Norm Bolen - Part 3: Role of the Broadcasting Act

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

Fraser. We have been speaking of the regulatory environment and ways of changing it. It seems like a game of catch-up. How do we protect the creators of the content?

 Bolen. There are some key themes in our message that don't change, but the application of them might. I look at the broadcasting act as a pretty enlightened document. It was modified in 91, but it is an enlightened document. The first day of my job at the Producers Association, I read the Broadcasting Act to refresh my memory. It says that the whole reason for having a broadcasting system in Canada is to ensure that we have Canadian content. It enshrines the role of the independent producer, saying that it should be significant; and it recognizes that independent producers bring diversity of ideas, geographic diversity, creative diversity.

 If the so-called free market were to rule without the Broadcasting Act, who knows where we would go. The only value that would be important would be the almighty dollar and how much could be extracted from the consumer. Corporations do not have much concern about cultural sovereignty, Canadian content, or the independent producer unless they are required by law to do so. They're interested in serving their shareholders and the easiest way to do that is to buy American programming, sell it at a high profit margin, buy more American programming, and do it all over again.

 So the enlightened legislators that created the Broadcasting Act saw that we live in a country next to a cultural powerhouse, a giant with a very large market where we are a bit of a rounding error. They have the economies of scale that we do not and they have a very expansionist approach to the world of entertainment products. We knew that we had to protect our own storytelling, our own industry and we put mechanisms in place. The mechanisms may need to change and to evolve. We recognize that. But the fundamental principle, that the system is about Canadian content, will never change.

 I want to remind people that, if we lose sight of that, if we open it up completely, all in the name of flexibility, innovation and investment, we blow it wide open; we'll end up with a system that doesn’t exist anymore. Think about the logic of it. If we become more and more dependent on American content in the broadcasting schedule, at the same time that over-the-top services are starting to bid the price up, acquiring the rights and preventing producers from getting them, there is bound to be less and less emphasis on Canadian content. Ultimately, what business model do you have? What differentiates you from the American? Just let ABC, NBC, and CBS come in and do their thing.

 If you're not differentiating, there's no reason for you to exist. So these rules actually perpetuate the survival of Canadian broadcasters. They create a raison d'être to have them. When I hear silly notions like “Let the marketplace just do it,” I ask people how well the consumer has been served by the marketplace in the United States during the last few years. And that was a regulated marketplace! Not much. Now, only a few years later, we are hearing in the United States again, “Let the marketplace regulate.” There are parallels there.

 Some people think we should combine the Broadcasting Act and the Telecom Act. I think the jury is out on that. It might lead to more creep towards foreign ownership in the sector. I worry about that. My own staff, who are experts in the Broadcasting Act, caution me. We wonder what sort of change is needed; but the Broadcasting Act, in its current form, is actually very broad, flexible, and does provide significant support for independent production. The danger is that if you create a new Broadcasting Act to adapt to the changing environment, you reduce the role of Canadian content, and the role of the independent production sector and you reduce some of the other principles in the name of modernity, and you do damage to the system. We are engaging with government, talking with the regulator, we recognize the need to modernize; but whether we need a new Broadcasting Act necessarily is not the core issue.

 F. What about the distribution and marketing problems with Canadian film?

 B. There are a lot of problems and challenges with Canadian film; marketing is one of them, there is no question about that. But some of the films that have had big marketing budgets have also had problems. For example, Barney's Version should have done better than it did. It was a good movie. There are a lot of issues. The government is currently doing a review of its feature film policy; it's looking at what the success indicators are for feature film and at the idea of not just the current measure, which is counting box office.

 There's more audience for Canadian film now, broadcast and online, than there is in the theatres, unfortunately. We met yesterday with the CRTC, along with the Canadian Association of Film Distributors, to discuss the issues. There are some terrible ironies in this system. Broadcasters are actually running more hours in their schedules for feature films now than they have before. At the same time, they are putting less and less money into the production of new feature films. The vast amount of film activity in their schedules is repeats and old titles in their inventories. They are no longer scheduling films as a matter of course after they have their theatrical run.

 On average about 5% of the funding of a Canadian feature film has come from the broadcasters. With the assurance that that would happen, the distributors always knew that the broadcasters would acquire the rights for a certain price, they could count on that, and they could use it as part of their risk management strategy. They could then put an advance out to the filmmaker to make the film. The distributors can’t now count on that money from the broadcasters anymore. It has dried up to a trickle. As a result, the advances for production are smaller and feature films are facing a crisis of financing. Budgets are getting smaller as a result. What we need now are bigger budgets, not smaller budgets.