TORONTO — Last week was not the best week for the Canadian Content regime.
A report from the non-partisan C. D. Howe Institute argued that CanCon quotas should be abolished, foreign ownership restrictions lifted and that regulations which require cable providers to spend fixed amounts on content should be replaced with direct subsidies from the government.
The right-wing Fraser Institute was even more bullish, calling for an end to Canadian television’s “protect-and-subsidize model.”
But the critics of the business of CanCon are missing the picture, according to one of the top executives in the Canadian media industry.
In an interview, Canadian Media Fund CEO Valerie Creighton said there are considerable market-side successes of the current regime, which are overlooked, and innovative new business models are being triggered by Netflix, rather than threatened.
Creighton, who lives and works from her ranch home in Stoughton, Sask., southeast of Regina, was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit last week. She regularly spends time at the CMF’s Toronto headquarters, but keeps a charming but direct Prairie disposition when her industry is put on the hot seat.
Creighton begins with the usual dispensation of numbers that Canadian Heritage Ministers like to cite: the bulk economics of Canada’s media industry.
“What has the CanCon model actually provided to the country,” she wonders rhetorically when the C.D. Howe and Fraser reports are put to her. “Well, at the top of my mind is that the Canadian media sector offers 262,000 jobs for Canadians, it contributes $7.5 billion to the GDP.”
But Creighton acknowledged these are bulk numbers that need context. And this is where she says there are encouraging market efficiencies to consider: For every dollar the CMF puts into content, she says, $3.69 is leveraged from the private sector. This, and other production trends, are what Creighton argues show CanCon is not the market-crippling albatross its critics would have you believe.
“If you look back over the last decade, you’ll see that the CMF triggered a 60 per cent percent increase in production volume and it went from $854 million in 05-06 to $1.4 billion in 15-16,” she noted. “What this demonstrates to me is that public investment is being leveraged a greater degree than it was ten years ago.”
Creighton also said critics are ignoring the success of Canadian content in the global marketplace. She said the export value of content in the audio visual media industry increased by 32 per cent in 2014-5 to a record $3.2 billion.
The CMF is a public-private partnership between the federal Department of Heritage and the country’s cable, satellite and IPTV distributors. Creighton says its public-private model means her organization “invests in content based on market validation — so there has to be a broadcast licence or a distribution arrangement demonstrated.” The Fund acts as a not-for-profit corporation and annually puts $371 million of funding into Canadian television and digital media.
Many critics of CanCon quotas have pointed to the advent of Netflix and online streaming as having created a more chaotic market, in which consumers have the power of virtually unlimited content curation that they argue renders CanCon moot.
But Creighton said Netflix is not a doomsday harbinger, and that in fact it has led to the emergence of innovation in Canadian production models. She said many Canadian producers are going direct to Netflix with their content ideas, some are being acquired and some are getting deals for original content creation.
Creighton said she thinks one of the most interesting models around the Netflix question is the series Between, a sci-fi drama about a mysterious disease that kills everyone over the age of 21. “Rogers was the Canadian broadcaster that triggered CMF funding, Netflix was a fairly heavy investor in the budget and it was a kind of a partnership where it ended up with a good piece of Canadian content that resonated with audiences,” she said. “That arrangement was conducted under CanCon through the Rogers envelope, and the companies and funders involved created a model that worked successfully.”
Canadian sci-fi shows have had a triumphant few years, too. During the 2014-15 seasons, episodes of Between, Orphan Black, Dark Matter, and Killjoys all pulled in more than three million viewers in Canada, making them competitive with many American competitors.
“People describe CanCon as this outdated and broken-down model,” said Creighton. “It’s created jobs, it’s created more money, it’s leveraged public investment, it’s contributed to the GDP and I think it’s given us a pretty good pride of place at home.”