The following opinion piece is penned by Steve Warden, an award-winning radio host, the creator and executive producer of an internationally syndicated TV series featuring Elvis Costello, and an occasional newspaper columnist writing about politics and media. He describes himself as a writer, broadcaster, producer and media consultant.
To quote the Dude, in The Big Lebowski, this will not stand, man. At least, let’s hope it doesn’t.
The Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel (BTLR) released its report Wednesday on the updating of Canada’s broadcast and telecommunications acts and, in effect, the future of the CRTC and Canadian cultural policy.
Clocking in at 235 dense, predictably turgid pages, the document is not exactly a breezy read. There are no less than 97 recommendations, covering everything from consumer rights to content. It is, if nothing else, thorough.
It’s also alarming.
The feeling the report left me with was…disbelief. In brief, it calls for the government to empower the CRTC (to be re-named the CCC, for Canadian Communications Commission, extending its reach way beyond domestic public airwaves) in all kinds of new and, frankly, ridiculous ways. If implemented, these recommendations would, among other things, allow the new CCC to exert control - or at least try to - over not only Canadian creators and electronic media but foreign content providers conducting business in Canada (Netflix et al), and harvest “consumption data” on what we all watch, read and listen to.
There’s more, a lot more, but let’s just say if even half of these recommendations are carried out, Big Brother is going to look like the Friendly Giant by comparison. Be grateful the Liberals are only a minority government now, as they appear keen to rush these changes into law.
There are ludicrous ideas about the definition and judgement of news and information (to be controlled by, yes, more bureaucrats in Ottawa), and delusional recommendations to have the big foreign media powerhouses submit to “registration,” financial obligations, Canadian content requirements, the sharing of their data and oversight of business deals with Canadian producers.
I have neither the space nor the intellectual bandwidth to provide a full and complete analysis of this report, and I don’t pretend to be qualified to comment on all facets, from broadband access to the future of the CBC. Allow me to concentrate on content, about which I know a little. (And I do mean a little.) Specifically, Canadian content - not only its production and distribution but its funding, “discoverability” (a priority for the panel behind the report) and even definition.
There are numerous references to Canadian content in this report - as there should be. But the matter of what constitutes CanCon is not adequately addressed, nor are most people talking about it in the wake of this report’s release. Which I think is a problem because surely that is central to this entire exercise.
A while back, I created and produced Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, a music television series that was filmed in New York, hosted by an Englishman, and featured mostly non-Canadian musicians. And it was considered Canadian content - as it should have been. After all, it was created, developed, co-written, directed, co-produced and substantially funded by Canadians. Although we did have to jump through some hoops, we pulled off that Canadian Content designation, which not only increased the value of our Canadian broadcast license but meant we could - legitimately and proudly - proclaim that this eclectic, in-depth music show was a Canadian production that we made for the world.
In the new BTLR report, Recommendation 67 (which sounds like something issued by the Kremlin in the 1950s) says that “the CRTC should set expectations that all key creative positions - writer, director, lead actors - be Canadians” (in order to qualify as CanCon).
Now, they’re mainly talking about scripted film and TV here, whereas our music show fell into a different category. But my larger point is that if we’re taking on the changes technology has wrought on the content business, we should also, while we’re at it, update the definition of what makes something Canadian - not only for the purposes of funding eligibility but in the interest of supporting Canadian creators trying to make it on the world stage. Which, in 2020, is what it’s all about.
For the past two years, I’ve been developing a feature film with an internationally renowned, independent Canadian director. It is intended to be shot in Canada (and possibly another country with a co-production arrangement with Canada) and is to be written, directed, edited, produced and catered (very important) by Canadians. Some fantastic A-list actors from all over the world have indicated an interest in participating.
All good, right?
Not so fast.
If we cast the actors the director wanted to fit his vision, the film would not qualify as Canadian for the purposes of funding.
You can cast international actors, but certain key roles (and screen time) must be filled by Canadians. Nothing against Canadian actors - there are lots of good and even great ones - but if a Canadian writes a story and is going to make the movie in Canada (where it’s mostly set), with all kinds of other Canadians in creative positions, but has a name British actress excited to play the lead, and a big American movie star sticking his hand up for the second lead - and a super cool international supporting cast, with several Canadian actors - the bureaucrats say nyet, this is not Canadian movie! And we wonder why we have so few Canadian films succeeding internationally. Those faces on the screen? They’re kind of important to a movie’s chances. As is creative autonomy.
To be clear, this isn’t just about my little projects. Canada’s been failing for decades in the movie biz, and it’s not because we don’t have talent or stories to tell. It’s because you can’t make good art or entertainment by committee or diktat. We’ve done a little better in the television production sphere. But just imagine what we could do if we weren’t handcuffed by bureaucrats with stop-watch in hand forcing us to choose haircuts and uniforms from an approved catalogue. For too long Canadian creatives have had to bend to bureaucracy instead of the other way around, and the results speak for themselves.
Dragging an outdated model of oversight and regulation into the 21st century, rubbing out “broadcast” and scrawling “internet” in its place, and then injecting the CRTC with steroids is not only a bad idea, but it’s also ludicrous and impractical. This “regime” change won’t make things better for Canadian creators or consumers; it’ll make them worse, and risk making this country a pariah, a laughing stock - or both.
We have a thriving production sector in film and TV. Yes, our soft currency has something to do with it, but the excellent creative infrastructure and talent now in place make it highly unlikely it would all fold up should the dollar go back to parity or beyond with the U.S.
Let that production sector continue to thrive - even if most of it is “service” production working on American shows. Canadian talent and stories are coming, and that can be accelerated if CanCon is re-defined to emphasize creators and de-emphasize parochial ideas of what “Canadian” is; it’s whatever a Canadian creator says it is. (By the way, in fairness, there’s no truth to the rumour that there are boxes to check for canoes and curling on funding applications. Currently.)
Give the next Schitt's Creeks and Letterkenny and Trailer Park Boys (all going global now, thanks to streaming deals) some mother’s milk to get them started, but then get out of the way, Ottawa. You truly want more “Canadian” stories on our screens - and on screens all over the world - and you want more Canadians to watch? Making the business more bureaucratic, policing the internet and scaring off the global platforms we need to be on isn’t going to make that happen.
We should reject completely the frankly nutty and unrealistic proposition that Canada in the 21st century ought to embrace even greater state regulation, monitoring and control.
A crackpot nanny state is a good storyline (it worked for Orwell and Atwood after all), but we don’t want to live in one. Do we?