Building community by ensuring streaming services don’t continue to get a free ride

First published in the National Post on May 17, 2022

Whenever I see old friends, the same thing happens. After the hugs and handshakes, or maybe elbow bumps, we get down to the real business of reconnecting. We start catching up — recounting the stories of our lives since the last time we were together, sharing news about our families and the latest on what’s happening in our communities.

We share photos, sometimes videos. We find common ground. And occasionally we disagree, as friends sometimes do. Through it all, however, our ties are strengthened and our connections grow. All communities need this. It’s how communities are built.

As a country, that community is built largely by the stories we tell in TV shows and movies, and through the stories told in local and national news broadcasts. Yet that is increasingly threatened, as streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon drown out Canadian broadcasters, without paying their fair share for the development of Canadian stories.

Building a national community was the inspiration behind the Broadcasting Act back in 1936. Canada was big and growing, and its people were moving around to find work in unprecedented ways. New technologies, such as radio and cinema, were taking off, telling the stories that held our communities together as much as they informed and entertained us.

Yet Canada’s fledgling broadcast industry was being overwhelmed by much-larger American interests, and subsequent versions of the Broadcasting Act tried to re-balance the scale. The same happened as the act was updated over the years to recognize even newer technologies such as television, where I built my career with CTV.

Today, another wildly overdue update to the act is needed to protect Canadian content from being drowned out by new foreign streaming services. These streaming services were able to breeze their way onto our screens while being completely exempt from regulation under the Broadcasting Act, simply because they are transmitted over the internet instead of over the air or through cable.

It’s a difference without meaning, and it is undermining the ability of Canadians to see and hear the Canadian stories that tie us together as a nation.

The trucker convoy, the rise of the right, the vitriol we see every day on social media, have shown us what happens when we fail to build community and allow our differences to define us. When we stop talking and listening to each other, we stop being a community. We need to fix this, and with a few small tweaks to Bill C-11, we could take some of the steps needed to do just that.

Bill C-11, which replaces the old Bill C-10 that was introduced in the previous Parliament, is heading to committee — the next step in becoming law and fulfilling a promise of the Liberal government to address the inequities threatening Canadian broadcast media.

The bill would remove the exemption for streaming services. This would re-balance the scales in the face of a new technology, and is long overdue. User-generated content shared on social media is not covered by the bill.

By being included in the Broadcasting Act, streaming services will finally be put on a level playing field with traditional Canadian broadcasters, and forced to contribute to Canadian content. Until now, they have been given a free ride — able to compete directly with Canadian broadcasters, without having to pay their fair share to support the industry in this country or to support the news media sector, as traditional broadcasters must do.

Bringing these giant streamers into the regulatory system will bring new money and new support for Canadian content and Canadian creators, but it’s missing one thing: support for local news.

Local news is on life support in this country. We saw a 23 per cent drop in television jobs between 2014 and 2020, and the impact is seen in the diminished local news coverage across the country. Bringing streamers into the Broadcasting Act can help to address this decline.

In 2009, the CRTC created a news fund to help support local news, as the business model for broadcasters was changing. That was good, but five years later, a new CRTC commissioner eliminated the fund, throwing local news into crisis.

Amending Bill C-11 to include a similar fund to support local news and local reporters, partially paid for by the Big Tech companies that now dominate the television market, would offer the stable solution this country needs. Then we can get back to re-building our communities by telling Canadian stories.

Randy Kitt is the director of media at Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union.