Key business stories to watch in 2019

The Broadcast Act review, an upcoming federal election and continued digital disruption are set to dominate 2019's business agenda.

On a number of fronts, 2019 promises to be another crucial year in the Canadian film and television industry. In addition to continuing to contend with the unprecedented disruption wrought by global digital players, the Canadian industry will also see the review of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts reach a crucial juncture, as well as a federal election that could have far-reaching consequences for the domestic business.

Here are some of the most important storylines that will shape the industry, and dominate the conversation, in the year ahead.

1. Broadcasting, Telecommunications Act review enters key next phase

Though the exact timeline on which the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts will be updated remains unclear, the decisions made this year will affect the underpinnings of the Canadian industry for years and potentially decades to come. The review officially got underway last August, with this month marking a key deadline of Jan. 11 for industry stakeholders to put forth their written submissions to the government. The review panel, chaired by former Telus EVP Janet Yale, is then expected to issue a report in the spring about what it learned during the consultation process, at which time it will also announce whether or not any further consultations are required. After that, the panel must submit a final report to government by Jan. 31, 2020. The current Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts have not been updated since 1991 and 1993, respectively, with the review giving an important opportunity to adjust regulation developed before the internet was a glimmer in consumers’ eyes.

Public appearances from panel members have been scarce, so Yale’s upcoming appearance at the CMPA’s Prime Time conference in Ottawa at the end of the month is highly anticipated. She will be joined by CMPA CEO Reynolds Mastin, CBC head Catherine Tait, Corus Entertainment CEO Doug Murphy and Netflix’s Canadian policy lead, Stéphane Cardin.

2. Federal election could have significant implications for cultural institutions

When Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party swept to power in 2015, the federal government quickly won favour with the industry by restoring significant funding to cultural institutions (including the CBC, Telefilm and the National Film Board) that had endured tough budget cuts in the Harper years. But while funding to Canada’s cultural institutions has been stable over the past three years, one need only cast their mind back to 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government cut CBC’s funding by $115 million over three years. With a federal election scheduled for October of this year, the ramifications of a Liberal defeat could be significant for the Canadian film and TV sector.

As of last October, CBC’s poll tracker (which tracks all publicly available polling data) indicated that Trudeau’s Liberal party holds a slight lead (37.3% support nationwide) over Andrew Scheer’s Conservative party (33.1%). However, pundits have pointed to a volatile and unpredictable electorate as proof that anything can happen in the 10 months between now and the election.

A second term for the Liberals would mean Pablo Rodriguez, who took over the Canadian Heritage portfolio from Melanie Joly in July, would be given the time to oversee a number of important files (including the review of the Acts) to fruition. Meanwhile, a change of government would mean a third individual in two years would be tapped to oversee the tricky Heritage file.

3. Canadian broadcasters’ digital offerings hit the market

For a number of Canadian broadcast entities, 2019 is a pivotal year in the shift from linear to digital. Last month saw Bell Media launch two free-to-consumer OTT products (CTV Vault and CTV Throwback), while its CTV “digital super hub” is also slated to launch at some point in 2019. Meanwhile, CBC’s rebranded and retooled OTT service Gem was relaunched before the holidays, with CBC planning to add significantly to the service’s 4,000 hours of content in the coming 12 months. With these products in the market (or soon to be), the question becomes: will they be able to gain the necessary traction in a digital space that is awash with options? And to what degree the audience insights provided by these new digital offerings will impact their commissioning and acquisition strategies?

4. What will Netflix’s presence in Canada look like in 2019?

The past 12 months has seen a significant shift in Netflix’s commissioning strategy in Canada. Prior to 2018, the streamer predominantly co-commissioned projects in partnership with Canadian broadcasters (think: Alias Grace with CBC, Frontier with Bell Media and the first two seasons of Travelers with Corus). And while that structure is still common, an evolution of its strategy began to emerge in 2018 with Netflix directly commissioning projects from Canadian prodcos without the attachment of a Canadian broadcast partner. Among the series greenlit in this way are Halfire’s Another Life, Thunderbird’s The Last Kids on Earth, High Park Entertainment’s V-Wars and a trio of projects from Nomadic Pictures (I-Land, The Order and Wu Assassins). The streamer also started to integrate its studio model into deals with Canadian talent, notably Warrior Nun with showrunner Simon Barry, which is being developed out of Netflix’s L.A. HQ. With the digital giant reportedly set to increase its original-content spending to as much as a USD$12 billion this year, its influence on the business structure of Canadian prodcos and talent-led projects will continue to be game-changing.

5. Will growing competition in the streaming market drive up production spending in Canada?

While Netflix and Amazon have emerged as the undisputed frontrunners in the streaming wars, a number of other digital behemoths are prepping platforms that could soon pose legitimate threats. Alongside the growth of platforms has been a rapid escalation in spending on original content that has been a boon for the production industry in Canada in recent years, with total spend hitting a record $8.38 billion in 2016/17 (the most recent data available), up a whopping 24% from the previous year. It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down as Apple enters the market with a reported plan to invest USD$1 billion on original content in 2019 and Disney readies its own streamer. With the currency exchange still favourable for U.S. studios, and Canada’s crews and tax credits continuing to attract foreign productions, the escalation of the streaming wars promises to further fuel the surge in production across the country.

6. Studio capacity is increasing, but can all the new space be filled?

There was a time not long ago when the demand for studio space in Ontario significantly outweighed the supply. But that situation looks set to change in 2019 and beyond, as studio operators start or expand their operations in Toronto and the GTA. In October, Bell Media Studios broke ground on a 200,000-square-foot expansion at Pinewood Studios Toronto (some of those sound stages will be operational before year’s end), while First Studio City in September unveiled ambitious plans to bring a 400,000-square-foot production facility to Markham, ON by the end of 2020. In addition, U.S. net CBS is opening a 260,000-square-foot studio in Mississauga, ON in summer to house its original productions, Cinespace will open a 165,000-square-foot facility in the Port Lands in the spring, and TriBro is moving forward with new studios in both Pickering, ON and Ottawa. With so much new space set to come online over the next two years, it raises a number of important questions: will operators be able to fill all of the space? Will film and TV productions be prepared to relocate outside of the city’s centre? Can the capacity be adequately crewed? Or will the new capacity re-ignite opportunities for lower-budget productions that have seen opportunities shrink as space has been gobbled up by the giants?

Another interesting aspect of the CBS studio investment is that it represents a rare occurrence: a U.S. network putting down permanent roots in Ontario in order to ensure it can fulfill its production goals. And with so many other content players looking for that kind of stability, it poses the question of whether it marks the start of a new trend in foreign investment in Canadian media.

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