Douglas Barrett - Part 3: New Technologies and Regulation

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

Fraser.   Radio didn’t stop us from reading; television didn’t stop us from listening to radio. All these forms remain and find new levels of comfort, but what we're seeing….

Barrett.  by the way I do worry about the book.

F.  It's going digital.

B.  I'm not even sure the book will remain, because in the world to come, you'll flick on your screen and you will enter a world of things; the whole idea of several hundred pages that require you to take several hours to enjoy, may be something that is only a fond memory.

F.  The point I want to make is that you have more sources of content, more creators with better tools, who can make pretty good content at the same time as we have an exploding environment in terms of methods of delivery. There are more people making cultural products and finding more ways of getting them to audiences.  Does this just open up a new level?  Or does this impact the old stuff in a serious way? Maybe that's a leading question.

B.  I think it's primarily a new level. A new type of engagement. I read a couple of years ago that one of the prime effects of the new spiked volume of online video consumption is that admissions to national parks are going down. The thing that I clearly object to is the notion that, with the arrival of television-looking stuff that has been made in a different way, has been developed differently, and consumed differently, that somehow television itself, or what we know as television, will be swept aside. One of the things that is becoming much more significant is how the makers of television programs use online elements as companion drivers either by replaying, adding value, or monetizing in some way. Each year things gets better and more imaginative. So I see that a lot the development has been an extension of the television format.

F.  Until today, governments and regulators have played a critical role. Some people feel that the CRTC should become more like the American regulator, the FCC, more like a traffic cop than a regulator. Some people wonder how much the government should subsidize.  Where do you see that going? Give me your teachers’ view of the future of  audio-visual production in this context.

B.  I'm going to stick with the historical theme, and maybe in the future people looking at this interview will laugh and say here's a guy selling buggy whips after the car has arrived; let's look at what the subsidy money is for: to permit Canadian stories to be told and to bring those stories to Canadians. Television, far more than feature film, is able to do that with more stories using the currently available channels. However that channel universe rearranges itself, however the rules change, I still see pools of money being made available by government to permit Canadians access to stories with a Canadian context.  One of the interesting things I learned when I was Chair of the Canadian Television Fund was what the government thought it was buying; they're not interested in paying for stuff that gets made anyway. They're interested in supporting stuff that wouldn't be made otherwise. Of course it's the cost-intensive, craft-driven, high skill, high quality material that the market does not deliver and will never deliver. And so there are times when Canadians will have to decide if it's worth spending the kinds of money that are now being spent in making shows that the market doesn't deliver. I think it's a bit of a mug's game, particularly for me, to get into how it will work. There will be a big screen that is both irrelevant to the viewer most of the time and to the conversation. It'll get itself organized no matter how that pipe shows up. But there will be a screen and I will want to enjoy drama, adventure, curiosity, whimsy, and so on through that screen.  And there needs to be a way to assure a Canadian place and presence on that screen.  Everything technological, everything between the front of the screen and the cameras that make a Canadian story, everything technological is irrelevant.

F.  Why is French Canada so much better at this than English Canada?

B.  It interesting that you say that because when I was chair of the CTF, I developed a network in Québec and made many good friends and colleagues for whom I have an enduring regard; in English Canada we like to think that the French Canadians have it much easier, that there is less fragmentation or that they have more money and support and so on. In French Canada there is less tension about resource management than in the rest of the country. For instance, there are serious tensions between resource management in Nova Scotia and Toronto, and regional production versus non-regional production. This is a very sapping phenomenon. For the Quebeckers, pretty much 90% of their industry is in Montréal. They live blocks from each other. The companies have their offices close by. They have the capacity to make shows that make money; so the broadcasters have a greater appetite to buy them. Beyond that, there is a density of population and a cultural intensity. In this context, their stars are stars. But behind all that, there are craft people, including performers and producers. We underestimate how really good they are. I think English Canada should aspire to match the standards in Québec. Of course we don't even talk to each other. Here we are at the Banff Television Festival and, as always, there are very few people here from Québec.