Speech Article from  Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Archived - Jean-Pierre Blais to the Canadian Club of Ottawa on Let's Talk TV and the future of content made by Canadians

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Ottawa, Ontario
March 12, 2015

Jean-Pierre Blais,  Chairman
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Check against delivery

Good afternoon.

It is a pleasure for me to address The Canadian Club. For so much of the early part of the 20th century, when the spoken word was the principal vehicle for expression, this was the forum that people used to articulate ideas of national significance. When leaders addressed The Canadian Club, Canadians took notice. Something of value was about to be said. And that proud tradition endures in the 21st century.

Some of you may not realize that there is something of a link between The Canadian Club and the CRTC. Graham Spry, whom many remember as a passionate advocate of public broadcasting in Canada, became the club's Secretary in 1926.

Away from the club, Spry's work led to the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission – the immediate precursor to the CBC – in 1932 under the government of R. B. Bennett.

The CRBC held dual roles in those days. It created and broadcast programs while also regulating the country's broadcasting industry. In that sense, some might also consider it a precursor to the modern-day CRTC.

Spry, of course, was an ardent supporter of the work of the Aird Commission, which recommended the establishment of a national public radio system in Canada. Two decades later, Robert Fowler followed up on the work of the Aird Commission. Fowler examined the roles that public and private broadcasters could play in financing Canada's broadcasting system. One of his recommendations was that the government create an independent regulatory agency to supervise broadcasting, the institution I have the privilege of leading today.

A fundamental shift

It is a massive understatement to say that things have changed since the days of Spry and Fowler. With the passage of time, regulation has become more complex, media more integrated, players more sophisticated. Technological change in particular has been intense and transformative. Radio begat television, television begat cable and satellite, and broadband Internet has changed everything.

Today there is a fundamental shift in the television landscape. People watch content in the ways, on the devices and at the times that most suit them. The role of the broadcaster is changing, as a result. In the past, a broadcaster was an intermediary between content producers and viewers. That function is not required to nearly the same degree in a day and age where viewers can turn to any one of hundreds of TV stations and countless Internet channels to find the content they desire.

Even the role of the viewer is changing. He or she is being transformed from a passive receiver of television content to an active, self-directed aggregator. The fundamental question he or she faces nightly is no longer "what's on?" but "what should I watch?"

When you strip away the when and the how of the viewing experience, you're left with only the what. And the what ­­– content, in other words – matters more now than it ever has before.

It is not new that the future of television is about content. The idea that "content is king" has been bandied about so often it has become a cliché. Even Fowler wrote in his 1965 report that "in broadcasting all that matters is program content; all the rest is housekeeping." What is really new, the game changer as it were, is the direct consequence of the broadband networks that facilitate the distribution of audiovisual content. These networks are enabling viewers to bypass the traditional content curators, the broadcasting networks.

While content remains king, the incontestable truth is that the viewer is Emperor.

The Age of Abundance

Consider this fact: Canadians have access to over 1,300 hours of traditional television for every waking hour, assuming they do nothing else but sleep, watch TV and multitask for everything else. Moreover, it is estimated that 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day of every month.

Today, the total volume of Canadian film and television production is 32% higher than in 2003, when Clifford Lincoln penned his Parliamentary report on broadcasting entitled Our Cultural Sovereignty.

Ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to video content, we live in an Age of Abundance. Content is everywhere on the Internet and on television. And it is available to us at any time of the day or night, on any device we choose. Ironically, that is now our central challenge. The trick for all of us – creators, distributors, viewers, even regulators – is how to adapt to life in this new age. Because it won't be easy.

The CRTC is changing. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy's famous 1962 remark, "we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

So we're tearing down barriers to innovation that have hampered broadcasters and producers. And in so doing, we're throwing open the door to let in new ideas such as discoverability and new approaches to ideas such as Canadian Content.

Let me demonstrate. I will take you back to London England, in the 1920s. Those were the days when Graham Spry was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and when the idea of introducing screen quotas first appeared.

At the 1926 Imperial Conference, the British proposed to its colonies – including Canada, Australia, Newfoundland and South Africa – a certification system for films that was based on awarding points for the British-ness of productions. So many points for the writer, the director, the actors and so on. The goal of the new system was to protect British films from the influx of movies from the vertically integrated U.S. studios.

Perhaps the protectionist idea that reigned at the Imperial Conference strikes a familiar chord. In the 1960s – as in the days when Spry campaigned for a national public broadcaster – Canadians worried that the tidal wave of television media crashing over the border from the United States would capsize our producers' boats and drown our content.

So Parliament created the CRTC in 1968 and mandated our organization to enforce the Broadcasting Act. The result was a complex web of regulations that were designed tofacilitate the creation and distribution of content made by Canadians. And today, the definition of CanCon on TV, nearly 90 years later, still harkens back to a point system created the year Germany joined the League of Nations and the King-Byng dispute was finally resolved.

Now I don't want to be overly critical of the past. For many years, this model was successful in achieving its objectives. The regulations that underpin Canadian television have helped create a thriving industry that employs nearly 60,000 Canadians. Supports for Canadian television production are worth more than $4 billion annually. These funds have been invested in programs that have been sold internationally and watched by audiences here and around the globe.

Some people will tell you, as they did at our public hearing last fall, that everything is fine and there is no need for sweeping change. I'm here today to tell you that this model will not work anymore. In the Age of Abundance, where people can pick from among a multiplicity of programming choices on as many channels, quotas are square pegs in round holes. The reality of this new Age is that quality matters more than ever before.

The roadmap to the future will not be found in the regulator's rearview mirror.

Some broadcasters understand this. HBO, for instance, has had great success developing theatrical-quality series. Each season features fewer episodes, but the stories have been trimmed to their most essential elements to make these the best series possible. Over the last few years, this model has been emulated by AMC, Netflix, the BBC and others. Feature film directors now want to make TV.

Today's decision

Today, we announced a number of significant changes to bring the CRTC's regulations and Canadian television forward into the Age of Abundance. You can read our decision if you're interested in the details. I warn you, it has 323 paragraphs, which illustrates how complex it is to delayer regulatory rules built over the past 50 years. For now, I want to highlight three measures.

First, we reduced the screen quotas for the amount of Canadian programs that local television stations and specialty channels must broadcast, focusing instead, for the next few years, on the evening prime time, when viewers are still watching. Television quotas are an idea that is wholly anachronistic in the Age of Abundance and in a world of choice.

Second, we struck down rules under which specialty channels, such as HGTV Canada or MusiquePlus, could only broadcast certain types of programs – for much the same reason.

And finally, we required all broadcasters to financially invest in programs made by Canadians. Because we want creators and distributors to choose quality over quantity.

Such an approach creates a virtuous cycle where the industry invests to create better programs, which in turn bring more value into the system, which in turn generates more money to re-invest in content made by Canadians. More importantly, it creates an environment where Canadians want to watch content made by our creators – not because it is forced upon them, but because it's good. Indeed, because it is great.

Discoverability

I am mindful of the fact that investing in Canadian productions is not the only solution to improving their visibility with audiences. More has to be done to connect Canadians with our best programming. We're thinking about that, too. Later this year, the CRTC will hold a Discoverability Summit – a forum that will convene innovators and thought leaders from across the public and private sectors, here at home and around the world, to discuss and develop technical solutions to the challenge of discoverability.

The aim of this Summit is nothing less than to change our vision. It is to produce new thinking about tools and methods that will connect viewers with the content they want in an Age of Abundance, marked by fragmentation and micro-markets.

This is not a question of re-inventing the wheel, by the way. Major online companies such as Amazon and Netflix use digital technology every day to do this. They use complex algorithms to recommend content that you would likely enjoy: appliances, movies or books. But for television, this is a significant shift in mindset.

As I said before, the broadcast media have historically been content curators. They forged connections between creators and viewers and dictated how and when shows were broadcast. Broadband technology has made their role less assured. Of course they connect viewers with real-time, appointment-based content such as news, sports, reality TV, live talent competitions, and elections coverage.

But because people can choose when and where they want to watch screen-based content, they won't continue to connect audiences with content creators to nearly the same degree. In the future media landscape, traditional broadcasters are being disintermediated. As a result, creators will have to work harder than ever before to connect with viewers. After all, what's the use in creating the best content in the world when no one can find it and enjoy it? Discoverability is paramount.

In particular, we want discoverability to unite Canadians with content made by Canadians. Every year, billions of dollars are invested to create Canadian programming. Every society needs to make such investments in the arts, including in film and television programming. They enable us to reflect about who we are and where we're going as a nation. But if Canadians cannot find these works, then surely both their intrinsic and commercial values are lost. Canadian programming needs to be more than just great. It needs to be found.

The Discoverability Summit will help bring content made by Canadians to Canadians and to the world, and elevate it to its rightful place among the world's best.

Creating content for the world stage

Some may balk at the suggestion that Canadian programming can reach the same heights as shows created in other major global markets. Not me. I know it can succeed. There's no reason to think that our television productions can't reach the same lofty heights as musicians such as Drake and Arcade Fire or Coeur de pirate and Alex Nevsky. They can, provided the climate under which they produce their works changes and becomes less rigid. In recent years, we have been the second or third leading exporter of musical talent in the world. So can it be in television.

Maybe you've heard of The Code, the latest and greatest political thriller to hit the airwaves. It's Australian and it's excellent. Downton Abbey is just as brilliant, and produced in the United Kingdom. Borgen and The Killing put Denmark on the map. Notice that none of these productions is American. That's because truly great content doesn't always have to come from south of our border. It can be done in Canberra, in London, in Copenhagen or even right here in Ottawa.

If it's possible for Britons, Australians and Danes to create world-class television programs and films, why not us? What prevented Canadians from turning Life of Pi or The English Patient – both written by world-class Canadian authors celebrated internationally for their works – into Canadian productions?

It wasn't a lack of talented actors and creators, or access to great soundstages. We have all that in abundance. The recent Canadian Screen Awards demonstrated that we have a deep and wide pool of talent – from directors to actors, and from show runners to writers. I salute their successes.

It's also not due to the shrinking value of the dollar. Hollywood producers shot in Canada even when our dollar was at par with the greenback.

 It's not even a lack of money in the system.

We have a richness of source material to draw from. Yann Martel and Michael Ondaatje are far from the only Canadian authors who have written memorable, best-selling books.

There's also Margaret Atwood, Yves Beauchemin, Pierre Berton, Joseph Boyden, Elearnor Catton, Lynn Coady, Arlette Cousture, Michael Crummey, Michael Delisle, Alain Farah, Bill Gaston, Lawrence Hill, Frances Itani, Thomas King, Robert Lalonde, Stephen Leacock, Roger Lemelin, Missy Marston, Stuart McLean, Margaret McMillan, Andrée Michaud, Rohinton Mistry, Wajdi Mouawad, Alice Munro, Fred Pellerin, Andrew Pyper, David Adams Richard, Claire Holden Rothman, Gabrielle Roy, Raziel Reid, Bill Richardson, Mordecai Richler, Jocelyne Saucier, Carol Shields, Joan Thomas, Kim Thuy, Miriam Toews, Larry Tremblay, Jane Urquhart…

There are many, many more names that could be added to this list. I only stopped because I needed to take a breath. The point is: Canada has outstanding and internationally recognized storytellers.

Moreover, our military, political and social history is a fertile ground for fresh narratives and documentaries, thus enlightening our collective sense of self.

Part of the problem lies with regulation. And we at the CRTC shoulder our share of blame. Regulators and certifiers of content made by Canadians often get bogged down in the minutia of a production before we agree to fund it. We base our decisions on certification rules whose DNA can be traced back to a 1926 Imperial Conference.

Should it matter that the tiger in Life of Pi wasn't Canadian? Or that the story didn't take place on the St. Lawrence River? Of course not. What matters is that the story is the work of a brilliant Canadian, whose accomplishments have been celebrated the world over – whose perspective on the world is Canadian.


We have world-class Canadian talent in Canada and in Hollywood. In fact, by some estimates there are more than 100,000 Canadians working in Los Angeles as actors, writers, directors, producers or in other creative, technical and business roles. Two of them walked away with Oscars a few weeks ago.

As long as the story is told by a Canadian, let's get the best talent working on it and make something that will conquer the world. Forget about the tagline "made in Canada." We want content that is made BY Canada.

That's why we're using two pilot projects to redefine Canadian productions. We want to make it easier for the next great Canadian novel to become the next great Canadian movie or TV mini-series. But we can't do this alone. Other funders and certifiers must also change their ways of thinking.

The other part of the problem is a lack of innovation. Broadcasters and independent producers need to spend more money to create better content. Put the focus on quality rather than quantity. They also have to take a larger part of the money they would normally spend on production and allocate it to promotion. We are challenging them to do both, so that Canadian and global audiences will be aware of their productions and want to watch them.

Preparing for the future

As we scrape away the relics of the past – quotas, genre protection, certification criteria – to allow our television system to stride into the future, we do so confidently.

The Age of Abundance is upon us and we rise to meet its challenges from a position of strength. We have the money in our system to create and promote great programs; we have the talent to bring these programs to life; and we have the viewers who yearn for novel content. And, as demonstrated in recent Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the True North has the passion to seize the podium.

Television in Canada has, to varying degrees, been successful in a very challenging North American context. Although we have had international success with shows such as Orphan Black, Vikings and Degrassi, we have yet to establish a winning and sustainable Canadian brand, poised to compete to win. 

We are now at a fork in the road. We can choose the status quo which has as a lynchpin a vision of the television media as being essentially linear. That path is known, it is tested; but it does not prepare us for the inevitable future – one that is wholly viewer centric.

The second path is less familiar. It is therefore daunting for some. It is unpredictable in some respects. But its disruptive nature can be the hot bed of creativity, the refreshing world where true entrepreneurs and innovators triumph. The CRTC has chosen to set its course on this second path.

Our decision this past January was the first step we took down that path. I'll be honest: it wasn't universally loved. Some told us it didn't go far enough. Others said it went too far. We take such criticism in stride. If the players in the industry we regulate were always happy with our decisions, we would not be doing our job – that job is to serve the broader public interest, rather than their specific private interests.

We will be releasing two more decisions in the coming weeks as a result of the Let's Talk TV conversation.

If you hear criticisms of our decisions ask yourself this question: Are the arguments advanced by these critics those of the public interest or are they rather those that find their true roots in private entitlement, dressed up to look like they are founded on the broader public interest?

This town is full of lobbyists whose job it is to spin their client's private interests into something else, to wrap themselves up, as it were, in the flag, and to puff about Parliament Hill with an air of shock and dismay.

I respect their right to do so, but I respect more the rights, expectations and wishes of Canadians we serve.

Conclusion

The changes we are making won't be easy for everyone to accept. Some will experience their share of growing pains. Success will not be universal. Some will thrive; others fail. New players will emerge. But I assure you this is the right way forward. We must all challenge ourselves to change. And I'm not simply speaking about creators, producers and broadcasters. The CRTC, policy makers and funding agencies must also embrace change and seize new opportunities.

As John F. Kennedy put it, we are not embarking down this path because the way will be easy and clear of obstacles. Even though it will be hard, we must take this direction. The world is evolving and we must prepare for the future before it is too late.

Remember that, as is often the case with change, "it always seems impossible until it is done."

Thank you.

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