Monday, March 29, 2010

My Canada 150 Presentation: "The Creative and Competitive Economy"

What follows is an expanded version of what was supposed to be a five minute presentation at the Canada 150: Halton conference - and a MUCH expanded version of the 2 1/2 minutes I actually got to speak.

Canadian Culture in the Digital Age

Canada has always faced unique challenges to establishing our cultural identity. We are geographically vast, culturally diverse, sparsely populated, multi-lingual... and we sit right next door to one of the most prolific producers of film, television and music in the world.

All we have to unite us as a people and as a culture across such vast divides are our stories, whether told through film, television, literature, music or journalism. But we need two things: the ability to create those stories, and the space to share them.

Looking at the rather vague subject of this challenge as a creative person, two questions interest me:

1) How do we develop funding models for the arts, film, television, and journalism in the digital age?

This is a problem not unique to Canada. The cultural industries and institutions of countries all around the world - especially in North America - are facing a crisis due to advances in technology and profound changes in how people access information, entertainment and culture.

Up until recently, reproduction and distribution of books, newspapers, music, film and television programming has been an expensive endeavor, requiring the participation of record companies, book and newspaper publishers, television broadcasters, film studios and so on.

Today, the function of these entities is eroding as technology enables many artists to produce and distribute their own work, and for their audience to access that work directly, all for minimal cost.

The problem is, people are used to the idea that they are paying for physical media. They buy records or CDs, not music. They buy DVDs, not films; books, not words; newspapers, not news.

Without physical media, how do we value these works, and how do we ensure that artists and writers are compensated for their work? Can we continue to use advertising and sponsorship as the primary means of monetizing broadcasting and news, or will we need to find more direct means as the functions of television and print media are increasingly transfered to the internet?

2) Is there still a need to protect Canadian culture?

The sad fact is, we know more about American history and American democracy than our own because these things aren't just taught in schools - they are taught by the movies and TV shows we watch and the books we read.

One example: my son's grade 9 Canadian History class did a unit on World War II, and spent 11 hours of class time watching 'Band of Brothers' because the teacher couldn't find any film or television productions which depicted the Canadian experience in that war. I find that horrifying.

Another example: during the coalition 'crisis', many Canadians were under the impression that they had elected our Prime Minister directly - possibly because they were influenced by watching the electoral goings on south of the border.

When I was a kid, I lived in the suburbs. But I knew about downtown Toronto by watching King of Kensington, where people of many cultures, races and ethnicities all lived and worked peaceably together. This contrasted sharply with what I was seeing on American shows like 'All in the Family'.

I had never travelled to the west coast, but I knew what it was like there from watching The Beachcombers. In fact, my first impression of Native Canadians was from watching that show.

I have never travelled to Canada's arctic, but I feel that I know what life is like there from watching 'North of 60'. The U.S. show 'Northern Exposure' aired during the same period, and I remember watching it and thinking, "what's with all the white people? I thought this was the North!"

Ensuring that Canadian stories are told in film and television isn't just about nationalism or patriotism - in a country this vast and disparate, this is fundamental to how we know ourselves and understand each other. Short of moving into someone's house, film and television are perhaps the most powerful means of generating understanding between people because they allow us to see through another's eyes and walk a few miles in their shoes.

Without that ability, misunderstandings arise and soon fester. If 'King of Kensington' had been set in Calgary, we might not have some of the problems we have today.

So, what do we do about it? To start, here are three practical things I would recommend:

1) Abolish simultaneous substitution in television broadcasting.
When you watch a show on NBC or CBS that is also being shown on CTV at the same time, CTV overrides the signal coming in from the U.S. and substitutes their own - including their own commercials. In other words, Canadian broadcasters are double dipping, and are therefore rewarded for re-broadcasting hit US shows all night long.

Our private broadcasters have long claimed that Canadian content regulations prevent them from being competitive, and lower the quality of Canadian productions by shielding them from competition with American shows. But in reality, it is simultaneous substitution that is in fact protecting and shielding the broadcasters from having to compete.

By doing away with simultaneous substitution, Canada's private broadcasters will no longer have a monopoly on the airing of U.S. programming in Canada, and will therefore have an incentive to create something different from what the U.S. networks are airing. Something, perhaps, Canadian.

2) Don't take the punitive copyright protection approach.
Copyright doesn't protect artists - it was never intended to. It was originally designed to protect the state's licensing and control of publishing and theatre, and today serves mainly to protect publishers, broadcasters and film producers.

One example: a member of my family who shall remain nameless does props and wardrobe work in the film and television industry, mainly as an independent contractor. On one recent production, he decided to make a duplicate of one of the pieces for himself on his own time.

When he tried to sell this piece online, he immediately heard from the studio lawyers who informed him that despite the fact that he had designed and made the piece himself, had never sold it to the studio, and had never signed anything giving them rights to his creation, it nevertheless was their intellectual property.

He was told to not just remove it from sale, but to physically destroy it and submit photographs as evidence of its destruction. Which of course he did, immediately, because we're just not the kind of people who can afford to hire a team of lawyers.

So no, copyright law is not generally designed to protect artists.

Instead of following the U.S. example of locking up teenagers for downloading movies and music, or digitally locking down media so that it cannot be transfered or converted by the person who bought it, look at alternative ways of compensating artists such as levies on recordable media including IPods and MP3 players.

3) Focus on funding Canadian film promotion as well as production.
Your average Hollywood film production spends nearly as much on advertising and promotion as on making the film itself. In this country, Passchendaele succeeded largely because they spent money promoting it, but most other Canadian films are produced on such minimal budgets they can't afford any form of promotion or advertising at all.

The result is that even the best films this country produces cannot begin to compete at the box office or even the video store because no one has ever heard of them.

Case in point: the two most nominated films for this year's Genie Awards are 'Polytechnique' and 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.' You may have heard of 'Polytechnique' because there was some controversy about making a film about the Montreal Massacre, but most of you probably aren't aware of 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.'

I can almost guarantee that you didn't see either of them in a movie theatre, unless you live in Quebec.

I went to Blockbuster recently to look for 'Nurse. Fighter. Boy.' hoping that the multiple Genie nominations might have inspired them to get at least one copy. I spoke to the manager, and not only had she never heard of the movie - she didn't even know what a Genie Award was.

While tax incentives and program funding are essential to film production in this country, more funding needs to be channelled into promotion and distribution. The government should also look into creative ways of promoting Canadian film and television in more general terms, as there continues to be an absurd stigma attached to our homegrown productions.

The digital revolution has created both challenges and opportunities fo Canadian culture. While technology has broken down many of the barriers we once used to protect our culture, it has also removed many of the financial barriers our creative community has faced relative to other countries by making production and distribution of their work affordable and accessible to all.

In a sense, digital technology and the internet have leveled the playing field. Musicians can create and sell digital copies of their own music without the need for studios or music labels. Film makers can finance relatively high quality films on a couple of credit cards and promote them independantly. Bloggers are challenging traditional journalism as the line between the two continues to blur.

Even television broadcasting is being transformed by PVRs and streaming video, destroying traditional restrictions of scheduling and dial position, opening up the potential for quality programming - Canadian programming - to finally break through the static.

With the right policies in place, 2017 will be a good year to be a creative Canadian.


  1. As much money as possible needs to be pumped into the CBC.  Take a look at BBC programming, it promotes British culture through many genres. 

  2. Hi Jennifer - I liked your presentation and your synopsis

  3. I wish.  The BBC, like public broadcasters in many European nations, is funded primarily through a licencing fee on television sets.  They spend about $6.5 billion per year, compared to about $1.7 billion for the CBC.  That means the CBC has about a quarter of the budget of the BBC - about half per capita.  And we're paying even less (about $30 per year per capita in taxes) because the CBC gets a significant portion of it's revenue from advertisements these days.

    And yet, people whine.  You get what you pay for.