Why Canadian unions want you to talk about TV

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Photo: flickr/Paul Townsend

Talking about TV has never been more important for Canadian unions.

And it's not the kind of talking where you speculate about who True Detective's Yellow King is. The people who work both behind and in front of the cameras producing Canadian television shows are worried about protecting their jobs, and now they are depending on the public to support them as the CRTC prepares to make some important decisions about the Canadian broadcast industry.

Over the past eight months, the CRTC has been seeking public input through a program they're calling 'Let's Talk TV.' They're asking Canadians whether they want more access to American content and if they are willing to pay more for online streaming services.

The results of the CRTC's research will be released in April, but several unions that represent television workers are already making the case for more robust Canadian television regulations. Here's why.

The regulations keep jobs

Canadian television goes far beyond Corner Gas. The industry supports not only the creation of original scripted content, but also technical and editorial employees who help produce local news and sports coverage.

"We're worried -- all our jobs are connected to those regulations," said Randy Kitt, the Media Council Chairperson at Unifor. His union represents a variety of media workers, including Sportsnet employees across the country.

He's concerned that should the CRTC loosen the restrictions around Canadian content, the market would not only be flooded with cheaply produced American shows, but would also put channels like Sportsnet at risk. ESPN, the popular American sports network, could pose a serious threat to both Sportsnet and TSN should it enter the Canadian market.

A critic might argue that if Canadian content is good enough to compete with other media, it will survive and continue to support jobs. But in Canada's case, proximity to an entertainment juggernaut works against us, making it difficult for our media to compete.

In the United States, a well-oiled media machine produces TV for lower cost than in Canada and the population in the U.S. is so much greater that Canada's that it is far easier for American producers to recoup production costs from advertising than it is in the much smaller Canadian market.

"You can sell that show into another market at a deep discount," said Neal McDougall, Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC). His union represents just over 2,200 writers working in English scripted television in Canada.

"So if you're a Canadian broadcaster you have a choice between buying a popular U.S. show for pennies on the dollar or making your own at full price," he continued. "It almost doesn't matter how successful that show is, because the Canadian one was that much more expensive for you to produce." The cost has lowered even further with the rise in popularity of reality television programming, which has far fewer production costs than scripted drama or comedies.

The CRTC guidelines were put in place in order to ensure that Canadian broadcasters were supporting the TV industry and to prevent them from simply purchasing cheap American shows. This is not unusual -- most countries do have regulations about the amount of funding that needs to be funneled towards internally produced content.

But Let's Talk TV actually has some of the unions concerned that Canadian regulations will be loosened.

"What we're seeing is a tendency for the telecom companies and the broadcast distribution units to do everything they can to water down their Canadian content," said Jacob Leibovitch, Director of Research with Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the union that represents working actors across Canada. "Those things are of concern and very important to us, so we have to make sure those regulations stay in place and we can get them strengthened."

The Internet is the big challenge

Protecting and promoting Canadian content on TV is one thing. But the truth is that it's no longer common to sit down at a designated time every night to catch our favourite shows. We download or stream television at our leisure, using services like Netflix and YouTube. A report released in 2012 estimated that about 17 per cent of Canadians have Netflix accounts, a number that grows daily.

These services are not yet regulated by the CRTC. Unions are hoping that this will change, but as of yet there's no reason to believe they will. CRTC vice-chairman Peter Menzies told reporters last fall that the agency's role may evolve from gatekeeping Canadian content to enabling it because of the changing nature of watching television.

Most unions representing media workers have no illusions that the CRTC will be able -- or want to -- regulate online services the same way that they do Canadian broadcasters. The goal is to ensure that they are making space for it.

"We are certainly not proposing regulating all aspects of YouTube so that everybody who posts has to post 20 per cent Canadian content," said McDougall. But Netflix is acting like a broadcaster -- now even producing their own content -- and Canadian unions want to make sure if that is the case, that they are then also supporting Canadian media workers.

"They should be required to put something back into the production environment to make sure that creators have a role to play in what is being broadcast," added Leibovitch. "And more importantly so that citizens, Canadians and consumers have the opportunity to view Canadian content on all their screens."

The unions are also not immune to the concerns surrounding net neutrality, the belief that the Internet should be free from any and all regulations.

"We can't censor for the sake of democracy and freedom," said Kitt. "That being said I think smart regulation can ensure that Canadians get the quality of programming that we've known, and I think it can be even better."

Canadian TV helps form Canadian identity

Television has become one of the primary ways that we share and shape our national identity. While this is very self-evident in the United States -- everything from Mad Men to Friday Night Lights ruminates on what it means to live in America -- it's true in Canada as well.

Kids in the Hall and SCTV are multi-generational touchstones, and teen fare like Degrassi Junior High has crossed boundaries to find international fame (Degrassi alum Aubrey Graham aka Drake could probably say a thing or two about the benefits of Canadian content regulation).

And it's not just scripted content. Hockey Night in Canada, The National -- these are just a few of the programs that Canadians make a point of viewing, regardless of whether they are watching it on a TV or on their cell phone. And representatives from all three unions argue that Canadian productions can hold their own when compared to American television. It's whether they can convince Canadians and the CRTC to fund and support it.

"I think that people would be willing to pay for it if they realize the alternative is just to watch endless repeats of Big Bang Theory and to have no local content," said Kitt.

Not all jobs are necessarily in danger if more American content is shown in Canada. Unions like ACTRA benefit from American television productions crossing the border to take advantage of our provincial and federal tax credits, providing work for Canadian actors. But for them, promoting original Canadian television goes beyond discussing the economic benefits. 

"I don't think where we're coming from in terms of the content question is being driven by those economics, as much as it is about the desire to advocate for the diversity of the Canadian experience," said Leibovitch.

Canadian content laws do have a success story -- the Canadian music scene. Because Canadian commerical radio stations are required by law to play at least 35 per cent Canadian music, an industry has grown to support those needs. It's part of the reason we can claim Arcade Fire as our very own. But the Canadian music scene also supports hundreds of jobs.

Unions representing media workers hope that same success can be replicated in television. Because as Leibovitch points out, there's only one group that can tell Canadian stories.

"It's done using Canadian workers," he said. "Whether they are in front or behind the camera."

Photo: flickr/Paul Townsend

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