Cows and Content

Milk from contented Canadian cows and TV programs from contented Canadian producers are two items which remain protected by Canadian policies. While dairy products can be labeled Canadian if they come from a cow residing in Canada, no such clear labeling attaches to Canadian TV content. It might be based on a story written abroad, contain foreign composed music, foreign words, foreign actors but still be considered Canadian if it attracted enough brownie points in each of these areas to make it Canadian according to a carefully administered set of policies. While people consume milk and its products whatever its national origins and ask no questions, they have to be offered only Canadian milk to make the dairy quotas work. This happens and a shrinking number of dairy farmers are enriched by the policy at the expense of consumers.


When it comes to TV programs, viewers choose on the basis of taste, quality and what they consider as good entertainment regardless of where it originated. This often comes from abroad. There was a time, decades ago now, when there were only a few channels to watch, and viewers would be forced to select from this limited menu. This has now changed with the growth of internet delivered programming (Netflix for example) and Canadian programs face stiffer competition which decimates the means to administer Canadian content regulations.


The regulator, the CRTC, can always force TV stations and cablecasters to carry Canadian programs even when few watch them. This exists today with, for example, religious, ethnic and gender channels, where the audiences are often so small that they cannot be supported by advertising. The regulator can require stations to broadcast them, but viewers cannot be required to watch, at least in numbers which make them commercially viable.


Communications technology has now evolved so that viewers no longer have to select programs received from TV antenna or cable, but, as noted, can choose from internet offerings with Netflix, Amazon and Apple providing three viewing and listening options. The CRTC (in March 2015) has recognized the inevitable and proposes to adjust their Canadian content rulings to current circumstances.


Patrick Doyle provides an excellent survey of what happened, why past CRTC policies don’t work and why the proposed CRTC actions are inevitable, and too may not work.

Canadian content rules

The policies no longer achieve their objectives, which in my view were outdated many years ago and only ever had limited effectiveness. It may have made sense to have a Canadian national broadcaster and content policies for commercial operators when radio and TV were infant industries from the 1920s through perhaps to the 1960s. In the early days foreign, especially US programming swamped the Canadian airwaves for radio and TV and some Canadian backed input was required. But like any subsidized activity a lobby grew for its continued and expanded support, hot-housing a group of beneficiaries who are protected from the competition they need to face in order to survive in a commercial marketplace.


If the CBC had been funded solely by government as opposed to a combination of government and commercial revenue, then it could perhaps justify its operation which has a declining audience share for its English and French language services. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has been financed entirely from the public purse, does not have to justify its audience share, and is not in competition with commercial broadcasters. The BBC and PBS have different financing models which have survived public and commercial scrutiny. However all these models will need to be and are being revised in the light of today’s technology. Not only viewers but content producers will benefit once they adapt to the opportunities of the new technology. Some producers are already doing so.


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