Op-Ed – C-11: Can we change the conversation?

Policy analyst and media researcher Irene S. Berkowitz issues a "call to action" to find common ground between legacy and new media creators, noting their divide is a false fight.

You know that saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”? As the Bill C-11 debates heat up, I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu and dread about the outcome; and far more urgently, about the ginormous, missed opportunity for our entire media industry.irene s. berkowitz

By “our entire media industry,” I mean every part of our vibrant 21st century screen sector. This includes the production sector (employed at record levels); legacy broadcasters (in sunset-phase decline, but remarkably viable); streamers (global services that have infused our community with opportunity, jobs, and access to the global stage); and our new media creators (the vibrant, ungated user-generated content ommunity that has already made jobs for more than 30,000 Canadian creative entrepreneurs and is killing it in export and diversity with zero government support, proving from the ground-up that Canadian creativity is organically strong and ready for global competition). Our entire media industry means all of us together. We are the ecosystem.

As a policy wonk, I watch Parlvu, Parliament’s live webcast. Last week, in a House of Commons Heritage Committee meeting about, ostensibly not C-11, but the Status of the Artist Act, C-11 was the elephant that stampeded the room. Scott Benzie, who heads the recently formed Digital First Canada, responded to attacks by MPs in a way that could — and should — profoundly change our conversation around Bill C-11.

Benzie asserted that a “false divide” is being wedged between legacy and new media creators. He’s right. Moreover, that divide is being wedged by politicians with political agendas who are not media experts and have little idea what our entire industry needs (and doesn’t) to continue to thrive. It’s a false fight. But shame on us; we’re allowing it to happen, again.

Coincidentally, just before tuning into Parlvu, I’d had an eerily similar conversation with two individuals, one on each side of the “divide.” My analysis had convinced them to meet together and find common ground, acknowledging a problem with this process has been that the parties haven’t been dialoguing with each other.

This tiny trickle of a movement brings tears to my eyes because of how well I know the policy history, PhD stuff I don’t expect many to share. But industry, you do need to know this, now. When our 20th century broadcasting policies were formed, it was the industry that banded together to tell government what they needed to create a broadcasting and production sector, from almost nothing.

Mid-20th century, our broadcasters were bleeding edge, unable to find an audience or advertisers, falling years behind their U.S. counterparts in the already roaring TV biz. The Canadian production sector wasn’t bleeding edge: it wasn’t.

Two brilliant policy innovations gave life to our industry. The first, simultaneous substitution, was a uniquely brilliant policy innovation (possible nowhere else on Earth) that financially fueled broadcasting, production, and by default, TV advertising.  Next came our 10-point system, which gave Canadian content a definition in a way that kick started our world-class, 360-skilled, media workforce.

Both were invented by Canadian media entrepreneurs and implemented by hard-fought conversations with government. For simultaneous substitution, this meant reversing a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision that forbade it. Creating the point system took four years of meetings between the nascent Canadian Media Producers Association and CRTC. (All this is in my 2021 book, Mediaucracy.)

Today, all parts of our media sector, while differing in operational dynamics, are synergistic and co-dependent. Some language in C-11 belies little understanding of, and no love for, the thrilling promise of our interconnected 21st century ecosystem. The idea that the CRTC can – or should – regulate the global internet, in an age when market intervention should be sharply decreasing, is unworkable and counterproductive, falsely pitting the industry against itself.

Public policy is at its best when goal-driven and evidence-based, purposed to solve a problem. The purpose of our 20th century framework was to correct for a small domestic market. It was wise to choose a supply dynamic to protect and enable growth of an infant industry. That’s done, and very well.

The 21st century’s most consequential change is that the small market problem has vanished. Many in the industry are seizing the global stage, legacy and new media. Today’s problem is deceptively simple: how not to discourage growth and innovation? How to encourage all this creative vibrancy to mesh together?

We need to switch to a demand-driven ethos, underpinned by confidence that we’re strong and that open competition for audiences makes us stronger.

It’s time for us, whole-of industry, to pull together and change the conversation, to tell government and politicians what we need and make sure the result helps our entire industry do better on the global stage. This means leaving some parts alone because they’re doing very well without intervention.

 If we continue whining and bickering, like spoiled children, to people who are not media experts, it will not go well. Another adage: “If you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get.”

We can work with C-11 if we get clear, serious, and bold about amendments. I have a vision we could do it with a coalition, call it Canadian Media Coalition for the 21st Century. Since we do love our acronyms, CMC21? I suspect government will be relieved to hear from a united industry.

This month, in an interview on The Sessions, the podcast series about C-11 that I host (a partnership between The Creative School and Playback), Konrad von Finckenstein, former CRTC chair, characterized the internet as the “engine of innovation.” Peter Menzies, former CRTC vice chair, lamented that we missed the opportunity for a visionary “Canadian Communications Act.”

Maybe it’s not too late. Why can’t we change the name? “The Online Streaming Act” is narrow, bounded by current technology, and implies that false divide.

Inspired, I wrote a prologue that states the purpose of a new “Canadian Communications Act.” It’s nothing like the “Act to amend an Act” language we have now.

This is a call to action, so I’ll close with my dream: “A bill to build on Canada’s hard-earned strength in communications media and to embrace the technological and storytelling opportunities in the global, online era; to strengthen our world-class media skills and share our nation’s cultural values within Canada and with the world.”

Irene S. Berkowitz, Senior Policy Fellow, Audience Lab at The Creative School, is Executive Producer/ Host of The Sessions; author the 2021 book on legacy media, Mediaucracy: Why Canada hasn’t made global TV hits and how it can, and the 2019 study of new media: Watchtime Canada: How YouTube connects creators and consumers