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Winnipeg Free Press


There's opportunity in Cancon, but for whom?


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2019 (385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On a panel organized by the Canadian Media Producers Association in Ottawa last Thursday, CBC boss Catherine Tait compared the growing global influence of Netflix to colonialism.

It was one of those "Wait... what?" statements critics could easily seize upon because, on its face, the comparison sounds bizarre, tone-deaf and melodramatic all at the same time. After all, it’s not as though the streaming service is subjugating nations of people, erasing their languages and cultures, and also giving them smallpox. And before one evokes imagery of "cultural imperialism," it’s probably worth remembering that, without colonization, neither Canadians nor their television shows would exist in the first place.

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada</p>

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press Files

Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada

Of course, that’s not what Ms. Tait said or even implied, which is the trouble with these kinds of statements in the nuance-bereft era of Twitter. Set aside the imperfect and inflammatory analogy for a moment and you’ll find Ms. Tait has a point.

Netflix’s spread into Canada has been less of a violent takeover and more of an insidious creep. And its influence sounds positive. Netflix will be the very first to point out, as Stéphane Cardin, Netflix’s director of public policy for Canada, did, that it has already committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on production in Canada — of its own volition, not because of some regulatory policy.

Netflix’s massive reach is also able to get Canadian programming onto screens all over the world. For example, the streaming giant made U.S. hits out of Canadian TV series such as Schitt’s Creek and Kim’s Convenience — both CBC shows, by the way — and Netflix Canada is home to an even larger stable of CBC originals that tell Canadian stories.

Canadians being able to tell, see and hear Canadian stories is precisely what Ms. Tait and others are trying to protect. This isn’t a new concern, of course. Since 1971, Canadian content regulations have been defending our content — nay, our identity — from cultural interlopers, which is why you hear New Orleans Is Sinking once an hour on commercial rock radio. Cancon was meant as a protective mechanism, an attempt to prevent the glittering, cash- and population-flush entertainment giant sleeping directly to the south from rolling over and squashing us entirely. America’s outsized influence in the realms of film, television, music and literature is felt all over the world, of course, but perhaps not as keenly as it is here in Canada.

America’s outsized influence in the realms of film, television, music and literature is felt all over the world, of course, but perhaps not as keenly as it is here in Canada

Fast-forward nearly 50 years, and the internet has changed the playing field. Streaming entities such as Netflix are not regulated the same way as traditional broadcasters. Netflix isn’t required to pay into the Canadian Media Fund, for example. Netflix also doesn’t have a government-mandated responsibility to transmit Cancon, but it does have Canadian eyeballs. Some six million Canadians subscribe to Netflix. For the growing number of Canadians who are cutting the cord on cable, Netflix is fast becoming the way Canadians see Canadian stories.

Paying bottom dollar to pick up a proven show that already exists — or taking advantage of attractive tax credits to shoot an American series telling an American story on the cheap — is not the same as investing in the development of original Canadian content. And it’s not as though there’s no precedent for that kind of investment; both Anne with an E and Alias Grace — adaptations of Anne of Green Gables and Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, respectively — were CBC/Netflix co-productions. CBC is not the only broadcaster telling Canadian stories; who knows what other kinds of partnerships could exist with other storytellers with a meaningful investment? Netflix itself has proven there is a domestic and global appetite for high-quality Canadian content.

Ms. Tait and others have been chided in op-ed sections during the past week for seeing Netflix as a threat instead of an opportunity. But it’s worth asking: opportunity for whom?

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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