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How ‘bold’ will Mélanie Joly’s broadcasting policy be?

In 21 months as Canada's Heritage Minister, Mélanie Joly has become known for saying as little as possible in as many words as possible. She always seems to be playing for time, despite insisting that she's hard at work crafting a Canadian cultural policy revolution for the digital age.

Ms. Joly will have one last chance to reverse that impression when, next month, she finally unveils her plan to help Canada's struggling private broadcasters stay afloat all while answering calls from local creators for more funding to help them produce domestic programming.

"It is important to have a strong cultural sector in the country," Ms. Joly said this week in a typically empty statement. "We have to be bold."

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So far, Ms. Joly has been the opposite of bold. In June, her government opted for the path of least resistance by rejecting a call from a Liberal-dominated House of Commons committee for a 5-per-cent tax on Internet bills. Such a tax would be aimed at replacing funding for Canadian programming that has been lost as a result of declining television advertising and cable revenues. But it was political Kryptonite for a government that vows to ease taxes on the middle class. Ms. Joly had previously insisted "everything is on the table." Clearly, that is not the case.

The decision to reject an Internet tax displeased creators. So, this week, Ms. Joly threw them a bone by ordering the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to return to the drawing board after it recently loosened domestic production requirements for the country's four big private broadcasting groups – Bell Media, Quebecor, Rogers Media and Corus.

The move suggested Ms. Joly has yet to come up with the "innovative" funding tools she's promised. Instead, she remains wedded to an antiquated funding model, forcing broadcasters to spend a set percentage of their revenues on domestic dramatic programming. It means broadcasters will continue to commission shows few Canadians actually watch.

It is a model that prevents broadcasters and creators alike from innovating by, for instance, entering into more co-productions with foreign networks or Internet streaming services. With only so much funding to go around, any model that narrowly defines what qualifies as Canadian dramatic content leaves less for cross-border collaborations that Canadian consumers might actually pay to watch. It also leaves less money for the national and local news programming that Canadian consumers say they want and that is increasingly important to the preservation of our democracy.

Still, it's easy to understand why Ms. Joly choose this route. Few Canadian voters actually pay attention to CRTC rulings – unless they involve the Super Bowl. But the thousands of Canadian writers, producers, directors and technicians for whom domestic-content regulations are a bread-and-butter issue follow them the way others binge-watch the latest HBO series. And they gave Ms. Joly an earful after the CRTC's May ruling. So, her move to order the CRTC to review its decision is more about short-term politics than long-term policy.

It is also a decision that will yield rapidly diminishing returns for all involved. Private TV broadcasting revenues have been declining in recent years. Conventional private broadcasters, a group that includes Bell's CTV Network and Corus's Global TV, fell at a compound annual rate of almost 5 per cent between 2011 and 2015. Ms. Joly can try to strong-arm the CRTC into forcing Bell and Corus to spend a higher percentage of their revenues on domestic dramatic content, but when overall revenues are in constant decline, it is only a matter of time before overall spending on domestic content shrinks as well. In the long run, everyone ends up losing.

That is especially true as Canadian consumers increasingly opt for smaller cable packages or cut the cord altogether. The Canadian Media Fund, which tops up broadcaster funding for domestic shows, saw contributions from cable and satellite operators fall 9.7 per cent in 2015-16 alone.

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In the face of this rapidly shrinking pie, Ms. Joly's moves have been incremental, if not outright reactive. The culture lobby, led by groups such as the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Writers Guild of Canada and the Canadian Media Producers Association, seem to prefer a protectionist funding model, even one that is broken and not in their own long-term interest.

The only way to actually expand the Canadian production pie is by providing broadcasters with the freedom to invest in programs with serious export potential – programs meant to be broadcast or streamed on major foreign television networks or digital platforms, and not as filler content for obscure foreign specialty channels, as is now the case for most Canadian shows sold abroad.

We'll find out next month just how bold Ms. Joly really intends to be.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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