September 12, 2016 3 years 1 month ago

COMMENTARY: The PM, The Hip, and the Broadcasting Act

OVER THE SUMMER, our shirt-challenged prime minister and national rock band reminded us that we stand unique in the world. As a country, we caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror. Turns out we’re not just sexy: Canadians are passionate about being Canadian. And yes, the Broadcasting Act is part of that.

With dark clouds looming over much of the world, Canadians are taking stock of who we are through the invisible web of culture. It lets us explore ideas and values, and dream our collective future. Culture connects our communities in all our glorious diversities.

Television has a vital role to play in culture. It remains influential and powerful, reaching more Canadians and occupying more of their time than any other medium.

The architects of the Broadcasting Act understood its importance, enshrining its primacy in legislation. This is what Canadian law says:

…the Canadian broadcasting system… provides through its programming a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty.

So it’s shocking that in a decision released in late August (re: “Certified Independent Production Funds”) the CRTC made it easy for publicly funded production companies to hire non-Canadian “creators or actors.” The CRTC’s decision means a show can be deemed “Canadian” as long as the cheque is cashed by a Canadian producer — even if Americans fill key creative roles.

How wrong. After all, the CRTC is in charge of implementing the Act on behalf of its citizens. And the Act charges the TV industry with “...serv(ing) to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada...” Though “culture” was mostly ignored during the Harper years, the truth is it was enshrined in law all this time. (With the primacy of first position in a list in which “economic” comes last.)

The Act also determines the TV industry’s responsibilities and gives us public money like the Certified Independent Production Funds to make our shows. And the Act dictates how public money flows to finance TV.

It goes farther still. Canadian TV shows are meant to “encourage the development of Canadian expression” and to ensure they reflect “Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity” while “displaying Canadian talent” and “a Canadian point of view.”

So why would the CRTC make a decision that erodes Canadian’s ability to tell Canadian stories to Canadian people? The commitment to creators and culture is woven into the DNA of the Act itself.

Yet the CRTC decision states that cutting Canadian talent “may increase a project’s attractiveness in foreign markets.” This is the same federal body that in 2015 emphasized making international sales of Canadian TV a primary goal. Foreign markets? How exactly does that line up with the other language of the Act that mandates that “through its programming and … employment opportunities” the TV system is to “serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of Canadian men, women and children.” The idea that the system is to serve all Canadians is underlined by mention of Canada’s “linguistic duality”, “multicultural” and “multiracial” nature and “the special place of aboriginal peoples” in our society.

Public money is invested to create TV programming that serves the needs and interest of all Canadians. There’s nothing in the Act to suggest foreign audiences should take precedence. What’s the return on investment for the public who pay for these productions with tax dollars and cable subscription fees?  

Yes, the TV industry needs an overhaul. Yes, let’s have the national discussion about defining “Canadian TV,” with the creators themselves having a place at the table. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s review of the industry has barely begun, but it’s of vital importance to ask — and answer — the following questions.

Is it enough if the copyright is held by a Canadian corporate entity? Or should it spring from the hearts, minds and imaginations of people who walk our land, pay our taxes, and love the country we share?

Jill Golick is an award-winning Canadian screenwriter and digital creator-showrunner-producer, and President of the Writers Guild of Canada.