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.
Updating the Broadcasting 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 $200 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 currently contribute nearly $200 million annually to the CMF under these regulations. These two regulatory components — spending on PNI, and BDU contributions — combine to provide over $400 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 streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and AppleTV+, the suite of regulatory tools like PNI and BDU contributions have not moved with it, since Internet broadcasters have been exempted from regulation, and telecommunications providers are outside the scope of the Broadcasting Act. The WGC has argued in favour of having streaming services, both foreign and domestic, be subject to PNI-like CanCon spending requirements, and for Internet service providers (ISPs), as the new “pipe” for content distribution, having CMF contribution requirements just like BDUs have.
These issues have become impossible to ignore and now, following three major consultation processes and reports – Creative Canada (2017), Harnessing Change (2018), and the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel (2020), all of which the WGC provided extensive comments to – the Liberal government has tabled Bill C-10, an act to update the Broadcasting Act and provide the CRTC with the tools it needs to regulate online broadcasters in the digital age.
The WGC supports this important legislation and, subject to amendments to retain pride of place for Canadian creative talent and, encourages its speedy passage into law. From there, we expect CRTC proceedings to set contribution requirements for online broadcasting undertakings.
Importance of Canadian talent
With a 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, as a writer’s medium in which the showrunner sets the creative course of the series.
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 multiple 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 continue to work with the CMF and our members to help make this 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.