Does loosening Cancon rules hobble Canadian TV creators?

On Sunday, Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany became the first Canadian to win a lead actor Emmy for her role on a Canadian drama series. But, many Canadian TV creators are worried she could be the last, given a recent change introduced by Canada's broadcast regulator.

Creators blast CRTC ruling's suggestion that Canadians need foreign help to make TV hits

Tatiana Maslany accepts the lead drama actress Emmy for Orphan Black at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. If a recent CRTC change had been in effect when the show was first pitched, Maslany likely wouldn't have been cast, according to one of the show's creators. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

On Sunday, Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany became the first Canadian to win a lead actor Emmy for her role on a Canadian series. But many homegrown TV creators worry she could be the last, given a recent change by Canada's broadcast regulator.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) revealed on Aug. 25 it was dropping the minimum certification points required for projects seeking access to funds that support Canadian independent productions.

According to the CRTC, the decision provides "flexibility" for creators and could "facilitate the hiring … of non-Canadian actors or creators, who may increase a project's attractiveness and visibility in international markets."

But Orphan Black co-creator Graeme Manson says it's a "vote of non-confidence."

"The underlying message from the CRTC is we need foreign help to tell Canadian stories. That's frankly insulting to all of us," he told CBC News. 

If these changes had been in place when he and co-creator John Fawcett were first pitching Orphan Black, Manson said, Maslany would likely not have been chosen as the lead — a complex role that requires her to play multiple characters.

"The points system would have opened up the show to American casting — far more than we were," he said.

"The networks would have pushed for a name."

Tatiana Maslany on her Orphan Black role

6 years ago
Duration 1:10
Canadian actress speaks to CBC's Zulekha Nathoo backstage at the Emmys about the importance of strong female roles and her big win

Uproar from creators

The CRTC's ruling has been applauded by the Canadian Media Producers Association, but pilloried by other creators and groups that represent them, such as the Writers Guild of Canada and the performers' union ACTRA. 

There's concern the ruling opens the door for other funding programs to reduce their Canadian content requirements.

Past Cancon regulations for Canadian radio helped pave the way for the success of today's hit artists such as Justin Bieber, Drake and The Weeknd, says TV creator Emily Andras.

Canada's current success on the international music scene — where, for instance, Drake, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd are chart-toppers and music awards show fixtures — is a direct result of Cancon radio requirements of decades past, according to writer and show creator Emily Andras.

Whether in music, film, television or other industries, Canadian sensibilities are interesting to audiences around the globe and should be supported, said Andrasshowrunner and creator of Wynonna Earp, whose credits also include the hit Lost Girl.

You're going to go from an A-list Canadian to a D-level American.— Emily Andras, TV writer, show creator and showrunner

The Canadian perspective "is fresh and modern. We're incredibly progressive and less conservative and maybe more original. We suffer so wholly from underdog status and that makes great TV," she said. 

"Nobody's talking about trying to take away access to American television. If you want to watch 55,000 episodes of CSI, you have that on American networks and Canadian networks… We should just add our [Canadian] stories to the mix."

Andras also challenged the notion that reducing Cancon requirements will inspire high-profile foreigners — say Jennifer Lawrence or Steven Spielberg — to make Canadian productions.

"We are still not going to have the money to attract top-shelf talent… you're going to go from an A-list Canadian to a D-level American," she said.

"If we could make our own Game of Thrones, yes, let's have at it. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about just opening the playing field to people who maybe haven't been the best or the brightest in any entertainment business anywhere, but somehow have some recognition."

Hurting the next generation

  There's also worry the change will hurt the next generation of Canadian actors, directors and writers, says Mark Ellis, who co-created the hit procedural  Flashpoint.

"This is going to limit their chances if they're coming into a system [where] they can't stay home [to work] or they are competing with foreigners for their jobs," he said.

  It's wrong to think that Canadians need outside help to make internationally successful programs, he added.

The procedural Flashpoint, co-created by Mark Ellis, has been one of Canada's many international hits, having aired in 150 markets worldwide.

"I've been on the subway in Paris and seen posters for Rookie Blue. I have German actors who want to work for us because they watch Canadian TV," said Ellis, noting that his latest series, X Company, is shown in a dozen Latin American markets.

"I've talked to Roberto Osuna, who's the star closer for the Blue Jays and you know how he learned English? By watching Flashpoint in Mexico."

Many creators have called upon the federal government to fulfil its pledge to support Canadian culture.

In a statement that praised the talent of Canadian creators, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly acknowledged the industry faces new challenges and said her government is examining "how to better support the creation" of Canadian content.

She also noted the CRTC is responsible for its own day-to-day operations and policy decisions. "We respect its independence."

Cancon points systems

To access the Certified Independent Production Funds, a project is awarded points depending on the number of Canadians in key creative posts, such as director (two points), screenwriter (two points), the top two lead performers (one point for each), director of photography (one point), art director (one point), music composer and picture editor (one point for each).

Previously, shows needed eight out of 10 points to qualify for funding. Now, it's six.

The Canadian Media Fund requires 10 points for a project to access its funding.

With files from Eli Glasner