The moody mountainscape surrounding the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel may have been tailor-made for the British Columbia-shot thriller “Yellowjackets,” which was honored at this week’s Banff World Media Festival, but the real survival drama was raging between Canadian broadcasters and the streaming giants.
The tension was palpable among the country’s legacy broadcasters and the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, both of which were prominent at the 43rd edition of the festival. While this fraught dynamic — which has ramped up as the digital platforms launch originals divisions in Canada — is nothing new, relations are coming to a head as the much-ballyhooed Bill C-11, the proposed update to Canada’s dated Broadcasting Act, is fiercely debated in Parliament.
The bill, which is also referred to as the Online Streaming Act, allows Canada’s media watchdog, the CRTC, to regulate streaming services, which will need to meet Canadian content requirements and invest in local programming. However, C-11 is facing criticism for being too broad in its reach, and applying the same regulations for Netflix and Amazon as it does for social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.
The irony is that, thanks to the SVOD services, Canadian content has never been hotter on the world stage. Netflix put the CBC’s “Kim’s Convenience” and “Schitt’s Creek” on the map, while Hulu turned Crave’s “Letterkenny,” about a rural Ontario community, into a hit Stateside.
Kevin Beggs, chairman of Lionsgate Television, which sub-licensed “Schitt’s Creek” to Netflix, says “a lot of [Canadian] product has been presented to U.S. buyers over the years that they’ve passed on — good shows with giant followings in Canada.” But now, shows like “Letterkenny,” which are “incredibly inside baseball to the nth degree,” are finding success on big platforms.
“There’s this great content engine in Canada,” says Beggs. “Producers have really interesting stories, and there’s a shared language [in English] which is already an advantage for consumption and access. It’s been somewhat stymied by misguided beliefs and/or [people saying a show won’t work], but these barriers are breaking down.”
Certainly, Netflix’s top brass is ambitious about its Canadian business.
“This isn’t a short-term play,” said a bullish Bela Bajaria, head of global TV, in Banff. “We want to be here for a long time and have great partnerships in Canada.” Her local originals team of Tara Woodbury and Danielle Woodrow made similar overtures to the creative community, with the former “Transplant” and “Night Raiders” producer offering the olive branch to domestic broadcasters around co-licensing deals, and the latter promising not to “upend” local budgets into Monopoly money.
Netflix, however, is still a few steps behind Prime Video in the originals department. The latter player hopes to make a splash this week with the launch of its first scripted original, “The Lake,” an inheritance comedy set in Ontario’s cottage country that stars Julia Stiles and Jordan Gavaris.
Prime Video is dishing out serious marketing dollars for the show in Toronto, with a tilting (think jousting, but on water) competition planned at the Eaton Centre mall over the weekend and billboard takeovers across the city’s biggest intersections.
Yet the general consensus, however cynical, is that the streamers are trying to get a pipeline of Canadian content in place before their hand is effectively forced by regulators. There remains resentment, among broadcasters in particular, that the platforms are benefiting from an ecosystem nurtured for so long by linear players, without having any real accountability themselves.
“Netflix is the most watched network in this country on any given night [but they are] sucking dollars without the cultural contribution [that’s expected of broadcasters] to come back into the system,” said Corus Entertainment’s Troy Reeb at a State of the Nation panel featuring senior executives from the country’s top media companies.
“The greatest opportunity of Bill C-11 is to fix that imbalance, which has put all of the cost of supporting the sector only on the domestic sector, not on those who are taking out of the economy,” added Reeb. “I’ve been in the awkward position of arguing for more regulation, but whether it’s more or less, it needs to be equitable.”
When streamers are formally required to invest in the sector, argues Reeb, that money will support new programming “that everyone in this room wants to create” and the funding won’t solely come from an increasingly challenged domestic sector.
CBC executive VP for English services Barbara Williams reminded that there’s also a branding crisis that needs to be addressed, particularly if the public broadcaster continues to depend on streamers to help finance its shows.
“When people see ‘Workin’ Moms’ and think it’s a Netlfix show, I’ve got a problem,” said Williams, who highlighted that the same fate befell “Schitt’s Creek.”
“It’s a CBC show: It was developed, produced and financed [within the Canadian system],” said Williams. Ultimately, the Canadian public broadcaster relies on SVOD partnerships to finance big, ambitious shows, but, implored Williams, “where do you find that line where you’re strong enough to your own brand so they know what you stand for? It’s a massive challenge for us.”
Canada’s digital crossroads is familiar to media watchers in the U.K. and Europe, where governments are similarly wringing their hands trying to find equitable solutions for broadcasters and streamers.
One pleasant departure between Canada and the U.K. — where Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has been at loggerheads with the media sector ever since assuming her position in September — is the support for Canadian heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez, who was greeted like a rock star in Banff. The minister, who’s leading the charge for streaming regulation, discussed an urgent need to “ensure the regulatory framework reflects today’s reality.”
There are lots of “complicated” points made about the bill, said the Argentinian-Canadian minister, but the ultimate goal is to make sure “online platforms contribute their share to our culture — not more, not less.”
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