How Bill C-11 can ensure the survival of Canada’s private broadcasters

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Canada’s ties to the United States, home to the world’s largest entertainment and media industries, are long-standing and often mutually beneficial. In many cases, Canadians enjoy deeply personal ties with our nearest neighbor.

But Canada and the Canadians are also at odds.

Fundamental to that separate identity — and yes, even our democracy and sovereignty — was the ability to maintain and operate an independent Canadian broadcasting system to ensure Canadians could access stories, including news, that we watch and from both sides want to hear the 49th parallel and elsewhere.

Today, this symbiotic and ingrained system is at an inflection point – global web giants like Google dominate the advertising market, while over-the-top (OTT) streamers and aggregators like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney now dominate our broadcast system. This dominance undermines Canadian broadcasters’ ability to tell Canadian stories and produce Canadian news.

The aftermath threatens a total collapse of Canada’s private broadcasting industry, with local investment, thousands of jobs and countless Canadian stories told from uniquely Canadian perspectives, including those from Quebec and black and Indigenous communities.

Bill C-11, introduced by the Canadian government in early February as a second attempt to update Canada’s decades-old broadcasting law, may halt this downward trend.

A key goal of Bill C-11 is to create a framework that will eventually require foreign streaming services, many of which are US-based and making billions of dollars from Canadian consumers, to do so, as will Canada’s leading media companies extensively in investing in Canadian content creation, including Bell, are already doing so.

This is a positive step forward for Canadians.

Currently, however, Bill C-11 does not specifically require foreign content providers to work with Canadian broadcasters. That needs to change.

Canadian broadcasters have historically managed to air extremely popular US shows, which appeal to Canadian audiences and generate significant advertising and subscription revenue. This revenue can then be used to fund the creation, production and presentation of Canadian content, including news – whether local, national or international – that offers uniquely Canadian perspectives on events here and around the world.

Today, Canadian broadcasters’ access to foreign content – including popular US shows – is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive as bids from foreign online streamers increase the cost of programming.

Bill C-11 will ensure that, for the first time, these streamers contribute their fair share of revenue generated in Canada to fund Canadian content, just as Canadian broadcasters already do. But let’s not fool ourselves. They will never endorse Canadian programming and especially news to the extent that we have come to expect and enjoy from Canadian broadcasters.

Canadian broadcasters – including Bell – are currently investing far more than foreign services ever in supporting Canadian programming, including extensive advertising campaigns fueling hits like current Canadian English-language drama series #1 “Transplant” and French-language hit “It’s Easy.”

Our news programs are also hugely popular, and our Boots on the Ground are an integral part of communities across the country. Each week, 16 million Canadians tune in to CTV and Noovo for news, and each month approximately 20 million Canadians visit our news sites for information important to them. Overall, more Canadians visit news websites operated by Canadian broadcasters to get online news than any other source.

More than 50 years ago, Canadian policymakers of all political persuasions made bold decisions to ensure a vibrant and ultimately effective Canadian broadcasting industry. Policies such as simultaneous substitution, Canadian ownership requirements, and sponsorship of non-Canadian services all worked to support Canadian broadcasting.

Today’s media landscape is very different. However, the underlying core principle remains just as relevant – Canadians must have a system that provides access to popular content, regardless of where it originates, and that also supports the production and distribution of Canadian stories made by and for Canadians.

Bill C-11 is a step in the right direction. But unless the legislation explicitly supports Canadian broadcasters’ access to US content and provides incentives for foreign content owners to work together as partners, it will not achieve the desired result.

Contributions from overseas OTT streamers and content owners must be designed with the aim of supporting Canadian broadcasting, similar to the approach taken by policymakers more than 50 years ago. Everything else and the Canadian ecosystem and especially local news is lost.

Karine Moses is Senior Vice President, Content Development and News, Bell Media, and Bell Vice Chair, Quebec. Robert Malcolmson is Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer, BCE and Bell Canada.

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