Banff ’16: The elusive quest to define the future of Cancon

Canada's top programming execs take a stab at reading TV's tea leaves and end up debating the definition of Cancon and strategies for future success.

It wouldn’t be a Banff World Media Festival if we didn’t all sit down in a room (multiple times), agonize about Canada’s place in the world of TV, and question what we could be doing better. But as Corus’ Barb Williams noted in a Playback magazine article last year about the role of conferences in the industry, that’s kind of what they’re for: to get everyone talking and move the conversation incrementally forward.

On day two of Banff, a panel of high-profile Canadian programming execs sat down with TV critic Bill Brioux to take on the weighty topic of “The Future of Canadian Content” – not a modest venture, Brioux noted, and one that could realistically take up all of Banff (or an entire government review).

Kudos to the panel then, which included Rogers Media’s Collette Watson, Bell Media’s Randy Lennox, CBC’s Sally Catto, eOne’s Jocelyn Hamilton and Corus’s Maria Hale, for cutting right to the heart of it and getting into some interesting territory including the points system, the role of coproductions and the nature of risk-taking.

Catto, a staunch defender of Canadian content and CBC’s role in fostering it, said that the CBC sees both 6/10- and 8/10-point productions as vital to Canadian content creation, and sees them both playing a role in its future, but for different reasons.

“We prioritize Canadian content that is written and directed by Canadians and shares a very distinct point of view. That’s certainly our mandate and it’s our strategy. Having said that, I think there’s a role to play in 6/10 productions,” she said, emphasizing that those types of shows can help Canadian content be financed and distributed outside of Canada.

Lennox too emphasized the importance of keeping partnerships in the definition, arguing that they help talent maintain ties with Canada, which he says has been a key part in building the success of international stars like Drake in the music business. Hale, on the other hand, kept it simple but broad enough to encompass Corus’s stated view to expand its remit as a media company. “I think the key criteria when you look at Canadian content is that it’s owned and controlled by Canadians – that’s the IP and the rights,” she quipped.

The view was echoed too by Hamilton (“it’s content powered by Canadians”) but taken in a different direction by Watson, who took the argument further and met Brioux’s at his opening comments, which questioned how Jay Baruchels’s Man Seeking Woman for FXX (shot in Canada and starring the Canadian actor, but created and showrun by American Simon Rich) didn’t meet any sort of Canadian content criteria.

‘There’s a narrow focus of how we define Canadian content,” Watson said. “It’s odd Jay’s show isn’t Canadian. The most important point is what Maria just said.”

“Why aren’t we taking credit for that as a country?” she added later, referencing Canadian work on The Strain, Fargo, etc. “We have talented people that don’t count. And that’s a disconnect…I think it’s high time to modernize the funding and update the rules.”

All argued that coproductions were an important part of carrying Canadian content forward, for the scale and access to other markets they provide. Catto noted that that the opportunity to do copros has expanded significantly in recent years, as countries have loosened up on the kind of stories what they will or won’t work on. Hamilton echoed the sentiment, adding, “We’re all trying to have a global hit. [In a coproduction situation] everyone there gets behind it. That’s what we want. Being powered by Canada, we’re on that stage – we’re in that game.”

Watson again went against the tide, arguing copros were only one part of the solution to achieve scale. “Coproductions are a way, not the way. Then you want to look at how you monetize that product. In a mobile society, how do you compete? We can carve our rights like timeshares in territories [when] we should be buying rights for Canadians, not for Canada. We need to make it easy for consumers to keep our product with them wherever they go. We need to make it easy – otherwise we will invite them to pirate.”

Brioux soon wrapped the topic de jour into the conversation, the recent set of right-wing think-tank reports calling for deregulation and/or lesser regulation in the Canadian content system. While Watson called on content creators to “deconstruct the system that is holding you back from creativity,” referencing Matt Johnson and Jay McCarroll’s Nirvanna, The Band, The Show for Viceland as an example of DIY content creation, Hamilton argued that quotas in fact are responsible for many Canadian successes in the past. “It’s a tough conversation,” she admitted. “If we didn’t have those quotas, those shows might not have been made”

While the need for a Canadian content review was not banished in the panel, some key starting points of conversation were made, which, as Joly requested the day before, is the point of the review itself: to generate ideas, conversation and ultimately change.

Photo via Shutterstock