In a rare move, Ottawa has referred a number of TV licence renewals back to the federal broadcast regulator, asking it to reconsider how the licences affect investments in Canadian TV production.
The decision comes in response to appeals from creative groups and others who raised concerns that the regulator's decisions would decrease some of the broadcasters' spending requirements for original Canadian programs.
In May, as part of the most recent renewals of TV licences, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) reduced the required spending on "programs of national interest," or PNI. Corus Entertainment Inc. and BCE Inc.'s Bell Media had their PNI requirements set at 5 per cent of annual revenue, down from 8 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively. The requirements for Rogers Communications Inc.'s division Rogers Media remained unchanged, also at 5 per cent. Creative groups have estimated the decision could reduce spending on Canadian productions by roughly $141-million over the five-year licence terms.
In addition to objecting to changes in investment requirements, some groups also raised concerns about whether the licences contained sufficient requirements for the production of original scripted programming in French, rather than English-language productions aired in translation.
Groups representing producers, actors, directors and writers filed appeals to the federal cabinet in late June, asking the government to either set aside the decisions, or to refer them back to the CRTC for further consideration. On Monday, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly did just that.
In an interview, Ms. Joly said the government received 89 petitions on the issue, the highest number relating to any CRTC decision.
"It's a strong message: Ultimately, we want the CRTC to strike the right balance between the investment in Canadian content … and also the ability for broadcasters to compete," Ms. Joly said in an interview Monday. "Our vision as a government is, you can't have strong broadcasters if you don't have a strong production sector."
Such cabinet appeals are rarely successful: the CRTC has issued thousands of decisions since the Broadcasting Act was last amended in 1991, but this is only the eighth time the government has sent back a decision to the regulator, Ms. Joly said.
The decision is one indication of Ms. Joly's priorities as she is in the midst of reviewing Canada's cultural policy, including to what extent the government should support the news-media industry and the production of Canadian content. She is due to present her vision for those policies late next month. It also comes at a time of transition in the leadership of the CRTC: Jean-Pierre Blais's term as chairman ended in mid-June, and a new chairman, former Telus Corp. executive Ian Scott, will take over in September.
"Programs of national interest" include dramas, comedies, documentaries, animated shows and some award shows. Ms. Joly said she wants to put particular emphasis on scripted content, which requires more people to produce and has the potential to be exported. She added that it would be important to clarify how much original content had to be produced in French, rather than English productions being translated.
"The CRTC granted a lot of flexibility to broadcasters to decide where they would invest in terms of types of genres. We think that flexibility is important, but also clearly investing in scripted content is so key to make sure there is a successful creative sector in the country," Ms. Joly said. "We can't have great content – that is bought by potentially other broadcasters in the world, or Internet platforms – if our own broadcasting system doesn't invest the right amount in the independent production sector."
In total, the government sent back eight decisions for review, comprising the licence renewals for the large French-language and English-language ownership groups, affecting the licences of Bell Media, Corus, Groupe V Média Inc., Quebecor Media Inc., and Rogers Media.
The current federal government has shown some willingness to question the CRTC's decisions. In early June – acting on his own accord, not a petition to cabinet – minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains sent back a key CRTC telecom ruling after expressing concern over the high cost of wireless and Internet services. Mr. Bains directed the commission to reconsider the "WiFi-first" model in which small wireless providers need access to the dominant carriers' networks.
"As requested by the Governor in Council, the CRTC will reconsider its decision and announce the next steps at a later date," the CRTC said in a statement. The regulator declined to comment further.
Those who appealed to the government in this case included the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Directors Guild of Canada, the Writers Guild of Canada, the Quebec provincial government, L'Association québécoise de la production médiatique (AQPM), L'Alliance québécoise des techniciens de I'image et du son (AQTIS), L'Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec (ARRQ), La Société des auteurs de radio, télévision et cinéma (SARTEC), and L'Union des artistes (UDA).
"It is a very definitive signal to the entire broadcasting community – including the internet service providers – that creators are important to the system," said Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada. "Canadian screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, we're important to the growth and the health of our industry. Obviously we're facing many new challenges. … Our broadcasters are going to have to be creative and competitive. Undermining their talent pool, that's not the answer."
In a statement, the CMPA, ACTRA and the DGC also applauded the decision, and noted that further policy changes are necessary.
"The CRTC is in dire need of a new mandate that protects Canadian culture and the jobs of cultural workers; understands the challenges of our film and television sector; and ensures Canadian stories can continue to be shared on screens in Canada and around the world," ACTRA's national executive director Steven Waddell said in the statement.
"It is important to have a strong cultural sector in the country," Ms. Joly said. "We have to be bold. And I'll be presenting my vision at the end of September."
With a report from Christine Dobby