A coalition of creative groups is pleading with the federal government to intervene in a ruling by Canada's broadcast regulator they say will cut funding for Canadian-made television programming.
In two separate appeals to the federal cabinet launched this week, groups representing writers, producers, directors and actors say a May decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) renewing the licences of English-language broadcasters fails to meet the objectives of Canada's broadcasting policy.
The cabinet appeals – a rarely used and also rarely successful process – come as Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is in the midst of a major review of cultural policy, one that is expected to grapple with what role the government will play in supporting the faltering news industry as well as the creation of Canadian content.
The main point of contention in the two appeals is the CRTC's move to cut the percentage of revenue that broadcasters Corus Entertainment Inc. and Bell Media must contribute to "programs of national interest," known as PNI, which includes drama, comedy, documentaries and children's shows.
Reynolds Mastin, president of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), says the regulator took a "lowest-common-denominator approach" in its ruling by reducing the funding requirements for Corus and Bell to a lower "standard" percentage, which is the same as that previously required of Rogers Media.
"One of the fundamental purposes of the Broadcasting Act is to ensure that Canadian audiences have meaningful access to a range of great Canadian programming. These licence-renewal decisions detract from that objective," Mr. Mastin said in an interview.
The CMPA filed a petition to cabinet Thursday along with the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC). The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) filed its own cabinet appeal on Tuesday. The appeals also raise other issues but both challenge the reduction in PNI funding requirements.
Barbara Williams, chief operating officer of Corus, disputes the CMPA's claims in the appeal, saying there are "a number of misperceptions around the [CRTC ruling] including the concern that the changes will negatively impact the production sector." She said broadcasters are actually required to spend more money on Canadian content overall, from PNI to national news programming.
"There will always be room for great content on our schedules, including PNI, regardless of whether or not we are mandated by the regulator to direct resources to a specific genre of programming," Ms. Williams said in a statement Thursday.
Previously, Corus and Bell (which is owned by BCE Inc.) were required to spend 9 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively, of their broadcast revenues on PNI. Rogers (owned by Rogers Communications Inc.) was required to spend 5 per cent.
The CRTC ruling reduced all broadcasters to 5 per cent, a move the creative groups say will result in a decrease of $141-million in spending on independently produced PNI over the five-year period of the broadcast licences.
But Mr. Mastin said it will also have a broader effect on investment in Canadian productions because when broadcasters commission a show and provide a licence fee to a producer, that is only the first step, one that is used as a "trigger to bring other sources of financing to the table." More funding can come from foreign broadcasters or distributors, federal and provincial tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, he said.
An analysis by consultancy Nordicity Group Ltd. commissioned by the CMPA found that the reduction in broadcaster spending will lead to a further loss of $910.9-million in independent production volume over five years.
Mr. Mastin said managing the negative effect of the CRTC ruling will be a needless distraction for the industry at a time when it would prefer to focus on the Heritage Minister's cultural review, which is expected to conclude later this year.
Pierre-Olivier Herbert, press secretary to Ms. Joly, said Thursday the government "firmly believes in the importance of arts and culture," adding, "The minister understands that the sector has concerns. We are currently reviewing the impacts of the CRTC decision."
A group representing five Quebec professional creators organizations also launched a separate appeal Thursday, asking the federal cabinet to intervene in the CRTC's related ruling on the group licences of French-language broadcasters.
The Broadcast Act states the federal cabinet has 90 days from the May 15 date of the CRTC rulings to either set them aside or refer them back to the commission for reconsideration. Cabinet can also decline to do either and leave a decision as it stands.
In almost 70 cabinet appeals on broadcast matters since 1991, the government has referred only nine back to the commission.
The CRTC declined to comment on the appeals on Thursday, as did Bell. A spokeswoman for Rogers said its PNI contributions remain unchanged at 5 per cent.