A decade of boneheaded moves by Canada’s broadcast regulator, the CRTC, were the original inspiration for my blog. And over its life I’ve repeatedly weighed in on just how dim-witted or out of touch our CRTC Commissioners have been with their decisions.
The last was a couple of months ago with the first rulings based on last year’s marathon “Let’s Talk TV” gong show set of hearings. The basic premise being that our regulators remain so far behind the current realities of the business that whatever they propose will do more harm than good.
I had expected to write another when the second shoe, related to unbundling, was dropped, which it apparently will be today. And I’d anticipated another when the Commission then moved to pay back the Broadcast Delivery Units (your cable guys) for the money they’ve lost as a result of the other recent decisions.
But JP Blais and his partners decided to make that their 2nd shoe last week, eliminating Canadian content rules for daytime hours, no longer enforcing genre protection (as if anybody adhered to their genre anyway) and pushing for quality over quantity.
Blais acknowledged that no decision by the CRTC makes all of its stakeholders happy, perhaps hoping to calm the expected storm from negatively impacted Creatives, Independent Producers and Canadian nationalists.
But I took it as an admission that, as always, they just really don’t have a clue.
A couple of obvious examples (at least obvious to anybody who has actually created a TV show or followed the history of same) regarding the quality over quantity shift:
1. Just because you spend a lot of money on a show does not mean that more people will watch it or that it will sell well in foreign markets.
You’d think that would be patently obvious in Ottawa and its CRTC Gatineau suburb, where decades of investing tens of millions into movies that have never made a dime has been the bureaucratic norm.
Anecdotally, in 1990, I was writing and producing a TV series entitled “Top Cops” which at one point attracted one in every four television viewers in the USA. This was despite the fact that our budget was half that of Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock” which debuted at the same time and lasted barely a handful of episodes.
The cash we spent was also far less than Canada’s revered “Road to Avonlea” which we regularly out-rated in this country.
The same could be said for another line on my resume, “Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension”, which got bigger numbers on Global TV at a fraction of the cost of that network’s than flagship series “Traders”.
But it’s clear somebody at the CRTC has bought the line that Canadian shows don’t get an audience simply because they don’t match the budgets of the U.S. competition.
And while it may be true that “Kenny vs Spenny”, “Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays” or “Strange Empire” would have gotten far more viewers if they had cost $2 million per, the likelihood is that they all could’ve benefited from an element of mass appeal.
And have the Commissioners, none of whom has ever budgeted a dramatic series, paused to consider how much of these expanded budgets will actually show up onscreen in the first place?
Or will the money be used to overpay U.S. Stars who will replace Canadian talent or cover their travel costs and per diems? Maybe it’ll go to the directors who will also be imported, since they’re not on the initially released protected list like local screenwriters.
Maybe Canadian accountants will merely get as creative as many are in Hollywood. Heck, if you can bring in foreign talent, why not just offshore the payroll department to the people who already know how to play those games?
2. Then there’s the mandate to bend the production rules to create more programming based on successful Canadian novels.
Setting aside what qualifies as a “successful” Canadian novel for a moment, I assume this means more Margaret Atwood, and fuck all you younger writers who’ve spent the last few years in film school learning how to craft your own stories.
I guess nobody at the CRTC has bothered to check on whether Barney’s Version has made its money back yet (even with all that U.S .Star power). Or whether Maggie’s The Handmaid’s Tale has turned a profit after 20-some years. Or notice that the movie version of Surfacing barely got released.
But maybe Ms. Atwood’s producers on that one just needed to throw a few million more into the budget.
What all of this exemplifies is that the CRTC regulates the way it has always regulated. Not as people who understand the business they endlessly apparently examine, but as elite government bureaucrats.
Bureaucrats who believe any problem can be solved if you just throw enough money at it. And throw it at content they and their friends might watch if the networks would only produce the wonderful new novel they passed around up at the cottage.
And after venting all that –- what all of the “Let’s Talk TV” decisions really amount to is this …
They won’t make anything better.
Because the industry the CRTC regulates is being changed by market forces moving faster than new hearings can be scheduled.
Forget Netflix. By Fall, AppleTV will be streaming HBO and a package of 25 Networks (none Canadian) for $40 per month.
If Shaw, Rogers and Bell don’t sell the same package of unbundled channels for that price or lower, they’re done.
The Canadian consumer the CRTC waited 20 years to finally listen to has moved on. Purchasing, as they have illustrated with Netflix, what they want to watch, not content that is government mandated or packaged to support unwanted channels.
News and Sports will be next. News is already streaming via any number of online options and mobile apps like the one released this week by Reuters.
The first Sports channels are in the Apple package. More will follow via Google and Amazon and others as yet unimagined.
Yes, that means the way we fund Canadian programming will have to change -– or not, if we’re producing less of it.
But that financing won’t come from OTT services. Because they’re free market forces who only pay for what their subscribers will make it worth their while to purchase.
Perhaps that means that the “Let’s Talk TV” process will have been a success.
Canadian consumers will finally get what they want instead of what it has been decided is good for them. Or what needs to be done to shore up broadcasters who don’t create their own content or to keep cable companies afloat.
And Canadian Creatives won’t be on government welfare anymore, shaping what we create to fit somebody in power’s vision of what the country should be –- instead of what it is.
Content has always been king, a reality against which the CRTC has consistently fought to protect some perceived, yet out-dated, industry status quo.
And much as the Commission may feel it must now dictate how Content is realized to remain relevant, it clearly hasn’t a clue.
First published on The Legion of Decency.