Michael Geist is widely respected for his commentary on Canadian technology and media law, and rightly so. He’s been explaining complex matters in a straightforward way on his blog for a long time now, for the simple reason, apparently, that it serves the public good. He’s an open-source scholar; he’s our Cory Doctorow (though given the fact that Doctorow is Canadian-born, I guess he’s our Cory Doctorow too). And when Geist takes on the telcos, he becomes our David, slinging rocks at a phone system that’s still largely run by three big bullies.
Last week, though, he got down with the Goliaths, albeit a new set who have not yet reached full size. In a piece titled “It’s Time to Be Honest: Netflix Will Not Mean the End of Canadian Television,” which was itself a response to a Simon Houpt column in The Globe and Mail, “It’s time to be honest: Netflix is parasitic,” Geist argued that Netflix should not be forced by the CRTC to subsidize Canadian programming because competition between online video services will on its own lead to an increase in new content. To make his argument, Geist optimistically conjured up a world where the forthcoming streaming service Showmi, which was to have been a collaboration between the major Canadian media companies, will successfully compete with not only Netflix but also Amazon Prime and Hulu (click here to see how that’s coming along). And then he added: “. . . but the bigger source of revenue for new series is that streaming video services will compete for the right to add them to their libraries for streaming purposes.”
Say what? Compete to add Canadian series to their libraries? Netflix? Amazon? Competing to add “Mr. D”? Sure, they’ll buy it — Netflix in particular is the new vast wasteland, able to accommodate just about any old dreck. And yes, they’ll put a bit of money into a cheaply-shot series like “Trailer Park Boys.” But Canadian TV is liable to occupy the same filler-position on the American streaming services that it does on American networks, where shows like “Rookie Blue” are given brief, occasional life as summer replacement series. For all intents and purposes, they’ll be bumpers between whatever the new “Orange is the New Black” happens to be. And I say that as a guy who likes “Trailer Park Boys.”
Geist then proposed that the Netflix money would be too little to matter anyway. Canadian broadcasters must pay five per cent of revenues into the Canadian Media Fund, for use in indigenous production, and “the data shows that the Netflix contribution would be insignificant relative to the existing financing of Canadian productions. In fact, the largest single source of financing remains the public, which pays for the creation of Canadian content through tax credits and direct government contributions.”
Well yes, but how long is that going to last? Unregulated American streaming services pushing into Canada are a wet dream for both couch potatoes and neo-con governments — ones, for example, that would love to get rid of those tax credits and direct government contributions. Encourage Netflix et al. to fund the occasional low-rent Canadian series, even as they grow bigger and speed the collapse of those pricey traditional broadcasters and cable companies, and you can claim you’ve done your bit to preserve indigenous production and watch its infrastructure disappear at the same time. The Conservatives would love to see Netflix subsume the place of the CBC on Canadian TV screens (and computer screens, and tablets); Netflix doesn’t cost them a damn cent. And while Rogers Media better fits the corporate bill, its current multi-billion dollar, bet-the-house wager on “Hockey Night in Canada” is decidedly risky. If it doesn’t work, the new home of George Stroumboulopoulos and Don Cherry might not be around for much longer either.
For all his virtues, when Geist writes, he writes as a consumer. When he’s writing about the big bad phone companies, that’s a strength. But when it comes to creative industries, he’s just another channel surfer. He points to Vikings as an example of a Canadian co-production benefiting from streaming deals in Germany and the U.K. But Vikings was created by the British writer-producer Michael Hirst and filmed in Ireland; it’s about as Canadian as the hair in its Norse hero’s beard. If that’s the sort of CanCon we can expect in the future he’s extolling, we might as well abandon the concept now (though, per HBO Canada’s recent Alice Cooper documentary, perhaps we already have). “The opportunities presented by streaming revenues should excite television producers,” he writes, “because there is the potential for a broader array of content (the limits imposed by a broadcaster’s need to fill a schedule are gone) and public interest will be invariably linked to commercial success (make stuff people want to see and streaming companies will pay).” The first part of that neatly captures the potential of the streaming industry for Canadian producers; the second part guarantees that they will have to pump out yet more deracinated, de-Canuckized product to be players in it.
But the CRTC exists to make sure they don’t have to do that — or at least not just that. Michael Geist may regard that as intrusive. And those who say the CRTC is an anachronism in this digitally-unbound, 5000-channels-and-apps universe may be right. But if it is to go the way of the networks and the cable companies, there are some of us who would like to see it go down fighting.