Radio / Television News

ANALYSIS: Five questions need answers before we set new policy for a digital Canada (Question #5, What must a reformed system deliver?)

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WE’VE HEARD LOADS OF discussion and debate since the official launch of the review of the Broadcasting Act – along with the Telecom and Radiocommunication Act – and with another year of discussion and debate on the horizon, the best first course of action to solve the tricky and complex policy challenges ahead is to ask (and answer) the right questions in the right order – and right now.

I’ve thought of five important questions which should be answered first, ahead of anything else. I’d argue much of the discussion around proposals such as combining the two Acts should come far later, after we address these more fundamental issues. I outlined the first four questions earlier (1. Do we still have a system?; 2.What are the “Elements” of The System?; 3. What do we do about the Digital Media Exemption Order?; 4. What’s the role of the Regulator going to be?) and here’s the fifth and final query:

5. What should a reformed system deliver to Canadians?

We finally come to the list of “shoulds” in the current Act. If we still want a system, and we think each element of the system should continue to make a contribution – and we think the digital media exemption should be revisited with the result being Netflix et al join the system and make their own appropriate contributions, and if we think that the appropriate entity to manage all that is still an independent and public Regulator rather than private deals with the Minister, what should the resulting Act and following new policies do for Canadians?

To me this is the critical question.  For example, do we care that the system serves to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada”, or does the global nature of the digital environment make this unachievable or, frankly, irrelevant?

Do we still believe that the system should be a “balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment” or is it okay to just offer entertainment – or whatever?

Is it important that Canadians have the opportunity to be exposed to differing views on matters of public concern?

Do we care whether the programming comes from local, regional, national and international sources?

“Despite all the controversies that may punctuate each regulatory debate, the system has generally delivered what the Act has required.”

What about the reflection of equal rights, the linguistic duality and multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society, and the special place of Aboriginal peoples within that society?

Then there is the use of Canadian creative and other resources and the contribution CBC is asked to deliver to the shared national consciousness and identity.

These questions are neither abstract nor aspirational.  The system we have built over the past four decades has by and large achieved well against these objectives.  Canadians have had a high degree of access to a vast storehouse of excellent, diverse, Canadian programming.  Despite all the controversies that may punctuate each regulatory debate, the system has generally delivered what the Act has required.

There have been many challenges.  The arrival of satellite technology was one.  “Death Stars” were going to squash the Canadian system, it was once said.  In that case, however, and in every other such challenge, legislators, regulators and stakeholders worked together to come up with innovative, imaginative and uniquely Canadian solutions which made the programming delivery ecosystem work – and they did so in a timely way!

One of the problems with the Broadcasting Act is it is a product of Parliament and the legislative drafting process.  Instead, what would be the case if we looked at it not as a rulebook for program providers but as a sort of Charter of Viewer Rights?  What then should Canadians have the right to expect from their system?

We keep hearing viewers are only focussed on the three Ws: what they want, where they want it and when they want it.  The thing is, however, that in order to create an engine which comprehensively delivers on the expectations for all Canadians, there needs to be some kind of system in place that recognizes needs as well as wants, and makes programming available to fulfill those needs.  There needs to be the same kind of diversity the system has so successfully delivered all along.

In order to accomplish that, the Broadcasting Act (or a renamed replacement) has a future; the regulator has a future; Canadian broadcasters, producers and performers have a future, and the digital services must play their part.  Whatever policies the digital age gives rise to must reflect that peculiarly Canadian reality.

Doug Barrett is a veteran of over 30 years in the Canadian media and entertainment industries and since 2008 a professor in Media Management Schulich School of Business of York University. He is also the Principal of Barcode SDG, a strategic advisory firm. He was also president and CEO of PS Production Services from 2006 to 2013 and prior to that spent 20 years as one of Canada’s most successful entertainment lawyers, serving as senior partner at McMillan LLP. From 2004 to 2008, he served as chair of the board of directors of the Canadian Television Fund. He has also served on several additional industry boards, including the Banff Television Festival, the Feature Film Project of the Canadian Film Centre and the Canadian Film and Television Production Association.  He was also a key founder of the Alliance Atlantis Banff Television Executive Program.

(Ed note: Doug knows what he’s talking about and has spent a long time thinking about this industry.)

Original artwork by Paul Lachine, Chatham, Ont.