF contribution requirements just like BDUs have.
The current government seems prepared to look at these kinds of options, but wants to do it in the context of reviewing the Acts. Minister Joly kicked off the process in Sept., 2017, by asking the CRTC to report on future program distribution models. The CRTC in turn asked for public comment in two phases, which the WGC provided here and here. On May 31, 2018, the CRTC published its report, based in part on these comments, available here. The WGC was encouraged to see the Commission recognize the realities challenging Canadian content creation in the digital age, and recommend potential options for ensuring that players both old and new contribute to Canadian content. Following this report, the federal government announced an expert panel that would look at the Acts and make recommendations for changes, to be submitted by Jan. 31, 2020. This panel has in turn sought public comment, which the WGC contributed to through our detailed written comments and by participating in industry conferences over the past year.
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. 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 is 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 result would be a renewed exodus of our talent to Hollywood and elsewhere, where they will contribute to the cultures and economies of other countries, likely never to return.
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 screenwriters to work for free, and frustrated development funding models that may have been designed in an earlier era. At the same time, Canadian broadcasters seem increasingly uninterested in developing great Canadian stories, while international opportunities are growing. The WGC has closely followed these trends, and has worked with policy-makers to find solutions. In particular, the WGC was pleased to see development mentioned in the “Creative Canada” vision statement, and we subsequently worked closely with the CMF to help create a new funding program, targeted directly to screenwriters, which was announced in March, 2019, as the Early Stage Development Program. The WGC will now work with the CMF and our members to help make this new program a success.
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 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.