Ali Nasser Virji
I’m not willing to divulge the exact number of leisure hours Netflix managed to exact from me in 2015. It’s high. My roommates and I do not pay for cable; it’s unlikely that we ever will. We’re not alone. In technical terms, we may be part of an ill-tracked group known as “cord-nevers.” After a long day, I can saunter up the stairs into my apartment and binge-watch a few episodes of programming most likely produced in a foreign land. Immune from the Canadian content (Cancon) restrictions imposed on domestic television producers, the proliferation of modern streaming services has forced regulators to re-evaluate their approach. Thus far, they have struggled to keep pace.
Whether you’ve pondered the reasoning behind heavy Nickelback radio play or the network decision to run Arctic Air for more than a single season, you’ve come across Cancon regulations. The question must be asked: why regulate Canadian content at all?
As Canada adopted the trappings of an independent nation – control over its foreign policy, the development of Canadian citizenship, the adoption of a national flag – Canadian elites looked to delineate a culture independent from Britain or the United States. The promotion of cultured Canadian content was initially seen as a counterweight to new forms of ‘undesirable’ imported mass media: pulp magazines, escapist Hollywood films, or commercialized radio programming. For former Governor General Vincent Massey, the Canadian government had a clear role to play. In his 1948 treatise On Being Canadian he mused:
“Our peoples need to understand the way of life which they are defending in the war of ideas of today so that they can defend it better. The state indeed has very serious obligations in this field. But Canada cannot be said to have accepted this principle. We seem to trail far behind more civilized states in our governmental recognition of the arts and letters and the intellectual life of the community.”
Heading a Royal Commission on the subject a decade later, Massey extolled the importance of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the National Film Board (NFB) in achieving these ends. Though the federal government initially demonstrated a reticence to devote substantial resources to cultural productions, the arrival of television forced its hand. American television signals reached an estimated 100,000 Canadians before the CBC could launch its own service. Stemming from the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Broadcasting during the ensuing decade, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was born. And with it began the legacy of Cancon: Canadian content regulations meant to ensure broadcasting was “basically Canadian in content and character.”
Established in 1959, the rules would ensure that budding independent television stations devote 45 percent of their broadcast hours to Canadian programming. Although initially broad in scope, a 1976 update to the Broadcasting Act sought to promote the production of comprehensive, high-quality Canadian programming independent from the CBC. Until recently, CRTC rules stipulated that 55 percent of all broadcast hours contain Canadian content, with the daytime quota set at 55 percent and primetime at 50 percent.
Nearly a year ago, the CRTC shied away from its previous approach. Commissioner Jean-Paul Blais expressed a desire to foster “an environment where Canadians want to watch content made by our creators – not because it is forced upon them, but because it’s good.” Quality, apparently, is better than quantity. Though the regulator maintained its primetime broadcast quota, the daytime quota was eliminated entirely. Cancon requirements for specialty channels were similarly gutted. As it turns out, many stations reran the same programs over the course of a day to satisfy Cancon rules.
“Television quotas are an idea that is wholly anachronistic in the age of abundance and in a world of choice,” Blais told the Canadian Club of Ottawa following the regulatory change. He’s completely right. Canadian programs no longer compete solely against American or British productions. In a technologically-connected global marketplace, we can just as easily catch the latest Hindi drama or Korean soap opera. In fact, we are no longer beholden to specialty television channels’ scheduling to get our fix. With the click of a virtual button, we are instantly gratified.
As it stands, Netflix or similar streaming services benefit from the CRTC’s “new media exemption order,” sparing them from Cancon rules. With over 3.5 million paying subscribers, Netflix penetrated around 30 percent of all broadband homes in 2015. Meanwhile, according to research from Ottawa-based consulting firm Boon Dog Professional Services, Canada’s seven publicly traded television providers lost 153,000 subscribers last year.
In an era of expanding trade and global connectivity, are Canadian Content rules even worth protecting?
As International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland readies Canada to sign the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Michael Geist warns that the agreement could compel the regulator to consider this question. While previous international trade agreements contained exemptions that allowed Canada to maintain Cancon rules, the TPP contains language that could limit any future decision to expand or modify Cancon. Geist writes:
“the TPP will effectively ban applying Cancon contributions to exempt entities. That might be a sensible policy for the moment, but the TPP removes the ability to revisit the issue and essentially freezes the Cancon system in its current form.”
I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
Ali Nasser Virji is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Canadian Studies from McGill University and hails from Tsawwassen, a town whose name is arguably the most difficult to spell in British Columbia. If you bump into him on the street, he is probably clutching a cup of coffee, walking unnecessarily fast, and attempting to read up on broadcast and telecommunications regulatory policy on his oversized phone.
Edwardson, Ryan. Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Massey, Vincent. On Being Canadian. Toronto: J.M Dent & Sons Ltd., 1948.