Banff ’17: Broadcasters in the hot seat

A panel of Canadian broadcasters (and one producer) tackled Cancon funding and the ever-growing OTT threat on day one of the festival.
Banff 2017 media leaders panel

Audience members lobbed difficult questions at a panel of broadcasting execs, and the tone turned sometimes heated during the Canadian Media Leaders panel at the Banff World Media Festival Sunday.

The 38th annual festival kicked off with a discussion featuring Rogers Media’s Rick Brace, Bell Media’s Randy Lennox, CBC’s Sally Catto, and Corus Entertainment’s Barb Williams. The panel also included Insight Production’s John Brunton, who provided a producer perspective on some of the biggest issues affecting the Canadian industry today – namely the funding of Cancon and competing with the growing OTT presence in the Canadian marketplace.

On the Cancon funding front, perhaps the most heated question of the day came during the audience Q&A when a delegate, who identified herself as a producer, writer and story editor, asked the panel to defend their decisions to spend “ludicrous amounts” of money purchasing and marketing “reprehensible crap” from the U.S. as opposed to developing and creating Canadian content. Williams and Lennox commented that across their channels their spend on foreign versus domestic programming works out to be about evenly split.

Williams also argued, however, that Canadian broadcasters don’t have much of a choice when it comes to buying big American series, because if they don’t simulcast, Canadian audiences would just watch those series on U.S. channels that are available in Canada (and broadcasters would, therefore, lose out on a major ad revenue opportunity).

“When we put Mary Kills People on the air…I don’t get to say ‘You know what, I’m going to put that on instead of NCIS.’ If I put [Mary] on, NCIS is still on CBS. So I’m asking my Canadian drama to compete against the biggest broadcasters in the world, and with far, far, far greater resources than we’ll ever have,” she said. “We’re never gonna have the resources to say we should do 12 hours of primetime [Canadian] drama a week and not worry about what that’s going to do to us competitively when the other [U.S.] channels are still available.”

Earlier in the panel, however, Insight’s Brunton questioned the entire model of acquiring U.S. series in Canada. “I don’t believe that my colleagues on the panel [the broadcasters] will exist unless they produce and partner and make their own content,” he said. “Renting U.S. content, in the long run, is a fool’s game.”

To compete in a world where “a tidal wave of content” floods in from the U.S. every day, Canadians must own and be able to sell their content worldwide, he said.

“Our condition in our industry for over 50 years, has been extremely myopic. We haven’t really been in the exporter business,” he said, adding that he hopes producers and broadcasters partner more than they have in the past to create that content.

Just how producers partner with Canadian broadcasters, of course, was also up for discussion, with moderator David Zitzerman of Goodmans LLP asking Corus’ Williams to explain what rights the broadcaster will be looking for in future deals with producers. With ad dollars migrating away from linear and the cost of content increasing, she argued broadcasters too need to be more international in their deal-making.

Williams noted that at the L.A. screenings even large U.S. studios were becoming more aggressive about ownership of content.

“NBC is not buying anything from any studio other than its own and CBS is fighting with Sony over how they were going to do [new series] S.W.A.T and who was going to own it and who was going to distribute it – these are real battles happening at even the biggest of companies dominating the world,” she said.

“Content ownership for Canadian broadcasters is absolutely vital to our success and our continuity,” said Rogers’ Brace. “But we do have to find a way to work [with producers]so that there is more fairness, more sharing and the ability to sustain the industry going forward.”

To that point, following the panel CMPA CEO Reynolds Mastin told Playback Daily that because the future is global, broadcasters must work with producers to ensure they retain some meaningful portion of rights to IP.

“This is needed so producers can generate revenue, fund their companies, and ultimately create the next great piece of content for broadcasters to bring to the viewing public,” he said. “If the broadcasters aren’t interested in a true partnership, and instead aim to suck up all the global intellectual property rights for themselves, Canada will soon find itself with a shrinking production sector and significantly less diversity of content.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a Canadian media panel if OTTs were not targeted. Virtually all the panelists argued, unsurprisingly, for some form of taxation on foreign players entering into Canada. Bell’s Lennox said it’s not just Netflix that Canadian broadcasters need to be worried about. While the SVOD has more than 5.4 million subscribers in Canada, he said, Amazon has an estimated 2.8 million. In addition to those two major players are Apple, Hulu and Google which are all getting into or already in the content game, he said. “If we look three years on, all five [players] will be omnipresent. The upside, as everyone is saying, is we have to get to have a rich uncle in terms of making better content. But the downside is we’re now in a 10 or 11-company horse race when it comes to [buying content].”

With files from Jordan Pinto

Photo: Kristian Bogner