Entertainment

'We need action': Industry responds to broadcasting panel report in Ottawa

In Ottawa, TV and film producers are talking about new recommendations from an expert panel looking at the future of broadcasting in Canada.

Report that would change TV and film funding in Canada welcomed with a mixture of relief and skepticism

The Netflix logo welcomes participants to the Prime Time conference in Ottawa. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

A day after its release, an expert panel's report on the future of broadcasting and telecommunications in Canada took the spotlight at Ottawa's Prime Time conference. 

The event is normally a networking soirée, filled with panels on what does and doesn't work in the Canadian TV and film industry. But the report was top of mind for many, as some of the panel's suggestions would alter some of the very institutions the industry depends on. 

Among the report's 97 recommendations:

  • Compelling streaming services to devote part of their budget to the creation of Canadian content. 
  • Combining the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and Telefilm Canada into a new entity. 
  • Re-envisioning CBC as an ad-free service. 

The report's authors spent 18 months poring over 2,000 submissions; now the Liberal government has promised to deliver a bill within a year. Speaking at Prime Time on Thursday, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault suggested an even more accelerated timeline. 

"I don't want to wait until December," he said. "I will do everything I can do to make sure the bill is tabled within this parliamentary session, between now and the month of June."

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault speaks during a discussion at the Prime Time 2020 conference, which wraps up in Ottawa on Friday. On Thursday, he promised legislation soon to reform Canada's broadcasting and telecom rules. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Over coffee at the networking sessions, some producers expressed skepticism on whether government will actually enforce the recommendations on streaming services. But ACTRA national president David Sparrow is encouraged.

The actors' union president says he's willing to wait a few years if the government can deliver a bill that would protect the industry for the next two decades. But what he is worried about is whether the minority government can make the recommendations a reality before it's replaced.  

"No one knows when that government will be up for re-election," said Sparrow, noting that another government could "take all of this work, stuff it under the bed and say, 'That's not for us.'"

For his part, producer Robin Cass appreciates the boldness of the panel's recommendations. He says the idea of combining the CMF (which broadcasters contribute to and creators draw from to make Canadian programs) and Telefilm Canada is long overdue.

Producer Robin Cass thinks the panel's idea of combining Telefilm Canada and the Canada Media Fund would save a lot of time and money. (Eli Glasner/CBC)

"As an independent producer, I know how many funds there are and how much paperwork is required," Cass said, adding that he always wondered why there wasn't a more centralized approach that would save a lot of time and money.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Jesse Wente, for one, is tired of all the talking. 

As the director of Indigenous Screen Office — a relatively new organization dedicated to the supporting the development, production and marketing of Indigenous content — Wente says his group has been in constant consultations with the government since his office opened.

While the expert panel recommends the CBC increase its efforts to reflect Indigenous cultures and languages, Wente and many others in the Indigenous community are pushing for equal inclusion in the Broadcasting Act for First Nation, Métis and Inuit producers, alongside French and English. 

"We don't need further consultations," Wente said. "We need action on what we've been saying for 20 years. We need the legislative change that will force this country to actually make the change that is needed."

CBC president responds

Change is certainly on the menu when is comes to the panel's view for the public broadcaster. The report recommends CBC abandon all advertising within five years, in order to be more "daring and take risks," in the words of panel chair Janet Yale. 

Speaking at Prime Time, CBC president Catherine Tait took issue with the panel's comments. 

She pointed to the upcoming CBC drama Trickster, a show featuring Indigenous directors, writers and actors, as an example of the broadcaster's commitment to taking creative risks. 

In the interview on stage with Bell Media president Randy Lennox, the two executives spoke frankly about the challenges of competing with multinational corporations, such as streaming giant Netflix.

"It's not easy," Lennox said, about discussing negotiating rights. "As you know, they want it all — but so do we."

Speaking to CBC's relationship with streaming services, Tait clarified some earlier comments she'd made about working with Netflix.

"It's not that we don't want to be in business with the foreign streamers," she said. "It's that we need to protect the Canadian windows for our own exploitation, but also to the benefit of [Canadian producers]."

As the attendees wait to see how the government proceeds, Tait stressed that the industry needs to be united on where it wants to go. "If we don't sing from the same songbook with one voice, we will not be heard." 

She also emphasized that the report is a series of recommendations — not law — and suggested that industry has a role to play as the government determines the way forward.

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