Op-ed: Growth and inclusion for a better Canada – the case for Bill C-11

Valerie Creighton
Canada Media Fund president and CEO Valerie Creighton writes about the urgent need to act on Bill C-11.

With all the noise created by the many opinions and assumptions being floated about Bill C-11, it feels like the bill’s original purpose has been lost in translation.

The summary page of Bill C-11 clearly states the primary objectives (distilled) as: add online undertakings as a distinct class of broadcast undertakings; serve the needs and interests of all Canadians – including racialized communities, ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities, disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and ages; and provide opportunities to Indigenous persons, programming that reflects and is in Indigenous cultures and languages.

Bill C-11 is called ‘The Online Streaming Act’ for a very good reason.

The landscape for content creators, distribution, and audiences has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. The entry of foreign streamers and platforms in the Canadian market, innovations in interactive digital media and gaming, and the experimentation and prolific success of Canadian content creators on the multitude of platforms available resulted in the digital revolution.

In response to this disruption and to achieve the primary objectives of Bill C-11, change is required within the current system, including support mechanisms like tax credits, regulations, programs within government and funding agencies.

The CMF’s 2021 consultations included over 1,000 participants and submissions representative of the wide diversity of views, regions, communities, and creators of all types of content. The number one priority was the urgency for change, followed by alignment for a content-centric, platform-agnostic approach.

Audiences and content users have been platform-agnostic for years, choosing any or all of linear television, internet, mobile, oculus headsets, virtual reality and metaverse experiences. But what is common across these platform choices is that they all require content.

Canada is blessed with abundant content, creativity, and innovation. Our system is outdated, binding the industry to models created for a different time. Over 50% of Canadian production companies are looking for international partnerships. We want Canada to continue to be present and competitive in the global business of content. Modernization is required across the board.

Subsidies and regulations abound in Canada because we are a small population with an inherent belief that we have something to offer the world. This applies to the content sector and extends across manufacturing, oil and gas, green energy, automotive, fisheries and agriculture industries, where support, incentives, corporate tax reductions and bailouts are all common, driven by government intervention.

The 1939 policy model, designed 83 years ago with the National Film Act, evolved over the years to encompass film, television and digital media, has served the country well. It supported production and distribution, created jobs, leveraged foreign money, leveraged public and private investment, and contributed to Canada’s GDP. The content has been watched, sold, and recognized worldwide, enhancing Canada’s international reputation and pride of place at home.

The entry of the streamers and platforms into the Canadian market has resulted in aggressive competitive pressure on the Canadian broadcast and distribution system. The number of hours of new programming commissioned by the three major broadcast groups, under the WGC’s jurisdiction, dropped by 68% from 2014 to 2021. Our companies cannot compete with the deep financial resources and wide distribution these platforms offer. The benefit of engagement of the streamers and platforms with Canadian content creators provides an unprecedented opportunity to support the making of Canadian content for worldwide distribution.

Bill C-11, The Online Streaming Act, is intended to address the imbalance of a two-tiered system and recognizes that if you play, you pay. Ultimately this contribution will benefit Canadian content creators and audiences everywhere.

The balance between foreign location service production and domestic owned and controlled intellectual property is at the heart of this discussion. Service production is a good thing for Canada.  It keeps the industry humming and increases the awareness and respect of Canada as a great place to do business. However, it is outpacing domestic production, as reflected in the recently published CMPA Profile.

The canary in the coal mine may well be Quebec. A recent report from the Quebec Film and Television Council demonstrates that even in Quebec, with the historical support and investment in content that is the envy of the country, foreign location service now exceeds domestic content production.

This is a critical issue if Canada is to continue to have a presence, a healthy domestic industry, and an identity recognizable as its own in the global marketplace. Owning IP is one thing – meaningless if the inability to monetize that IP lies 100% in the hands of others. A better balance needs to be achieved.

The objectives of Bill C-11 for inclusivity, diversity and supporting Indigenous and underrepresented stories is not just a cultural imperative, it’s also good business. Audiences crave these reflections of who we are, as evidenced in domestic success and international sales, accolades and awards of long-form content, series and features, all supported by the CMF, like Beans, Audrey est revenue, Night Raiders, C’est comme ça que je t’aime, Schitt’s Creek, District 31, Transplant, Sort Of, Diggstown, Kim’s Convenience, Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland, and The Porter.

Worldwide, the demand for content and digital experiences has never been higher and shows no signs of slowing down. Authentic, distinct stories, and experiences travel. Canada’s content competes.

Canada is the third most-nominated of 147 countries with competitive entries in the 2022 Banff World Media Festival’s Rockie Awards. Canada’s kids content has been successful in the international marketplace for years, with companies like WildBrain, 9 Story and Big Bad Boo leading the way in content, business models and global partnerships.

Canada’s gaming industry is third in the world, recognized for its creativity, talent and market success. New state-of-the-art interactive and immersive experiences that seamlessly blend art and technology through interactive digital media and VR content from companies like Thinkwell Studio, The Other End and Studio Iregular, showcased at the 2022 World Expo in Dubai, are poised for exceptional expansion and international growth.

All creators, traditional, new entrants and digital-first are motivated by their passion, ideas, and stories they need to tell. All seek an audience to share that vision with, in theatres, on screens, online and on headsets. YouTube and TikTok work with user-generated content side by side with legacy companies and broadcast networks in Canada because the motive of all is getting the content made and gaining reach.

Companies now often work across the spectrum of film, television and digital media with conventional broadcasters, streamers, platforms, and distributors. New distribution models, combined with the impact of social media, reach previously unattainable audiences. Our system needs to embrace this reality based on content owned by Canadians and taken to the world through the technology now available to them.

So, where could we go from here to leverage what this country has built over the last 80 years and develop new tools and resources to give the domestic industry a leg up?

Suppose the system can adapt and find better tools for creators and producers to develop the multitude of great ideas and innovations across the country? Would more time for development, and increased financial resources result in stronger, compelling content and give our companies a leg up to negotiate the rights with greater success?

Content is our true North Star. We all require more flexible and less restrictive ways to ensure access for all creators behind the cameras or computers and on all screens.

Bill C-11 is the critical first key to unlocking outdated structures. Drafted broadly by design, it must age well. The Heritage Committee process and the subsequent CRTC public proceeding offer opportunity for a wider, transparent, and public debate on the next steps and addressing issues that have been raised.

The modernization of the Broadcasting Act was included in the platforms of all major political parties before the 2021 election. There is widespread support to achieve the objectives of inclusion and to create a level playing field with foreign companies that are operating successfully in Canada.

The country requires just enough public policy direction to support the wealth of creativity on all platforms, adapt to new production models, technologies, and distribution tools as they emerge while ensuring an approach that is agile enough to course correct as required to meet the objectives of keeping Canada in the content game.

Yes, the devil is always in the details. You can’t legislate or regulate disruption. Disruption is messy and always involves a certain amount of risk before growth.

As a country, no matter your perspective, our job is to champion Canada’s creators, legacy and new, give them the best possible tools and resources to become future-ready and then get the hell out of their way.

Lilly Singh, one of Canada’s digital-first superstars, stated in a recent interview about her new book…”You are never too old, never too far gone, to make changes.”

Making change for a better Canada is the case for Bill C-11.

Valerie Creighton, C.M., S.O.M., is an industry leader in arts, culture and media, recognized for re-energizing some of the country’s most important organizations in the sector over the last 35 years. Valerie was invested into the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 2016 and the Order of Canada in 2019. She was inducted into Playback’s Hall of Fame in 2018 and was named one of 2021 and 2016′s most powerful women in global television by The Hollywood Reporter.