Having just returned from the NAB Show, which was all about the great content shift from traditional broadcasting to various Over the Top and Internet TV providers, how Canadian it was to see one of the sessions at Canada 3.0 devoted to “The Role of Cultural Policy in a Borderless Digital World.”
Not too long into the discussion, Pierre Juneau’s long-ago push to force Canadian broadcasters—particularly radio—to play a prescribed amount of CanCon was either heralded by producers and performers or disdained by media owners who would rather feature The Beatles rather than Gordon Lightfoot. It has since been argued on many occasions that without this regulated art-by-passport policy, many HUGE Canadian talents would have never been noticed and the groundwork for the likes of Céline Dion through Justin Beiber might have several potential superstars literally withering on the vine of small-town bars.
That scenario works fine for those who believe that non-U.S. star-power-talent is doomed to oblivion unless the state ensures enough airplay to launch a budding career. But, inevitably, there are still gatekeepers along the way, using their influence and personal tastes to decide who amongst the native-born neglected will have their music played or TV shows aired. One could still ask which other deserving talents never saw the light of day even with the CanCon policy (rather like a beautifully crafted quilt languishing in an attic). Or perhaps a research study could be conducted into who “made it” without a push from the nation’s cultural lubrication of its citizenry.
Now, as the traditional one-to-many broadcasters are beginning to be disrupted by the one-to-one digital content providers, the question of a similar CanCon policy came to the floor of the Stratford hockey arena where Canada’s digital wizards are collectively gazing into their fibre and wireless balls.
Gary Maavara (Corus Entertainment) handled the introductions of the panel before turning the show over to moderator Jerry Brown (PricewaterhouseCoopers) who asked the basic question: Do we need a cultural policy in Canadian cyberspace and, if so, why?
The sole woman speaker/panelist thus far (diversity is also largely MIA in 2012), Ginny Dybenko (University of Waterloo, Stratford Campus) was first up and the only one of this group to recommend that “government stay out of regulating content.” A self-proclaimed advocate for the consumer, Dybenko reminded the audience that the Internet “directly connects consumers to the marketplace.” This same point fuelled many conversations in Las Vegas.
It came as no surprise that Brian Topp (ACTRA, Toronto Performers) disagreed almost entirely with Dybenko. He explained that the unstoppable onslaught of all types of screens will earn lots for their providers: “There’s no lack of money,” he stated uncategorically. Accordingly, he advocated public policy that will ensure his members get their fair share of the pie. When I posed a question about the “content shift” noted in Las Vegas, the notion of Internet eclipsing over-the-air broadcasting was dismissed. Given what we heard in Nevada, ignore that coming trend at your peril.
Likewise Dr. Chad Gaffield (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) favoured policy intervention. As head of one of Canada’s largest funders of research, his mindset couldn’t possibly imagine a world without the heady tool of policy. When it came to the notion of borders, Gaffield astutely pointed out that the geo-political divisions known so well to those on the ground are non-existent in cyberspace (until over-eager governments pull the plug as witness a social media fed protest in San Francisco described during the opening plenary). In their stead, “The digital environment has a new type of geography” (e.g., hyperlinks that selectively transport visitors to their next destination).
Finally, it fell to Glenn O’Farrell (Groupe Media TFO) to provide a thoughtful look back at Canadian content policy successes such as the National Film Board, Juneau (agree or disagree as you see fit) and the Canadian TV speciality channels whose—at times—contentious appearance (“Why can’t I choose which stations are in my bundle?—stay tuned for more policy!) left some of the U.S. juggernauts below the 49th parallel.
O’Farrell also made the astute observation: How can a nation of some 35 million protect its identity and expand its reach into the seven billion others looking in over the Internet worldwide? He believes that carefully crafted policy is the answer.
Many members of the audience extolled the virtue of quality programming as the saviour of CanCon going forward. But in the “great audience shift” from docile one-to-many viewers at the whim and strong commercial hold over them by large broadcasting empires to a far more demanding one-to-one audience that wants “my content, when I want to see it on any of my devices,” with or without cultural content policies the power of the lowest common denominator may well drive a good portion of quality programming further than ever into eyeball oblivion.
Once again we are reminded that it is impossible to regulate human nature. JWR