CRTC eases Canadian-content quotas for TV

The CRTC has unveiled a dramatic overhaul of its old protectionist rules for television programming, including the relaxation of its long-standing rules that require TV broadcasters to carry a certain quota of Canadian-produced content.

Regulator cuts local daytime requirement from 55% to zero, but keeps prime-time rule at 50%

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais announced Thursday that the regulator is easing its long-standing rules for TV broadcasters over Canadian-produced content. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The CRTC has unveiled a dramatic overhaul of its old protectionist rules for television programming, including the relaxation of its long-standing rules that require TV broadcasters to carry a certain quota of Canadian-produced content.

The national broadcast regulator said Thursday it was cutting the quota for the ratio of Canadian programs that local TV stations must broadcast during the day from 55 per cent to zero. That's a recognition that stations have sometimes been broadcasting the same program episodes many times over the course of a day, or even over years, simply to satisfy the old Cancon rule. 

"Television quotas are an idea that is wholly anachronistic in the age of abundance and in a world of choice," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a lunch address to the Canadian Club of Ottawa.

But during weekday prime time — 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. — the requirement that 50 per cent of programming must be Canadian will be maintained.

A statement from the office of Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover said the ministry would review the CRTC announcement closely.

"Our government supports any decision that lets consumers choose what they want to watch," the statement said.

Under the new relaxed rules, specialty TV channels, which currently have Canadian content requirements that range from 15 per cent to 85 per cent, will see their Cancon requirements harmonized at 35 per cent overall. The CRTC says there will no longer be a specific Cancon requirement for the evening hours for specialty channels. 

The regulator said that even though Canadian quotas are being reduced, it will still ensure that the majority of local TV stations and specialty channels reinvest a portion of their revenues into the creation of Canadian-made content. But broadcasters will be able to focus that spending on fewer shows if they want.

The system cannot remain frozen in time when the world around us is changing.— CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

The CRTC is also proposing that video-on-demand services like CraveTV and Shomi be allowed to offer their own
exclusive content, as long as it's also available online across
the country.

"This means that Canadians would not need to have a cable or satellite subscription in order to access these services," according to a commission backgrounder. 

No 'Netflix tax'

There was no mention in Blais's remarks of a so-called "Netflix tax." Some broadcasters have been calling on the U.S-based streaming service to help fund the creation of Canadian programming, as traditional domestic broadcasters are. A CRTC spokeswoman later confirmed to CBC News that a Netflix tax is not in the cards — now or in the future. 

The CRTC is also eliminating the rule that requires specialty channels like HGTV Canada and MusiquePlus to broadcast only certain types of programs. "As a result, existing channels will be able to acquire or produce shows that better respond to their audiences' interest and needs," the CRTC said. 

But in return for that increased programming freedom, the commission announced that new specialty services will be allowed to enter the Canadian marketplace to compete with existing channels. 

The regulator is also expanding its definition of what qualifies as Canadian-made content to encourage the production of big-budget programs for global audiences. 

"The CRTC is trying to craft its rules in a way where more money gets spent on Canadian programs so that they’re more attractive on a global basis," said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law. "The focus is more on excellent content as opposed to merely being Canadian."

'Walls are coming down'

Geist said that some definitely won't like the changes. "We’ve got businesses and industries that have grown up around the protection that these Canadian rules have provided," he told CBC News. "The message from the CRTC today is that those walls are coming down." 

Unifor, a union representing 13,000 media workers, warned that eliminating Canadian-content minimums during the daytime could kill the creation of new local news and entertainment programming.

Unifor media council chair Randy Kitt also criticized the broadcast regulator for failing to force Netflix to follow Canadian content rules. "Netflix isn't shy about collecting subscription fees in Canadian dollars and repatriating them to the U.S., so why do they continue to get a free pass?" he asked in a statement.

The CRTC said its wholesale changes are meant to deal with the reality that the television system "is undergoing a fundamental shift" brought on by internet and wireless networks.

"The system cannot remain frozen in time when the world around us is changing," Blais said. "That's why we are adopting bold and forward-looking measures to ensure that Canadians can produce and promote compelling content that attracts audiences within and beyond our borders.

"We know that it will not be easy for everyone to adapt to this shift. We are confident, however, that Canadian creators have the know-how and tools to succeed." 

With files from The Canadian Press