The Sessions podcast transcription: Episode 3

This is a transcript of Episode 3 of The Sessions, presented by Playback and The Creative School. The special four-part series examines how Canada’s media industry is leaning into the global, online era with the new legislation called the Online Streaming Act, also known as Bill C-11.

This transcript is intended to increase inclusivity and accessibility, and has been edited for clarity and brevity. We’ve tried our best to accurately reflect exactly what was said on the podcast, while keeping in mind ease of reading. We encourage you to listen to the audio interview, if possible, to experience the full nuance of the conversation.

SPEAKERS: Host Irene Berkowitz; Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund.


Irene Berkowitz 0:43

Hi, everyone. Welcome to The Sessions presented by Playback and The Creative School. Our four-part series unpacks history being made right now as Canada’s media industry leans into the global online era. Listen in as key stakeholders weigh in on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act.

I’m your host, Irene Berkowitz. Today in episode three, we explore Bill C-11 and the CMF, Canada Media Fund. We are so excited to chat with CMF’s legendary leader Valerie Creighton.

Valerie has been president and CEO of CMF since 2005, leading the organization through its origin in a merger between Television Fund and New Media Fund through its official founding in 2010 and onwards. Conquering countless challenges, especially in the last two years when the industry faced a triple threat from the pandemic, the searing inequities it revealed, all while the digital shift to a global online media market gained steam and put our funding model under increased threat.

Navigating all of this, Valerie steered the industry towards record employment and prepared CMF for new legislation, which is here. For listeners who may not know: CMF is the private-public partnership that finances Canadian content. Half of its annual budget of about 470,000,000 used to come from Canada’s cable companies, matched by Canadian Heritage.

But Heritage has contributed a bit more in recent years to offset cable decline. Above all, CMF is where policy meets producers and shows them the money. Positioned as champions of courageous storytelling to share with the world, CMF is the centerpiece of the Canadian content system. Valerie is its pinnacle. And it’s fair to say the industry’s hero, including mine. Valerie, very warm welcome.

Valerie Creighton 2:43

I don’t know what to say, Irene. Nobody could do any of that without a whole village working together. And I think the reason we’ve gotten to where we are not just at the CMF, but as an industry, is because so many people contributed with ideas and energy and interest. But thank you for that introduction.

Irene Berkowitz 3:04

I’ll start with the same question that I asked both the CMPA and the CRTC in episodes one and two. Valerie, what is your hot take on Bill C-11?

Valerie Creighton 3:15

The Online Streaming Act, Bill C-11, is actually the key to unlocking a very dated structure that we have in the country. Without it, yes, life will go on, but it is the key that will change I think the future for all of us to make a better Canada and its passage is really important.

The steps afterwards are important. And, of course, the CMF’s role comes at the end of the day after both the legislative and regulatory process. But it is absolutely key. And I think the Minister has done a really good job of addressing many of the issues that came up around Bill C-10.

I know there’s still debate out there about what else has to be done, and that’s the job of a democracy. That’s the job of the Canadian Heritage Committee as they look to review the bill.

Irene Berkowitz 4:00

I think even producers in the industry, most do not understand the ins and outs and the technical details of the bill, and they just want to work, be paid and have a career trajectory.

Valerie Creighton 4:14


Irene Berkowitz 4:15

We are going to get to Canadian content, the streamers, diversity, and a level playing field shortly. But I do want to ask you something. You mentioned last month at Prime Time that big announcements would be coming from the CMF. Has the moment arrived?

Valerie Creighton 4:32

Not quite yet. We’re very close. There are some significant changes that will be happening at the CMF. No, I think I’ll stop there because I can’t spoil the surprise, but some big shifts in what the future is going to look like.

We have an equity, diversity and inclusion strategy, making sure that the CMF does create the opportunity in our organization for systemic change to allow that to happen. Canada has no shortage of storytellers, innovation, creativity and ideas. We are rife, we are wealthy in that regard.

But our structure, especially us at the CMF, and the way it was set up really doesn’t help us embrace all of that. So the changes at the CMF are structural. We’ll be getting the CMF future ready for what we can best anticipate might happen.

What we’re going to try to do at the CMF is do as much as we can within the current restrictions so that when the higher authorities and legislation and regulatory are done their work, we’re ready to hit the ground running. So that’s the information that will be coming in a couple of weeks.

Irene Berkowitz 5:46

You have also mentioned what I’m now calling the great unhooking from the gatekeepers being only the legacy broadcasters. In terms of the structural changes, what can CMF do in the next year?

Valerie Creighton 6:00

Well, there’s a few things we can do. There are about three levels of authority for change. Some of the change is what the CMF is able to do under the current terms and conditions of our contribution agreement with Canadian Heritage.

So some things we have our own authority for. So, for example, what we want to do in the growth and inclusion area that has been sanctioned by the government. They provided the extra money to do so. That’s really up to us now.

How to make that happen? There’s another level of authority which is at the Minister’s level, and he can give us the ability to make some changes. The big ones, as you say, the great unhooking, will not happen until the legislative and regulatory process is complete because it’s all tied into that change for the future.

And with all the issues that COVID brought us, it also brought us some great opportunities. We certainly learned how fragile our industry is. We learned that project by project financing is not going to hold us well in the future, going forward. We learned that the community works together and came it up with phenomenal ideas to survive through COVID.

The way production companies make content is likely to change. There were some good lessons learned from COVID, so through that we will pick up what we learned and embed that in the new program.

If C-11 didn’t happen, that change will still have to come if we want the Canadian production and creative industry to remain whole and to also remain competitive on the global market. So another way will have to be found.

Irene Berkowitz 7:40

If there’s no immediate shift to a producer-accessed platform agnostic funding model, how will the online streamers be brought into the CMF, and what do you think their reaction will be?

Valerie Creighton 7:55

The streamers are in the system now in a way. They’ve been in the country for a very long time. There’s lots of discussion about the issue on intellectual property rights and service production and what their role really is.

But I think with evidence of them establishing a presence, an office presence in the country, I’ve had many conversations with some of the streamers around the CMF’s role, and content.

And don’t forget that we’ve done many projects where CMF is in the budget, the Canadian broadcaster will be in the budget and a foreign streamer will be in the budget. And those were quite successful.

We kind of view the streamers as the big bad guys in many ways in many sectors, but it’s simply not the case. And we can’t ever forget that the streamers are global entities, they have deep pockets and they have worldwide distribution, and all of that is good for Canada.

I think the bargain has to be, how do we make sure that we aren’t completely overrun by content that essentially you could call service production, in the more linear field, or work for hire?

Because we know service production is on the rise. Work for hire is on the rise. That’s a very good thing for the country. It keeps people employed. It keeps those companies coming here. They value our resources.

But the real trick here, Irene, is to find the balance between all that good work and important work and the domestic market and how we don’t lose the domestic market in the advent of all of that pressure. That’s my fight, that’s my passion, is to make sure that our Canadian storytellers and our Canadian content is part of this thriving future environment.

Irene Berkowitz 9:40

You talk to the streamers all the time. Are they going to be on board with this?

Valerie Creighton 9:46

Well, I talk to them all the time. Not all of them all the time, but a few. The feeling I have is that they are serious about the country. They like our creativity, they like our content makers. They’re looking for authentic stories.

I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect because the streamers have a model in the market that they stand behind, and that’s fair. That’s the business they’re in. But I think there just has to be, in the old language, the leveling of the playing field. They’re not our enemy. They should be really strong partners, but fair partners.

When it comes to things like intellectual property and how content gets distributed, I think they’re open to the discussion, and I think it just remains to be seen where it all evolves. I know that it’s not my job to do that for sure. I don’t get paid that much.

But the government and people who are looking at those systems have been in discussion with the streamers universally for like two or three years now. So I am optimistic that Canada is in for a really exciting ride to our benefit.

Irene Berkowitz 10:46

What about user generated content sites like producers on YouTube and TikTok? They’re quite worried about being included in this new vision.

As you know, one of our most popular creators, Lilly Singh, has been very outspoken about not being included in the rules and regulations. Where do you see CMF as we go forward?

Valerie Creighton 11:12

Well, as you know, the Bill refers to all of that in terms of exempting social media content. And then there’s the question of professionally produced content. That’s a legislative issue that has to be sorted out.

For us, this goes back to what does the future look like? And I was very interested in a document I read recently about a program that Screen Australia has called Skip Ahead.

And they are looking at content creators that come from YouTube, that come from TikTok, that come from many places where they’ve had tremendous success and opening up the doors of that organization to find a way to bring those content creators in and finding a different way to support them if they want to be supported.

Many don’t because they’ve got a system and a way of making content that’s getting out to the world. That’s fantastic. But there are some who may need other resources, whatever it is, we need to make sure that the blossoming of all this incredible talent and content out there is embraced.

Irene Berkowitz 12:12

Canadian content historically landed on a procedural definition, the CRTC’s 10-point system, which is very hooked to the legacy broadcasters. All of this worked rather brilliantly to build a 20th century industry, leading us to this amazing day.

Now when we have record employment in the industry and a fantastic media workforce, what’s next for Canadian content? And does that have its locus in the CMF or the CRTC or elsewhere?

Valerie Creighton 12:46

The CMF is a small part of a very large ecosystem. And yes, we still are the largest financing tool for content, for the industry. But for us, the picture will be we’re going to try to turn this ship so that the focus is really as a global content fund.

So part of that is looking at ways to allow the production companies to produce content at the development stage without the requirement of a broadcast licence. That was one of the pilots we initiated during COVID.

I believe if we do a really good job on that front, we will develop great content, great stories that will be more market ready. So the question becomes, if you have a stellar piece of Canadian content driven by Canadians and there’s demonstrated market interest, why wouldn’t we be able to support that through the CMF?

Our money is still a public private mix, as you mentioned in the beginning. It’s Canadian money. So obviously that content would have to be shown in Canada available for domestic audiences, but it could be through linear or it could be through many of the online services that are out there.

If you’re talking about a platform-agnostic world, the world has changed so much. I mean, we see content makers out of Quebec are now working in English. They’re working in all formats just like the rest of the world. That content can now be accessible to the world with a couple of clicks of a button. So the world is open to us as a country.

And I think for the CMF, the focus is on content-centric, platform-agnostic, a global content fund. And our true north will be the content. Because if we’re not on the side of the content, well, what are we doing here? Like, whose side are we on? What’s the point?

Because we’re not in the business of supporting the tremendously, wonderful and successful service industry. That’s not our job. Our job is to keep that domestic element in the overall balance of what happens from the bill, through regulatory, through content support that comes out of the CMF at the end of the day. That’s kind of the continuum.

Irene Berkowitz 14:56

So you just mentioned development without a broadcaster. One of the surprising findings that I found in doing my research was that development, in the absence of the proper financial pressure to exploit, doesn’t get the best out of the development.

I concluded that sort of throwing money at development doesn’t sufficiently pressurize it to become successful in the national or the global market. How do you guys approach that question? Which was a surprising finding for me.

Valerie Creighton 15:32

We have done a number of experiments with development, I think, for development, what we’re currently doing is assessing, okay, we’ve tried XYZ, did it work? Did it not work?

And of course, development doesn’t happen in a day. So for us to suddenly jump on a bandwagon and say, oh, this didn’t work or that didn’t work. I mean, we have to allow it the time to get through its process. I think there has to be a mix in that.

There’s a fine-balanced approach. I think that has to happen here between serious market interest potentially in the development because it’s an interesting idea.

But not forcing that process through to meet a structured timeline, because, look, nobody gets up in this industry in the morning and say, I’m going to make a really bad piece of content today because I got $100,000.

I think our job at the CMF is to try to dig some of those nuggets of wisdom out of the system and figure out what is the way forward that gives that content the best possible chance. And it could be a mix of things, but the answers to that, I won’t have them probably for another year.

Irene Berkowitz 16:42

I suspect you agree that producers have well earned the right to access funds directly after all these years of very hard work. In my 2021 book, Mediaucracy, I suggested an incentive instrument that could be used to reward market performance. How do we use the funding to make sure we’re reaching an audience? How will we get this done?

Valerie Creighton 17:12

Producers are our applicants. We don’t fund the broadcasters. Our deal is with the producer. Now, can that be a different deal, a stronger deal? Sure. And we’re looking at all kinds of ways to do that.

In terms of incentives for the audience, the problem with measuring audience is it all depends on definitions. So right now, the CMF model in the performance envelopes, because what we do, it’s a very competitive process. The broadcasters compete. We look at their past history, their envelopes.

I think we will need to look at different measurements. Audience right now is our major measurement. But we know it’s not enough because we know we’re not measuring all of the online audiences that are out there.

And the thing about content is you never know if what you’re making is going to hit that chord with an audience or not. And if we had the magic success formula to that… even in the U.S., if you look at their development history and the massive amount of content that’s put into development.

Hundreds of thousands of titles and maybe four or six get squeezed down to the possibility for air and maybe two or three actually get on the air. We’re not manufacturing widgets here.

And at the same Prime Time, I started to talk about moving to landmark from landfill. Well, boy, I could hardly leave the room because people were so distressed. Because, of course, any time you make statements like that, there’s thousands of questions underneath it.

Our regulatory bargain required our broadcast community to hit certain targets in order to get Canadian content on the air. And that was a fair bargain at the time. I think now it’s not about that bargain.

It’s really about the opportunity before us. So how we define what success is, is a big question for us. What might the future look like? What could we all guess on that one? What are the tools we need to get underneath that success?

And I still come back to the content. I have complete 300% faith in the creativity of our industry to develop content that will resonate in the world. And I really believe if we do a different job getting under the content, we’ll have at least a better chance in the market and our producers potentially would have a better chance of negotiating with the IP.

There are other models in the world. The U.K. made a decision a while ago to really lift up the mid tier producer, and now those guys are negotiating hard in the marketplace and they’re retaining IP. Some Canadian companies are too. We’re all in such a state of flux around this. It’s really hard to define precisely today, what are the tools?

The reason why I want to get the CMF future ready from an organizational point of view, is to be able to start to have those discussions with the industry to consider the best, most appropriate tools. It could be a million things, but a different way of financing that actually reaches those objectives.

Irene Berkowitz 20:24

Let’s talk about diversity and representation and C-11. Given the urgency for equity across our industry, our nation and the world, why is it so critical that this be codified into legislation? And what will be the CMF’s role in making sure this actually becomes real?

Valerie Creighton 20:47

Well, this is a societal change. It’s not just a funding change. It’s about the door being open to this and we ain’t going back. Thankfully, we are never going back to where we were. And I think why it’s encoded in legislation is because that makes it real at that level.

Now, you can encode a lot of things in legislation and they don’t always become real. I think it’s stories that change people. It’s stories that tell us who we are. Without storytelling, it really doesn’t matter what any piece of legislation is in our sector, at least.

I said to Jesse Wente once, I am a white girl of privilege, but I lived with an Indigenous man for 20 years and it was the storytelling of his family and his culture and his nation that opened my eyes. And I think reconciliation comes from storytelling. It comes from a human understanding that this is who we are and we’re all in this together, no matter the colour of our skin.

Irene Berkowitz 21:50

I read about that. Your new data point around diversity and your other reports such as Spark Courage, have talked about the data desert. You can’t improve unless you can measure progress on either global audiences or diversity and representation.

Valerie Creighton 22:08

So for the CMF, we had started talking about some way to start opening up the door before the events of 2020. We barely scratched the discussion. We were not the hero here at all.

But when that tragic summer happened, we brought together in June of 2020 I think, it was a group of Black industry leaders to have a conversation. And that led over the year to what we call our equity and inclusion strategy. And again, you can have a great strategy, but unless you’re actually acting on it, nothing much changes. So we have done a number of things.

Certainly we hired two great individuals: a young Canadian Ethiopian filmmaker in the documentary community, a young Latino in the French market, Diego Briceño and Tamara Dawit. And they’ve been working with us since 2020 to guide us to work with many of those communities out there, Black, people of color, Indigenous, to bring intelligence back into the CMF.

Right after this podcast, we’re doing a whole session with all of our staff on the sensitivities around this because we all come to this discussion, at least many of us do, these are white, colonial-driven institutions in the country. We all bring our own lived experience to it. I know

I learned in my personal life that sometimes your language, you don’t even realize what you’re saying and the impact on other people that it may have. So we hired the staff. We did a lot of workshops. We had an addition to our board of two people from diverse communities. We looked at all our language within the CMF. We did the Seek More campaign.

We took apart many of our programs to include things like initiatives, in the new program architecture, to expand them through incentives to the broadcasters and the digital platforms in terms of licensing and supporting the content owned by under-represented communities, mechanisms to ensure that the content’s creative control were from individuals within those communities.

The CMF is also about partnerships, we cannot do this alone. We just launched Persona ID, which is a pilot to facilitate self identification that helps us to collect data way more effectively so we can actually see, have we moved the bar? Has there been change or not? The only way you can really do that is through good data. We’re not done. It’s really just beginning the process.

Irene Berkowitz 24:44

What are the producers most concerned about now?

Valerie Creighton 24:49

What we heard in our consultation was that the big thing that they’re focused on is there has to be change. It’s a global market. It’s a global business. Our structure in Canada, a lot of elements within it are going to force us to stand on the 49th parallel and look up. That is no longer going to work.

The Canadian broadcast system is still absolutely critical to what we do in this country. It’s just that now it’s impossible to have to be the only trigger at the CMF, the only place where producers can go. And they’re doing some phenomenal things.

I mean, you just look at The Porter is probably the most recent example of a coproduction with the CBC and BET in the U.S., it’s a phenomenal piece of content that unlocks a piece of history in this country. So I think for the whole system to change, the producers, what we heard consistently change was top of mind.

Urgency for change was actually probably the top thing because, you know, yes, it’s a big ship to turn. And I am probably one of the most frustrated people in the country about the rapid pace of change that’s happening in our industry and our ability just to keep up with it is very frustrating.

Obviously, we had many people from diverse communities who spoke about the issues they have been facing and the really critical need to break down barriers, break down doors.

And I was really frustrated when all of that happened because all of a sudden many organizations were jumping on the bandwagon and saying things like, well, we’re going to have 50% of people of colour in our organization by this date. And that’s good. That’s a good thing.

But to get a really deep systemic change in the thinking of an organization, it has to be bigger than that. For many, it’s not fast enough. And I’m on their side. I don’t think it’s fast enough either.

Irene Berkowitz 26:46

CMF in five years, with or without C-11?

Valerie Creighton 26:51

In five years, I would expect and hope and sometimes even pray that legislation has passed and the regulatory process is over. We’re ready to jump on the future in terms of the new program architecture and all the things we’ve talked about today, and that we have a blossoming and burgeoning industry focused on content creation and innovation.

Without C-11, I would say the same thing has to happen. It’s just we’ll have to find a different way to do it. We would have to work with Canadian Heritage. We are, after all, their program. We’re not a stand alone. We’re embedded in there. They’ve been in consultation with us. They’ve heard from the industry firsthand.

So I don’t know what the way forward could possibly be without C-11, but I know there will be one, because the industry is poised and ready for that change and there is an urgency to the change. But for now, we’re all going to get behind the C-11 because it’s the critical tool to make all this happen.

Irene Berkowitz 27:52

This podcast will drop on March 8, a week from today. Will there be any public announcements between now and then?

Valerie Creighton 28:02

No, because I’m taking all of the work that we’ve done into the board next week. And so it will be after that time. I think it will probably be sometime the week of March 14, but it won’t be before the 8th. There won’t be vast program changes coming up for April 1.

We will continue with the increased flexibility we were given during COVID. So to do things like development without a broadcast or some slate financing, et cetera, so that will help us get the ball rolling. But the real big program structural changes in terms of the new architecture, Irene, we’re gearing up for that to happen in 2023.

Irene Berkowitz 28:46

I would agree that it’s all tied to structure. One of the things I found very useful in my research was not only looking at other industries, but looking at the Hollywood studio system, which is that the financial partners in development are investing money in order to exploit [the content] on the global stage.

And therein was a glitch in our system, we don’t really have a studio system. And money talks, when you follow the money from the people who really need to figure out if it will work on the national and global stage.

Valerie Creighton 29:23

And I think there are companies in Canada now who are production companies who are almost moving into a studio model. But again, it’s kind of structurally tied to their requirements to put a certain amount of content on the air.

My hope is that the policy direction and the intent of Bill C-11 is to really look at the industry holistically and put in place the pieces that will trigger that structural change that will really get the right tools under the content making.

Irene Berkowitz 29:52

With all we’ve discussed, a final question. Bill C-11, pass or no pass, and why?

Valerie Creighton 30:03

Pass! Let’s go for it. It’s the absolute key to unlocking so much of what so many have struggled with because this is not anybody’s fault. This is just the massive change in this industry since the digital revolution.

So it is a whole different ball game today than it was even when I started in 2006. It’s a totally different industry. Let’s get on it and get it moving. And it’s not perfect. Nothing ever is.

But I do know there’s a broad understanding amongst all political parties of the need to look at how we embrace the streamers and bring them into the system. They’re important to the country because they are a global distribution network when you talk about global distribution. So I’m very optimistic.

I’m always a glass half full person, and I think we’re going to get there. I believe in Canada and our creativity above all else. If we all disappeared tomorrow, creativity will happen. Content will still get made. Let’s make sure we get the right tools under what we’ve built in this country for up to 80 years. We built a phenomenal system.

We’re still in many ways the envy of the world. So let’s leverage that real growth and potential that Canada has and not just let it slide away because we’re not paying attention.

Irene Berkowitz 31:22

Thank you so much, Valerie. On behalf of Playback and The Creative School and all our listeners for your very precious time, your unwavering passion for our industry, and truly your unparalleled wisdom and work, on all our behalf, your visionary leadership, fantastic chatting with you today. Thank you.

Valerie Creighton 31:45

Well, thank you so much for the opportunity. I’m really honored to be part of this discussion forum that you’ve got going and I really appreciate the time spent with you. So thanks Irene.

Irene Berkowitz 31:55

Thank you. For previous episodes of The Sessions, transcriptions, show notes and more coverage on the Online Streaming Act, please follow the link from the Playback website. Because our mission is to inform and future proof Canadian media policy, we’d love it if you could spread the word about this podcast to your colleagues, friends and on social media. Thank you for listening. I’m your host Irene Berkowitz and this has been The Sessions.