Last April, when the death toll from COVID-19 was rising and fear of the unknown was high, journalist Caryn Lieberman put on protective clothing to take Global News viewers on a harrowing journey through one of the busiest intensive care units in the Land for coronavirus in Toronto.
As Canadians took shelter at home, television crews left theirs, gathering on the Prime Minister’s lawn and in locations across the country to bring Canadians to daily government briefings and breaking news.
While newspapers are in decline and social media is tainted with misinformation, research shows that radio and television remain the media Canadians most rely on and trust. Millions tune into local and national news programs or access free online news sites operated by Canada’s broadcasters every day.
Rather than supporting our domestic industry, the current regulatory system in Ottawa subjects private television operators to an arcane maze of financial obligations and content regulations that no other industry applies. Meanwhile, more and more foreign competitors are penetrating the market without restrictions.
Later this month, Parliament will have an opportunity to resolve this unfair discrepancy when the Canadian Heritage Standing Committee is expected to hear testimony on Bill C-10, also known as Bill C-10 Bill to modernize the Broadcasting Act.
The aim of this overdue legislation is to improve the playing field between domestic TV channels and overseas Internet channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and Disney Plus work almost completely free of regulation in Canada.
In addition to the typical corporate and sales taxes, domestic broadcasters are subject to a variety of content quotas, taxes, regulations and fees. Corus Entertainment has to spend 30 percent of last year’s revenue on Canadian content this year – whether or not the content is profitable or in demand, and despite the fact that we are in the middle of a devastating pandemic.
Within the 30 percent there are more draconian rules about how the money has to be spent and how shows have to be planned. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) prescribes spending quotas for so-called “programs of national interest” – a category that inexplicably excludes national news. Great shows like Real estate brothers and Bryan Island that has built Canadian stars and proven popular with audiences at home and abroad.
The good news is that all parties in Ottawa recognize that it is unfair and untenable for Canadian companies to continue to be strictly regulated while foreign giants are free to skate. However, Members of Parliament have also raised concerns that Bill C-10 contains few details and that the CRTC may decide at a later date how exactly to regulate foreign Internet broadcasters.
At Corus, we share some of these concerns, but we also recognize that changes are decades overdue. The current Broadcasting Act became law in 1991 when cheers was the greatest show on television. Netflix was launched in 2010. Now is the time for change.
Last July, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters issued a dire forecast that if something is not done, more than 100 Canadian radio stations and up to 40 local television stations could be shut down in the next 12 to 36 months. Thousands of jobs are at stake and that void is not being filled by overseas streamers, who certainly are not delivering local news.
To be clear, private broadcasting doesn’t want or need public subsidies to survive. What it takes is the government allowing Canadian broadcasters to compete in a global market.
Bill C-10 is an opportunity for Ottawa to continue achieving its cultural goals while shifting some of the commitment from our own broadcasters to the deeply pocketed overseas streamers. However, merely increasing taxes on Disney and Netflix will not remove the threat to local news.
Outdated regulations and quotas that apply to Canadian broadcasters need to change. The CRTC’s own data shows that private wireless television stations in Canada posted a negative margin of seven percent in 2018-19 – the seventh straight year with losses on local television. And that was before COVID decimated ad revenue.
We have to attack the problem from both sides. Bill C-10, while far from perfect, does provide MPs with the tools to begin the work they need to put our domestic broadcasters on a competitive footing with our foreign counterparts.
It should go forward. The future of news programming for Canadians depends on it.
Troy Reeb is Executive Vice President, Broadcasting Networks for Corus Entertainment and a former journalist for Parliament Hill.
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