[This commentary was also published at Cartt.ca]
Waves of both excitement and trepidation spread through Canada's interactive digital media and broadcasting sectors on March 9, 2009 when the Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage, announced the creation of the Canada Media Fund. Now, about a year and a half later, trepidation remains but, for many, the initial excitement has been replaced by bewilderment and disappointment.
The road from the initial CMF announcement to where we are today took many twists and turns. As CMF president and CEO Valerie Creighton said last month at the Merging+Media conference in Vancouver, while addressing the magnitude of the change, "it's been a very messy year and it's going to get messier". No doubt.
The CMF staff has done a commendable job in the face of an overwhelming challenge. They've engaged stakeholders across the country at all levels and ensured that everyone's voice could be heard, even if their specific desires couldn't always be accommodated. And they've done all this while trying to minimize the destabilization of the already unstable television industry.
The resulting policies reflect compromise on many levels and have been influenced by a vast range of stakeholders with often very disparate interests, some inspired by genuine recognition of the need to change and others by self-interests that are tied to the preservation of the status quo and declining business models.
There are many facets to the CMF but the focus of this commentary will be limited to the convergent stream as that's where I have the greatest concerns.
Richard Stursburg, until recently the head of English language programming at the CBC, said last week at the Insight Telecommunications Forum in Ottawa, "people don't watch Canadian [dramatic] television". That's certainly debatable, but if true, it's not because our shows lack the tacked-on interactive elements that are the thrust of the convergent stream. Rather, it's either because the content isn't of interest to the audience or because it doesn't reach the audience when, where and how they want to consume it.
TV content still isn't always easily available to a new breed of consumer on the terms and devices that suit them. This has certainly improved in the last year and a half, and the CMF may indeed have accelerated the pace of change. As promised by Moore, we have definitely made progress toward the goal that "Canadian viewers will have better access to Canadian programming on all media platforms". BDU-based on-demand offerings that are tied to digital set-top boxes do nothing to reach analogue cable customers or those who have opted out of the BDU system entirely.
Online streaming helps to address this void. It was introduced as a transitional measure but may not be continued going forward. For most shows, though, this is the optimal solution to reach a wider audience and I hope that Heritage and the CMF decide to continue this policy. It is, hands down, the best way to ensure that CMF-funded television content is available to the vast majority of Canadians, whether they be BDU customers or not. To be effective in reaching a wide audience though, it can't be limited to online streaming alternatives that are only available to BDU subscribers. Alternative on-line only subscription or a la carte billing options must be considered.
Regardless of where the fund goes with respect to streaming, a plan is on the horizon to force the majority of TV projects to change their very nature by requiring that they incorporate "rich and substantial" interactive elements - a shot-gun marriage of traditional and digital media. "Rich and substantial" can mean many things, involve a wide range of budgets, and lead to over-building the interactive beyond what's appropriate or, conversely, falling short by delivering less than what's really needed. Worse, though, building these elements for projects where they aren't warranted in their own right will force broadcasters to divert scarce funding to ancillary interactive components that may have little demonstrable value. It will also force TV producers to find ways to cover the 40% interactive financing shortfall that will usually exist after the mandatory broadcaster minimum 10% contribution triggers the CMF 50% maximum contribution.
When "rich and substantial" is warranted, that's great, and something worth funding. The Bell Fund already does a great job of supporting these projects and the decision as to whether to pursue a digital media path is left up to the TV producer and the broadcaster - as it should be. Top-up funding from the CMF could help to finance these projects without putting a significant drain on the available resources.
TV already does what TV does best and it's not realistic to try to change the nature of television. The limitations imposed by broadcast lead-time, coupled with a linear narrative, won't go away. These aren't limitations that can be fixed with the wave of a magic wand; these are the limitations of people, tight budgets and the nature of the medium.
Moore's objective to "focus the investment on what Canadians want" is laudable - but what do Canadian's really want? It's doubtful that the majority of Canadians want a hybrid mix of traditional and digital media that, will, due to the battle for dollars, actually tend to undermine the potential quality of each.
As the CMF is now considering the policies under which the fund will operate next year, I offer these suggestions to the Ministry of Heritage and to Minister Moore, knowing full well that, as with anything to do with the CMF, many in the industry will disagree with me.
First, we must annul this ill-conceived shot-gun marriage between TV and interactive. If we go down the road as planned, the same limited funding resources will be spread across a much greater number of hybrid projects next year, likely leading to an abundance of mediocrity. Syphoning money away from core TV programming to support mandatory but often unnecessary ancillary interactive elements will do a great disservice both to television programming and to interactive development.
Secondly, let's let TV do what TV does best, and let that story-telling medium go where it will, for better or worse. We should, of course, encourage and perhaps even mandate distribution across multiple platforms, provided that everyone in the value chain is properly compensated, but let's not pretend that we can make TV into something it isn't.
Finally, to truly realize the Minister's objective of rewarding "success and innovation", we must give interactive media an unfettered and well-funded opportunity to grow into its role as a key story-telling vehicle of the future and allow Canadians to use it in creative ways to tell stories to our fellow Canadians and to the world - without shackling these initiatives to the inflexible medium of television.