Douglas Barrett - Part 2: Overview of Policy Development

Interviewed by Fil Fraser at Banff World Media Festival on June, 2011

Barrett. You asked me earlier to look back over a period of time at policy developments from the beginning. It is interesting that when Telefilm Canada, which used to be the Canadian Film Development Corporation, was founded, it had no mandate in television. It was an agency designed entirely to foster feature film production in Canada.  It wasn't a grant; it was the supply side mechanism in the sense that it offered money and no one really expected much from the marketplace. If we were going to have feature films, we were going to have to subsidize people to make them. And the agency itself stood apart because feature films, unlike television, cannot operate through a single institution with national purpose.

There was nothing to support television production until the early 1980s when Francis Fox launched the Broadcast Program Development Fund. The monies in that fund were managed by Telefilm under contract. The government didn't change the legislation; they just gave Telefilm a contract.  That was the supply-side mechanism for television and there was, of course, a demand-side mechanism, which was the CRTC's regulation of broadcasters. Gradually, the CRTC got more aggressive in saying to private broadcasters, “Okay you have enough economic clout now; you can start making a bigger and better contribution to the system."  The broadcasters replied, “Fine. We'll provide the programming.”

However, the programming they offered was very inexpensive; they simply did not have the resources to tell good stories well. Canadians have always had access to the best of the world; they knew what good was when they saw it. They had visual expectations. So, if they saw something that was under-produced, or poorly produced, or cheaply produced, they knew it for what it was.

The broadcasters claimed (I believe reasonably) that they simply could not support a flood of high cost drama. This really started a spiral, where the regulators said that the broadcasters must provide a certain amount of programming and dedicate resources to it… up, up, upping the requirements over time; and the government, on its side, up, up, upping its commitment to support the industry. This has been critical.  So, the first development was 1982; but the second development was the beginning of the Canadian Television Fund. That fund has had a remarkable impact on both the volume of high quality programming that Canadians see and on the breadth and extent of the independent production industry.

Fraser.  How is this affected by Netflix, by the world of the Internet, where I can watch almost anything on my mobile devices?

B.   Well, you know, Fil, when you get to be of a certain age you can say let's not focus much on what's changing, but on what is stable. What is not changing is the need to have high-quality, engaging, compelling programming available to Canadians, programming that is reflective of us and of the Canadian context over time. That engine has to continue, and I see no reason why it won't continue. So, just focusing on that piece, a combination of what is now called the CMF and the regulatory system produces about 2500 hours a year of programming that goes into prime time and across the whole Canadian licensed system. I think of that as being an important pillar that should not be lost. In terms of Netflix, there's no doubt that the aggregate of video viewing online is growing; but Netflix represents a remarkably small percentage of the overall amount of video viewing.  The Netflix thing is probably not up to a rating point yet. When people read that 13.5 percent of prime time is spent downloading video, they translate that into thinking that the world has stopped watching television and is now watching Netflix. It's just not true.

One of the things that television does is to drive online video consumption. People sit and watch television with the computer on their lap, so there are a lot of companion activities happening.  For example, my 15-year-old daughter can do three things at once. We used to say that children couldn't do one thing at once; they needed to do more. They now can do three things at once. They actually need to do five. I was astonished last week; her cell phone went out of action for a couple of hours and I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. She was more than bereft; she was hysterical.  It was the highest national purpose to restore service to that child. 

F. That is related to the democratization of the means of production, which means a lot more people have access to the tools for making high-quality programs. It used to be that you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment; today, with a fraction of that, you can produce broadcast quality programs with a computer, two simple programs, and a camera that you can buy for maybe $1000.

B.  And so? I have an aggregate of 100,000 ft.² of warehouse space and almost 100 tractor-trailers that roll out everyday full of that stuff. And there is no diminution in the demand for my equipment. So, there is a democratization of production, but it's like looking at a mountain; it's the base that is widening out; the top of the mountain doesn’t change. And the one thing that is really important is that the great programs are the ones that are made by people who have a craft, which takes years to build. It is physically possible to produce the stuff that can be done inexpensively better than it was before. But to produce something that rivets people's attention in prime time, and makes them want to sit and engage with a screen, is just as complex, just as demanding from a creative and talent point of view, and just as expensive and equipment intensive as it's always been. In fact, when people rent a camera package from me, they don't come in and say, “Could we please rent the one over there that's this big.” They come in and say, “Can we please rent the one that's over there and have 95 attachments to play with?” So, a lot is changing, but some stuff, strangely enough, remains the same. My focus in these remarks is on the world of high-end television. It takes professionals to make it.esting that when Telefilm Canada, which used to be the Canadian Film Development Corporation, was founded, it had no mandate in television. It was an agency designed entirely to foster feature film production in Canada.  It wasn't a grant; it was the supply side mechanism in the sense that it offered money and no one really expected much from the marketplace. If we were going to have feature films, we were going to have to subsidize people to make them. And the agency itself stood apart because feature films, unlike television, cannot operate through a single institution with national purpose.

There was nothing to support television production until the early 1980s when Francis Fox launched the Broadcast Program Development Fund. The monies in that fund were managed by Telefilm under contract. The government didn't change the legislation; they just gave Telefilm a contract.  That was the supply-side mechanism for television and there was, of course, a demand-side mechanism, which was the CRTC's regulation of broadcasters. Gradually, the CRTC got more aggressive in saying to private broadcasters, “Okay you have enough economic clout now; you can start making a bigger and better contribution to the system."  The broadcasters replied, “Fine. We'll provide the programming.”

However, the programming they offered was very inexpensive; they simply did not have the resources to tell good stories well. Canadians have always had access to the best of the world; they knew what good was when they saw it. They had visual expectations. So, if they saw something that was under-produced, or poorly produced, or cheaply produced, they knew it for what it was.

The broadcasters claimed (I believe reasonably) that they simply could not support a flood of high cost drama. This really started a spiral, where the regulators said that the broadcasters must provide a certain amount of programming and dedicate resources to it… up, up, upping the requirements over time; and the government, on its side, up, up, upping its commitment to support the industry. This has been critical.  So, the first development was 1982; but the second development was the beginning of the Canadian Television Fund. That fund has had a remarkable impact on both the volume of high quality programming that Canadians see and on the breadth and extent of the independent production industry.

F.  How is this affected by Netflix, by the world of the Internet, where I can watch almost anything on my mobile devices?

B.   Well, you know, Fil, when you get to be of a certain age you can say let's not focus much on what's changing, but on what is stable. What is not changing is the need to have high-quality, engaging, compelling programming available to Canadians, programming that is reflective of us and of the Canadian context over time. That engine has to continue, and I see no reason why it won't continue. So, just focusing on that piece, a combination of what is now called the CMF and the regulatory system produces about 2500 hours a year of programming that goes into prime time and across the whole Canadian licensed system. I think of that as being an important pillar that should not be lost. In terms of Netflix, there's no doubt that the aggregate of video viewing online is growing; but Netflix represents a remarkably small percentage of the overall amount of video viewing.  The Netflix thing is probably not up to a rating point yet. When people read that 13.5 percent of prime time is spent downloading video, they translate that into thinking that the world has stopped watching television and is now watching Netflix. It's just not true.

One of the things that television does is to drive online video consumption. People sit and watch television with the computer on their lap, so there are a lot of companion activities happening.  For example, my 15-year-old daughter can do three things at once. We used to say that children couldn't do one thing at once; they needed to do more. They now can do three things at once. They actually need to do five. I was astonished last week; her cell phone went out of action for a couple of hours and I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. She was more than bereft; she was hysterical.  It was the highest national purpose to restore service to that child.

F. That is related to the democratization of the means of production, which means a lot more people have access to the tools for making high-quality programs. It used to be that you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment; today, with a fraction of that, you can produce broadcast quality programs with a computer, two simple programs, and a camera that you can buy for maybe $1000.

B.  And so? I have an aggregate of 100,000 ft.² of warehouse space and almost 100 tractor-trailers that roll out everyday full of that stuff. And there is no diminution in the demand for my equipment. So, there is a democratization of production, but it's like looking at a mountain; it's the base that is widening out; the top of the mountain doesn’t change. And the one thing that is really important is that the great programs are the ones that are made by people who have a craft, which takes years to build. It is physically possible to produce the stuff that can be done inexpensively better than it was before. But to produce something that rivets people's attention in prime time, and makes them want to sit and engage with a screen, is just as complex, just as demanding from a creative and talent point of view, and just as expensive and equipment intensive as it's always been. In fact, when people rent a camera package from me, they don't come in and say, “Could we please rent the one over there that's this big.” They come in and say, “Can we please rent the one that's over there and have 95 attachments to play with?” So, a lot is changing, but some stuff, strangely enough, remains the same. My focus in these remarks is on the world of high-end television. It takes professionals to make it.