Editorial: Let’s ‘tweak’ the Talk TV argument

A recent report from industry unions and guilds threatens mass job losses in the wake of Let's Talk TV. But is it the most effective strategy for change?
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On Jan. 5, a report commissioned by ACTRA, the Directors Guild of Canada and two industry unions, the Canada Media Guild and Unifor, arrived on Playback’s doorstep via press releases bearing different headlines, including “Harper legacy spells trouble for Canadian TV” and “Nordicity TV study shows CRTC changes to cost 15,000 Canadian jobs annually by 2020.” It had appeared first in the Globe and Mail that morning, which had been provided the report a day ahead of time.

The report, reported here in Playback, comes almost one full year after the Let’s Talk TV decisions and more than a year after the hearings that preceded them, suggesting the parties aimed to attract the attention of the new, apparently media-friendly, Liberal government. Its consumer-first distribution strategy also supports this, as parties seek to create groundswell behind their cause. All of which is fine and well because that’s how lobbying works, and lobbying is a business of unions and guilds. But is its headline-focus on job losses in the industry the most effective strategy to truly generate groundswell with the average consumer? Playback argues the over-arching focus on job losses may not be the best strategy to generate the changes these organizations seek, warranting instead a narrower policy focus.

The goal, the authors claim, was to get the CRTC to “tweak” some of the Let’s Talk TV decisions, primarily unbundling. The CRTC, for its part, has said its decisions are final and it has no intention of doing so. But much of the report argues against many of the consumer-facing tenets that drove Let’s Talk TV, which included more choice so as not to lose consumers wholesale to foreign OTT services, and putting the onus on Canadian programming services, producers and broadcasters to create programming that competes on its own merits without the full body armour of regulatory intervention.

There are a million arguments that can be levelled against the policies (For instance, why is the CRTC weighing in on what constitutes quality programming, anyway? For every person that thinks Schitt’s Creek is hilarious and Howie Mandell sucks is someone who fervently will argue the opposite) but the report takes specific aim at both unbundling and the Hybrid Video on Demand exemption order.

BDUs, it says, should have just been left to their own devices and the market would have forced them to unbundle. It also suggests the commission remove the Hybrid Video on Demand category, which required BDUs open up their OTT services to all consumers (not just cable subscribers), arguing that the HVOD accelerated cord-cutting/shaving rates by making the services more attractive to consumers.

In both respects, it argues against policies that, while disruptive to the film/TV industry, are perfectly logical to consumers. And how they will respond to whatever unbundling models are put forward is still extremely unclear. The fact that skinny basic is a subscriber requirement (which was not a guarantee going into the decisions) keeps a bunch of money in the system alone. And will a happier consumer who doesn’t feel like they’ve been Shanghaied into a $200 cable bill be one more likely to keep a package that suits their need? Maybe. Maybe not. But it at least increases the likelihood and possibly reduces the corporate-overlord sentiment most people have about their cable providers (sorry guys, but it’s true).

The report focuses on how Canadian film and TV workers will be affected in this new regime, and rightly so. The job of unions and guilds is to protect their workers against unfair, dangerous and unethical employer and industry practices. And lobbying against changes works: Canadian dairy farmers successfully mitigated the impact of the Trans Pacific Partnership on their government-protected domestic industry. Unlike milk, however, the pace of change in the media industry is faster than almost anyone predicted and as industries change, so too do the jobs that support them and a re-shuffling of skills and trades and roles is inevitable in such a tumultuous time. The CRTC acknowledged the transition would be painful: it is, and it will continue to be.

Talk to any mid-sized production company – and we do, all the time – and most say that Let’s Talk TV virtually changed nothing for them. Successful companies are turning their vision outwards: creating content with new partners, finding new models, shoring up relationships, devising new strategies and opening new offices in new markets. Canadian TV is too small for these companies and the path to growth lies in these strategies. Even the (sneakily inserted) end of Terms of Trade in the LTTV decisions did not cause a huge amount of undue alarm to those producers we spoke to at the time, although many, admittedly, were in larger businesses. Jean Pierre Blais has not been shy about saying the CRTC believes there are too many small companies operating in the system, fuelled solely by its subsidies and lacking substantive business models.

The CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV decisions were extreme – there is no doubt about that. And many did exacerbate the speed of market forces already in play, which the report argues did not have to be that way. Playback wholly supports the argument against the elimination of simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl – it was unnecessary and smacked of pandering to a very small, but vocal, consumer minority. (In 2013, 100 complaints to the CRTC out of 458 were about Super Bowl simsub.) It will bleed millions of dollars out of the system for no reason.

To truly generate the changes these organizations seek, perhaps narrowing the focus of their efforts would better position them in both the eyes of the government and consumers, both of which will have to be persuaded the CRTC went too far. Let’s Talk TV was positioned by the CRTC as a consumer-forward strategy, a stance that was reinforced Thursday with the release of its new code for BDUs relationship with their customers. Focusing on the repeal of the simsub regulation changes – Super Bowl advertising is worth approximately $8 million annually for current rights-holder Bell Media – for example, would restore a revenue-making opportunity and accompanying CPE without any detriment to consumers.

As the Canadian dollar freefalls, the resource sector declines and regional unemployment persists, focusing on job losses in the entertainment sector is unlikely to resonate with the general public when it is tied to changing regulations that were designed to be more favorable to consumers, back to a status quo that is not reflective of the global digital market reality. And if lessening the economic impact is the goal, all efforts should be made to craft a strategy that has a real shot at making a difference.

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