Liberals aim to table updated Broadcasting Act by June

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault says the government will act quickly to table the legislation as Netflix, Telefilm and others react to the BTLR report.

Legislation to update the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Act may be tabled at the House of Commons as early as June, according to Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault.

The minister discussed the newly released Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review report under the spotlight at CMPA’s Prime Time conference in Ottawa. He said the Liberal government has already formed its own proposals to update legislation, but that the report “will be a tremendous help for the proposals that we want to put forward to change the ecosystem in Canada.”

One significant obstacle is that the Liberal Parity does not have majority control of Parliament, but Guilbeault says he is “confident that [the government] will be able to find support and move things quickly.”

Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Party’s Shadow Minister for Industry and Economic Development, said at a press conference on Wednesday (Jan. 29) that the Conservatives will be “pressing alternatives” to the recommendations given in the report. The shadow minister proposed that Canadian content should be controlled by consumers through crowdfunding, rather than by the Canada Media Fund, and questioned whether regulating streaming services is compliant with USMCA, the new U.S. trade agreement, or with the charter.

On Wednesday, Guilbault released a joint statement with Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, saying the government will “carefully consider” all 97 recommendations provided by the panel. “Reforms are needed to level the playing field on which conventional broadcasters and digital media companies compete,” read the statement. “Our priority is to ensure that all media companies that operate in Canada develop Canadian content and contribute to the Canadian system.”

Among the report’s most urgent recommendations is the regulation of digital giants, such as Netflix and Amazon, outlining a two-phase process that includes an interim measure to allow the CRTC to impose an exemption regarding internet programming that earns a certain revenue threshold, introduced before the new legislation is tabled.

The government has shown its willingness to regulate the internet’s power players in the past. Then-Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez vowed the Liberal government would “act swiftly” once the final report recommendations come through and Guilbeault has reiterated that promise.

Netflix issued a response to the report, saying it will “look forward to working with the government” on modernizing the legislation. “The local industry is flourishing; we will continue investing in made-in-Canada productions and stories, bringing them to the world,” said a Netflix spokesperson.

The Writers Guild of Canada came out in support of the report, encouraging the government to act on the interim measures proposed by the panel and praising the distinctions made between domestic productions and foreign service productions for major Hollywood studios. “It is this domestic production that is most under threat by digital disruption, and it is this content that is in greatest need of support,” said WGC executive director Maureen Parker.

The CMPA released a statement in favour of the recommendation for digital streamers to contribute, as well as the panel’s call to reintroduce terms of trade between independent producers and content commissioners, which was discontinued in 2016. “We share in both the panel and federal government’s vision for a new, forward-looking system that ensures the continued ability for producers to bring Canadian stories to audiences both at home and around the world,” said president and CEO Reynolds Mastin.

Another impacting change suggested in the panel’s report is to merge the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada into one single acting body operating solely from public sources, with revenues drawn from BDUs to be funnelled into Certified Independent Production Funds (CIPFs).

Both CMF and Telefilm released measured responses to the report. “We believe in the key role played by both public and private sector players in our industry,” said CMF president and CEO Valerie Creighton, adding the CMF will “look forward to continue working with our funders to support Canada’s content and stories.”

Telefilm executive director Christa Dickenson said the funder will “look forward to discussing the proposed recommendations with our clients, partners, and industry stakeholders, as well as to sharing our views with Minister Guilbeault and Canadian Heritage,” adding that Telefilm has “supported the development of Canada’s screen-based industry for over 50 years.”

The recommendation casts a shadow of uncertainty over a review of Telefilm’s Success Index. Dickenson has previously said the index would potentially see a “major overhaul” put into effect for the 2021/22 fiscal year. The Liberal Party also included a promise to increase Telefilm’s funding by 50% by the 2020/21 fiscal year in its re-election campaign. Guilbeault confirmed the government’s commitment to fund Canadian film during his appearance at Prime Time.

CRTC chairperson and CEO Ian Scott said the regulator is “studying the report with great interest,” in a statement. Several of the recommendations would give the CRTC and enhanced role as a regulator in Canadian film and TV. “At first glance, it is clear that the panel recognizes that fundamental changes need to occur to fully enable the CRTC to act in the public interest,” said Scott. “We look forward to future legislative changes to effectively fulfill our mandate in this new environment.”

Image (L-R): Reynolds Mastin and Minister Steven Guilbeault