Decade in Review: Fight for it

A guest editorial from Maureen Parker, executive director, Writers Guild of Canada.
Maureen Parker

A guest editorial from Maureen Parker, executive director, Writers Guild of Canada.

I remember having lunch with two screenwriters on a lovely summer day in 1999, weighing the CRTC’s new TV Policy. We all knew that it was bad news but just how bad remained to be seen.

The CRTC’s 1999 TV Policy was a watershed moment for our fledgling industry. The previous years had been good ones for Canadian content, with a number of popular dramas like E.N.G., Traders and many more airing on private conventionals. But by 1999 cable and pay TV channels were growing in popularity and reality programming was making its mark. The private conventionals were pleading with the CRTC for programming flexibility whilst promising to keep investing in and airing higher cost programs like Canadian dramas, sitcoms and longform documentaries.

So after heavy lobbying from the broadcasters, the CRTC blinked and introduced the 1999 TV Policy. The policy centered around the concept of priority programming which meant that, instead of the already existing specific expenditure and exhibition requirements for conventional private broadcasters for dramas and docs, they would now have the option of filling eight hours of primetime with dramas, docs, varieties and also entertainment magazine shows and any program produced in the regions (other than news and sports).

The impact was immediate and devastating. By 2000, the spending by private broadcasters had dropped to 4% of ad revenue from 5.1% the year before. In that one year alone we lost 100 hours of drama – from 240 to 139. The effects rumbled through the industry: first the screenwriters, then producers, directors, actors, editors, crew et al.

The one thing it did achieve? It united us in common purpose. We organized a coalition, hired the best legal talent in the country, attended every CRTC hearing and more, held rallies, issued press releases and believed. Believed that we had the right to see our own dramas, sitcoms and documentaries, and that the basic tenets of the Broadcasting Act still held – surely we deserved more as a nation than eTalk and endless American programs.

The 1999 TV Policy came with a term of seven years. We were told that every time we demanded its reversal. CRTC chair Charles Dalfen tried to help when he introduced the drama incentive, but it was rendered meaningless with a new TV Policy in 2007. Finally, in 2010, with our industry bottoming out – with the ratio of spending on foreign drama to Canadian drama up to 24.2 to 1 from 2000’s 5.2 to 1, with the total spend on Canadian drama sitting at 1.5% of ad revenue – chair Konrad von Finckenstein and the rest of the Commission felled the 1999 policy and ushered in what we hope will be a new era.

The new TV Policy proposes a group corporate spend on Canadian content of 30%, and a drama, documentary and award-show specific expenditure of more than 5% of gross ad revenue. Yes, after more than a decade of decline, we won something. Actually, it looks promising and we thank the current chair and commissioners for steering us back in the right direction.

So we shall see. The new Policy will be adopted as part of the broadcasters’ new licences commencing September 2011.

And the moral of the story is… if you want a Canadian industry you have to fight for it. It will never come easy. Broadcasters, BDUs and ISPs, distributors, etc. will always pursue the best bottom line, which means spending as little as possible on Canadian content. However they shouldn’t underestimate our tenacity – you just can’t kill our desire to share our stories with other Canadians.