Canadian TV’s Annus Horribilis?

For the past 30 years the Canadian TV and film industry has been protected with domestic production quotas and tax breaks and, along with other sectors, has been supported by a government keen on protecting local industry from US encroachment.

Inevitably such protection can lead to mediocrity and a lack of competitive edge, but it was necessary to develop some local expertise and avoid becoming a ‘dumping ground’ for US content. As a result, today we have a three billion dollar domestic TV industry, employing 50,000 people. Sophie FeronHowever, changes introduced in 2015 are dramatically disrupting the entire Canadian TV landscape and will radically change our industry into 2016 and beyond.

The CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission), a government regulatory agency, embarked on a major 18 month consultation – “Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians” – where every aspect of the market was reviewed.

We all expected big changes from its report but many industry players are questioning if all of the changes were the right ones to make. One big shock for example, was that the 55% homegrown content quota for daytime TV would be completely scrapped. Many independent producers fully rely on the commissions that the quota forced and are now understandably concerned about their future.

At the same time, the CRTC stopped broadcasters from bundling channels – and hence revenues – meaning that media owners could no longer get easy money for smaller, less-watched channels. It also lifted long-held genre restrictions, allowing channels to broaden their remit – out of say, music – just as long as they still respected their initial demographic.

If you add to all this a move from an industry-supporting Conservative government to a newly-elected Liberal one, that has yet to fully “play all its cards”, then you can see that there’s been significant amount of upheaval and uncertainty in a only a few months.

With any such seismic shift there will be disruption and collateral damage; Bell Media has already cut 700 jobs since August. We are also starting to see mergers in the production sector and whispers that some indies are near to closure. The industry was evolving anyway and maybe some of these things would be happening naturally but the CRTC intervention has certainly sped things along. However, without the support and structure we once had we now seem to be lacking any real leadership and this is where I think an opportunity exists.

Broadcasters and producers should now come together to lead the industry and shape its destiny by working together on new terms of trade – ones not dictated by government. Instead they should reflect what viewers want and support us in creating compelling programming and new business models that favour domestic content companies and IP owners – instead of leaving us vulnerable to takeover, or allowing international content to leap in where the quotas once were?

Despite some wrong decisions being made, the thinking behind the CRTC report needs some credit: basically, with the ‘apron strings’ cut, we will be allowed to fully come of age and develop into a more mature, free market broadcast territory where the viewers will be the ones in control.

By having the protective layers removed we will have to become sharper and more competitive. Some of the money that was ring-fenced for localised daytime content is supposed to be invested in primetime shows, hopefully creating big, original drama and format brands that will also travel internationally. We have the production talent, we just need the right ideas and investment – and a cohesive, impassioned industry.

Changes to genre requirements will also allow Canadian commissioners to take a few more creative risks when sourcing content. As the competition for viewers intensifies, strong programme brands that have buzz and get talked about will be more important than a local or genre-based show that ticks a box.

The industry in Canada will definitely experience pain before it sees the gain but I am hopeful that these changes will make us all more creative – and not just with our shows. We will need to be more creative with financing and our business models and learn how to retain, share, protect and manage rights effectively.

Risk-takers – both on and off-screen – will undoubtedly set the pace and as we open our eyes to the financing and other opportunities in the international market, we will invariably find new ideas, learn more about best practice and ultimately create better shows with bigger deals attached.

Like it or not, change is here. We now need to drive the agenda forward and broadcasters and producers have to come together – maybe with a new industry association – in order that viewers can watch the TV they want and we can create and broadcast profitable content that makes us all proud. If we don’t, I really worry for our collective future: As Bill Clinton once said; “The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”

Sophie Ferron is president and executive producer at Canadian indie Media Ranch

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