Burning questions: Heritage Minister set for industry address at virtual town hall

While the need for a government-supported insurance backstop remains top of mind, the Broadcasting Act review is also of crucial significance, with Guilbeault aiming to table new legislation before year's end.

guilbeault_200x200_v2While much of the screen sector is (virtually) buzzing about a well-received roster of TIFF films, the industry’s collective attention will shift to issues of insurance and wider policy decisions tomorrow as Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault makes his first public address to the industry since BANFF in June.

And the goal of tabling updated legislation is still on course, Playback understands, with the Minister’s office confirming that Heritage is “working towards meeting the mandate letter commitment regarding the tabling of legislation to modernize the Broadcasting Act by the end of 2020.”

The virtual town hall meeting, moderated by CMPA president and CEO Reynolds Mastin and AQPM president and CEO Hélène Messier, is part of the minister’s public consultation tour on revitalizing the Canadian art, culture, heritage and sport sectors in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the conversation is likely to cover both short- and long-term talking points, the question of a government-supported backstop for COVID-19-related insurance claims remains the burning question facing the domestic production sector.

It’s been three and a half months since the CMPA first put its insurance proposal to the federal government. Under the proposed solution, producers would pay premiums for COVID-19 insurance coverage, which would go toward a funding pot designated for potential claims. The government would put in place a roughly $100 million backstop, only contributing financially if the funds generated through the sale of the COVID-19 policies was insufficient to cover the claims made.

Later in June, during an Q&A at BANFF’s virtual edition, Minister Guilbeault said the government was trying to find a solution, and was looking at the CMPA proposal. However, while the months-long discussions have been characterized as positive, no remedy to the insurance issue has been found.

In the absence of an industry-wide solution, many projects have no route back into production. It’s meant that a number of shows and films have been delayed until at least next year, while others have been scrapped altogether. Increasingly, producers and broadcasters are finding ways back into production, with CBC having the most success in that regard, but it has significantly increased the financial risk associated with production. As well, with the U.K., Australia and France finding government-backed insurance solutions, many within the domestic industry have questioned whether Canada could lose ground to other jurisdictions if the situation drags on much longer.

Beyond the urgent issue of production insurance, the Minister is also expected to field questions about the review of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR), which has faded somewhat into the background as the industry contends with the fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In June, Guilbeault said he intended to table updated legislation in the fall, but the duration of the pandemic, coupled with the proroguing of parliament, had called into question whether that timeline was still possible.

Given the scope of the Janet Yale-led BTLR report – coupled with the unprecedented events of the past six months – it is difficult to accurately predict which recommendations Heritage will move forward with and which ones it will ignore.

One area in which there’s a perceived level of certainty is in relation to streaming services and internet giants, which Guilbeault has repeatedly said will be mandated to offer more Canadian content, contribute to its creation and promote it. As a first step to make this happen, the Yale report suggested the government should “urgently” direct the CRTC to hold a hearing and issue a new exemption order to impose obligations on internet programming undertakings that generate a threshold amount of revenue in Canada. As a second, longer-term step, the report suggested the CRTC should introduce a “registration regime” to regulate foreign-based digital services.

Yale’s report contains other recommendations that could bring vast changes to the local production industry, among them the reintroduction of terms of trade; that CBC should transition to an ad-free model over the next five years; and that the CMF and Telefilm should be merged under a single entity that is funded entirely from public sources.

With all these proposals up in the air and Guilbeault looking likely to table new legislation before year’s end, the next few months could see the introduction of sweeping, course-altering policy changes, and tomorrow’s town hall will likely give some hints as to the direction in which the government is leaning. The virtual event takes place tomorrow, Sept. 16 at 3 p.m.