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John Doyle: Welcome to a new nightmare in Cancon policy

The wisest comment made so far about plans to review Canada's cultural policies and bring them into line with our digital age came from former heritage minister James Moore: "The vast majority of the public pressure is toward maximizing consumer freedom and choice, while all of the stakeholder pressure is toward subsidizing the creation of content or regulating the distribution of that content to the consumer. These are two worlds that often collide."

Moore's assessment is that of a former Conservative cabinet minister, but it isn't partisan. It's simply pragmatic. Changing Canadian broadcast and content regulations is a hellish task. The public feels very differently from the industry, and the creative side of the industry, especially in TV, doesn't really want creativity – it wants jobs. It is implausible that all sides will agree on a paradigm that benefits everybody. Even more unlikely is the sudden emergence of great Canadian television.

Since the Liberal government's first aim is to get re-elected, it's fair to assume that the sweeping review will primarily benefit consumers. But what most consumers want is to pay as little as possible, for as much choice as possible. If TV content can be obtained for free, all the better. The public is largely clueless about copyright and territorial rights to TV series. All that seems just so old-school, so pre-digital. If the plan is to allow people to pay less and possibly pay nothing, then the TV industry as we know it now, not just in Canada, will collapse. The Golden Age of TV will be over and while consumers crow about getting access for free, there will inevitably be less to see.

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What is on the horizon, a worst-case scenario when existing regulations are demolished, is a TV industry as weakened by the digital age as the music industry. It's common these days to cite YouTube as the successor to traditional TV; creating new generations of stars and giving freedom to performers. All true on the surface, but the performers are asking, "Where's the money?"

Tuesday of this week was "World IP Day," to mark the creation of the World Intellectual Property Organization. It was in fact marked by artists such as Debbie Harry of Blondie complaining loudly and with reason that YouTube is a low-paying exploitative international racket. Writing for The Guardian, Harry pointed out: "In fact, it is estimated by the American Association of Independent Music that YouTube pays only a sixth of what Apple and Spotify pay artists." And, as we all know, Apple and Spotify aren't exactly keeping the music industry afloat in the way it was previously buoyant.

YouTube is owned by Google, an outfit whose 2015 revenue was $75-billion (U.S.). It got to that revenue level by not paying artists what they are worth.

As for the business end of the Canadian TV industry, most of the major players would rather go back to the pre-Internet days than adapt to the digital age. The business model then was peachy – buy American network series, simulcast them, make a fortune and grudgingly produce and air Canadian content, as required by licence regulation. They have been extremely slow to adapt. It is a fact that while Canadian TV was ignoring the Internet, Canadian newspapers such as the one you're reading were steaming ahead with online innovation. The Canadian industry will be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age and will offer the current Canadian Heritage Minister, Mélanie Joly, her biggest push-back. With little institutional history of innovation and being slow to evolve, the players are probably terrified.

The other major stakeholder, and the one to which Joly has probably been listening, is the creative side of television. Good luck in dealing with the guilds and other organizations that represent that arena. They want money and jobs. While television has become the most vital storytelling medium of our age, those who make it in Canada prioritize jobs – any kind of job – over true creativity. As long as there is more money to pay mortgages, they're happy. If the recalibration of Cancon rules means yet more of the usual mediocrity, they're happy too.

Nobody can legislate excellence into existence. Certainly not the Heritage Minister. But it can be encouraged, and a start would be clearing all the various funding agencies of narrow-minded bureaucrats and replacing them with people who have a history of creating or recognizing innovation and excellence. Replace the rule makers with rule breakers and don't let anyone get too comfortable in the job.

It's as plain as a poke in your eye that something needs to change. Coming soon to Global is Private Eyes, which stars Jason Priestley as "a former hockey star who gets a second chance as a P.I." I haven't seen it and I don't really want to see it. My heart sinks at the synopsis. It ticks all the boxes in grudgingly contrived Canadian content – the Canadian actor who was in a hit U.S. show gets the starring role, it's a private-eye drama, presumably about solving crimes, and there's a hockey connection. It sounds as though it was dreamed up solely to conform to funding requirements.

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That sinking feeling about Canadian content has to be banished, but getting to that point is setting out on the road to hell. Good luck to all.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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