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What The CRTC-Netflix Tussle Says About The Canadian Media Inferiority Complex

doyle Last week, Netflix got into a shouting match with the CRTC during its “Let’s Talk TV” hearings, held in Gatineau, which were meant to gather input from a variety of stakeholders and regular Canadians on the future of television in this country.

It was kind of an ugly exchange, but what it said about Canadians’ attitude to their own television landscape, quite clearly, was that we really don’t like Canadian TV very much and don’t particularly care if another Canadian TV show gets made ever again.

Who can blame us?

The end result of Netflix’s appearance at the CRTC hearing was a letter sent by Secretary General John Traversy to Corie Wright, Netflix’s director of global public policy, to the effect that since Netflix refused to comply with a request to provide information about how many subscribers Netflix has in Canada, the entirety of Netflix’s appearance at the hearing would simply be wiped from the record, effectively attempting to bury it deep in the memory hole, on grounds that the CRTC sees Netflix’s refusal “as a direct attempt to undermine its ability to serve Canadians, as well as impair the procedural fairness owed to all participants.”

Mission accomplished, if you’re Netflix.

But ignoring testimony, or pretending it never happened, is not a grown-up response to a serious problem.

The overwhelming consensus of public opinion, if you read comment sections on news sites or Twitter and then furthermore imagine that those voices are representative of the populace at large, is to do away with the CRTC altogether because Canadians are hostile to the idea of “regulating the internet”.

Netflix has spun that “free internet” rage angle to their own benefit.

The thing is, if you run the hypothetical in which we eliminate the CRTC and embrace the Netflix model and cancel our cable subscriptions en masse, what we’re saying is that we’re perfectly happy with a TV model that’s the equivalent of buying all our groceries at the dollar store.

Sure, they make “House of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black”. A cursory look beyond that, though, and you’re quickly struggling to decide whether to watch “Ramsay’s Restaurants” or “Bring It On: In It To Win It” or to turn everything off and stare at the wall in silence for the rest of the night.

Recently, Netflix announced that it would be running Gilmore Girls. Seriously, Gilmore Girls? I suppose, for a lot of people, Gilmore Girls constitutes a cherished adolescent memory. For others, it’s a bit like sensing the return of a pernicious rash or being caught in an elevator with a particularly annoying person.

The internet, however, was excited about this news. Far from complaining “Netflix expects us to be happy with the televisual equivalent of a retrieved cargo hold full of ancient canned goods they’re reselling,” most articles on the internet centred around providing a refresher course on the show, telling us what the cast is up to now, and offering up endless listicles like “The 25 Best Episodes” or “10 Reasons We Love Gilmore Girls So Hard”.

But the solution to this is not to destroy it all and watch Netflix. The solution is to approach TV production in roughly the same way we think about entrepreneurship.

In the United States, the FCC is actively discussing regulating over-the-top streaming services and treating them the exact same way they regulate broadcasters and networks. We have missed an opportunity to do the same in Canada by choosing to ignore the issues.

By plugging its ears and pretending Netflix (and Google) never appeared before the commission, the CRTC has decided to let the status quo play itself out. The result is not likely to be pretty. It’s basically a “worst of both worlds” solution.

Disney and the U.S. Television Coalition also appeared at the “Let’s Talk TV” hearing, but they weren’t arguing for unbundling or posing as champions of the free market, because those arguments don’t make any sense. So they didn’t grab the headlines the way Netflix did.

What people are saying when they say, “Get rid of the CRTC and let me watch Netflix,” is, “Look, we can’t make TV worth a damn compared to the United States anyway, and we’re happier letting them flood the market with their cheaply made goods. I’m perfectly happy watching Big Bang Theory and old episodes of Fantasy Island, thank you very much.”

And when people imagine that a TV landscape might exist that increases choice while also lowering cost, they’re engaging in what most economists would call magical thinking. In a truly unregulated pick n’ pay environment, you will pay a lot more to watch TV than you do now.

Thinking about the current state of Canadian TV, you’ll be hard pressed to find one person to defend it.

What have we got? Republic of Doyle? Murdoch Mysteries? The Ron James Show? Okay, yes, we’re really not very good at making TV, and have got nothing particularly worth defending. How the Canadian media landscape came to be so overtly terrible merits a separate essay in itself.

Short version: The Canadian TV industry can’t make TV worth a damn because many years ago, we adopted a model based on risk aversion and second-guessing what the viewing public wants. The result? Mediocrity.

What we do have in this country is a media inferiority complex. We’ll never be as good as the United States, so we might as well give up and watch their shows.

But the solution to this is not to destroy it all and watch Netflix. The solution is to approach TV production in roughly the same way we think about entrepreneurship.

Do we think about business the same way we do television? Do we just assume that the United States has got all our business needs covered and there’s no need for us to encourage entrepreneurs to get out there and take risks and fail and try to succeed? No, we don’t.

If you run the hypothetical in which we eliminate the CRTC and embrace the Netflix model and cancel our cable subscriptions en masse, what we’re saying is that we’re perfectly happy with a TV model that’s the equivalent of buying all our groceries at the dollar store.

Last year at this time Globe & Mail TV critic John Doyle wondered out loud why Canada has nothing to offer to the “golden age of television”. It was a pungent essay and an attack on the overwhelming mediocrity that has been allowed to flourish.

While U.S. television is cranking out “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” et al., we’re busy making “Heartland” and “Insecurity”.

Every other developed country in the world, other than the U.S., has got state broadcasting. But somehow they’ve managed to get it right. The BBC is also contributing its fair share to the “golden age of television”, consistently turning out excellent programming, all on the license fee payer’s dime. Heck, even little Denmark manages to crank out top-quality shows like Borgen.

So why is Canada so bad at television?

Think about Canadian shows you’ve liked. When was the last time that happened? Was it “Kids In The Hall”? Or maybe “Codco”? Or do you have to back as far as the glory days of SCTV?

Those shows were made because someone in a position of power (that is to say, a producer) essentially gave the keys to the asylum to the inmates and said, “Knock yourselves out. Have a good time.”

And that’s the solution to our problem. The economics of TV are such that you can’t particularly predict or engineer success. The process of making TV shows is also massively wasteful. The failure rate hovers somewhere around 98%. Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” are successful retrospectively. Their success was never guaranteed.

But what those shows have in common is that an attitude of risk taking, and innovation, and a faith in the artist’s ability to do the job trumps the networks’ natural aversion to risk. Trying to appeal to the widest possible demographic and please everyone never made a TV show worth watching or led to an innovation that improved society in the slightest.

We need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset to make the next generation of Canadian TV worth watching. But first we need to do away with the regime that produces shows that are frankly embarrassing.

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One thought on “What The CRTC-Netflix Tussle Says About The Canadian Media Inferiority Complex

  1. Interesting article. At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule and scorn, I have to confess that there are a number of Canadian produced shows which I enjoy watching ( for example Murdoch Mysteries, Bomb Girls, Flashpoint, Rookie Blue, and even Republic of Doyle). While these shows are unlikely to win awards, they are light, easy to watch, and entertaining. I understand that a number of the shows are also exported to other countries; for example Murdoch is available in the U.K. and Doyle in Australia. However, on balance I feel that the UK produces the best (in my humble opinion) shows available. Perhaps the government regulators should focus more on encouraging the production of excellent TV shows (to be broadcast by whatever entity is willing to pay for it) rather than on trying to maintain the power and financial stability of the Canadian media companies.

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