The Cable Citizen

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By Jonathan McQuarrie

Let's Talk TVFollowing their “Let’s Talk TV/Parlons télé” initiative, the Canadian Radio, Television, and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is compelling TV providers to alter how they provide content to Canadians. In March 2016, Canadian TV watchers will have the option to select smaller bundles or individual (or a la carte) channels, which viewers will be able to do by December 2016, although they will still have to pay $25 for a “skinny basic” package of channels, including CBC, CTV, and Global. These changes have been widely welcomed for offering reduced prices and providing an opportunity for people to reduce their cable bills.

Despite the potential savings, some in the media industryhave raised multiple red flags. The Canadaland podcast presented the opinion of an unnamed industry representative who contended that television industry has become even more conservative in their willingness to fund Canadian content, as they anticipate lower subscription rates and revenues. (Intriguingly, the anonymous representative notes that CBC is an exception to this, likely as they became more optimistic with the change in government). Jesse Brown, the Canadaland host, also references wide sentiment that the upcoming changes to CRTC regulations will lead to the end of a number of niche channels.

Further, a Nordicity report commissioned by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA), Canadian Media Guild, Directors Guild of Canada, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, and UNIFOR painted a grim picture of the ramifications of the CRTC changes. The anticipated loss of revenue from the new system, the report warns, will lead to a $970 million decrease in revenue for Canadian specialty and pay services by 2020, and estimates that the decreased revenues will contribute to the loss of some 15,000 direct and spin off full time jobs. The report in part contended that the great cable cut off is exaggerated, particularly since sports fans and news watchers continue to keep cable, and that radical alterations to the financial model were not necessary. In effect, the report contends that the convenience for consumers to pick their few favourite channels would lead to catastrophe for Canadian film and television workers. It is difficult to verify the claims made by the report, although it did succeed in getting some media attention.

What makes the recent CRTC reforms interesting to the historian is how they can be seen as a culmination of a consumer-orientated vision of Canadian content. According to Ryan Edwardson’s Canadian Content, the CRTC has long been behind the advance of making Canadian content marketable and exportable, a far cry from the earlier efforts of Canadian nationalists, such as Vincent Massey, to use television as a meaningful means of crafting an (elitist) Canadian identity. By the Trudeau and Mulroney years, Canadian content had become something to measure (did it employ enough Canadians?) and market before any other objective. Such a shift was in line with the rising conception of citizens as consumers. It was more important that they bought and watched the product than that it made them feel more Canadian.

The advent of “pick and pay” packages represents the power of the conception of citizen as consumer. The CRTC “Let’s Talk TV” commission reports are primarily driven by consumer choice as the fundamental objective of government regulation. Certainly, they are also interested in ensuring the continued creation of Canadian content. One of the main reports generated by the Let’s Talk initiative concerned content creation. However, the report primarily focused on concepts like discoverability, quality, and flexibility. It was more concerned that Canadian producers create content suitable for an environment where distinctions between internet and on-demand providers and television providers became increasingly meaningless.

The “Create” report references the need to fulfill the Broadcasting Act’s mandate to “encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity.” However, the report takes these attitudes and ideas as given. There is no real effort to define what these values and ideas might be. The discussion the Let’s Talk TV commission provided for its views on promoting “quality” programming and choice is relatively detailed and precise; allusions to national attitudes and ideas are vague and general.

In their report objecting to the CRTC decisions, the Nordicity report also makes a couple loose references to Canadian citizenship. It notes that there is need to tweak the Let’s Talk decisions to ensure that CRTC policy views Canadians “not merely as consumers—but as creators and citizens too.” However, the report never really elaborates on the point about citizenship. It is, understandably, concerned primarily with defending the position of content producers.

The objections of content makers and their representatives should be taken seriously, and the projected job losses are troubling, though the Canadaland episode indicated that expectations for increased CBC funding might help mitigate the losses. Critics charge that the regulatory changes seem to favour larger, well established producers with the funds to create programming that meets the CRTC definition of quality.

The CRTC Let’s Talk report serves as a powerful example of the identity between citizenship and consumers within one of the federal government’s most potent custodians of Canadian culture. Choice is far more important than identity. Allusions to the need to foster a sort of citizenship through media are primarily a remnant of an older elitist regulatory vision that sought to forge a specific Canadian identity. The proposed shift to a quality over quantity based approach for promoting Canadian content also reflects the ever growing power of a consumer-driven vision of governance. In contrast to the quantitative view of content promoted by the Trudeau Sr. government, where a higher number of Canadian produced shows was the primary aim, regulatory requirements for showing Canadian television are being relaxed, and CRTC head Jean-Pierre Blais indicated that the CRTC would channel more funds to projects with large budgets and backing by well-known authors and producers. Canadian stories are stories that sell.

Jonathan McQuarrie holds a PhD in history from the University of Toronto.

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