Canada’s culture wars
Re Culture vs. profit in the digital age
Business, Jan. 6
How quickly we forget what happened on Canada’s cultural front only 15 years ago. Indeed, one of the more savvy spin jobs of the last decade has been the cable companies’ ability to convince many in Ottawa that they fund the Canadian Television Fund, so they — not public policy — should call the shots. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canadian taxpayers and cable subscribers pay for the CTF as a matter of public policy. In 2005-06 alone, that public policy triggered $900 million in Canadian programming as a massive contribution to our Canadian broadcasting system. These are the facts: In 1983, the federal government issued a statement titled “Towards a New National Broadcasting Policy.” It included the establishment of a Broadcast Program Development Fund. However, in 1986, the cable companies lobbied successfully to have the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission approve a capital expenditure (CAPEX) increase on all cable subscribers to help Shaw, Vidéotron et al. finance their buildout of high-speed Internet and telephone services. So as cable subscribers, we all financed the infrastructure that now allows cable companies to last year more than quadruple their telephone clients from 212,000 to roughly 930,000. But the cable companies had asked for only a temporary regulatory CAPEX subsidy in 1986. So, in 1991, the CRTC considered the phasing out of CAPEX. That would have meant that cable subscribers would have seen their basic monthly rates go down. But again the cable lobby revved up in Ottawa, and by 1993, folks like Shaw and Vidéotron had cut a deal with the CRTC. In exchange for keeping a full 50 per cent of the once “temporary” CAPEX subsidy, cable would contribute the other half to a newly established Cable Production Fund, which has become the CTF. Not a bad deal. As a result, cable profits have soared. In 2006, revenues were about $6 billion — up nearly 20 per cent over 2005. And from telephony and the Internet they’ve pocketed about $2 billion. So for some cable scions to harp that “their biggest beef is their lack of control over how the money is spent” is close to what some once called Marxist revisionism. Or short-term memory deficit.
Public policy and regulation have made billionaires of the great-great grandchildren of these cable behemoths. Maybe the CRTC shouldn’t have stopped at just subsidizing them but held them to more accountability. Bill Roberts, President and CEO, VisionTV, Toronto When it comes to delivering culture, private broadcasters, dictated by their mandate to shareholders, will only ever make the right business decision: turn a profit. Within this short-sighted vision, their bean-counters know it is cheaper to buy American shows than it is to make Canadian ones. But at what cost to our culture?
We all must recognize that our art is the best way to deliver our meaning. Theatre, literature, music, film and even television can enlighten, lift us above the common stuff and unify. For us here in Canada, our multiculturalism, sensibilities and images are singularly unique, and our communal recognition of them fulfilling. It makes us family.
Only at our table in Canada, we are overindulging on entertainment that will make us unhealthy. We do have profoundly nourishing stuff delivered as well, but a great part of this tasty, fast, easy, cheap, glitzy, foreign stuff is nothing more than fast-food entertainment — a fastfood culture that will quietly negate our heritage, disable our identity and homogenize our cultures to a lowest common denominator.
Homegrown culture may be expensive, but it’s much cheaper than the alternative — and last time I looked, we weren’t a poor country, except in identity and vision for our future.