Major summits—those meetings of minds that gather together thought-leaders to tackle existential questions in the face of looming crisis—tend to have the nasty habit of being too little, too late. That’s especially true of cultural industries, which rely on rapidly evolving technology but tend to see it as a kind of frightening arcana than as an ally. Take, for instance, a seminal meeting in 2000, when Hilary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, convened the world’s top record-label execs, still buzzing from yet another fantastic year for the industry: they made $14.6 billion the year before. Rosen brought them together to talk about some new-fangled thing the kids called Napster. From John Seabrook’s The Song Machine:
“So I set up a computer,” Rosen recalled in the film Downloaded, “and I said, OK [Sony Music CEO] Tommy [Mottola], what’s your latest single?’ or ‘Michelle [Anthony, a top executive under Mottola], what’s your latest single?’ Literally we played ‘Stump the Napster.’ ” Every song the record men in the room could think of was available. In his 2003 book about Napster, All the Rave, Joseph Menn also described this meeting: “As the crowd grew increasingly uncomfortable, a Sony executive tried to cut the tension. ‘Are you sure suing them is enough?’ he asked. The capper came when someone suggested a hunt for the ‘NSYNC song Bye Bye Bye. The cut had been on the radio for just three days, and the CD hadn’t been released for sale yet. And there it was.”
2000 may have been the last great year for record labels. Even after the meeting, the execs had no idea what to do about Napster, so they sued it into oblivion—which, as continued piracy proves, may have not been so wise. Industry revenues have since been halved.
Grim stuff. But to its credit, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is trying to assemble the digital-media Avengers before it’s too late. Using its power as a government regulator to bring experts from the private, public and academic sectors together, the CRTC and the National Film Board will co-host what they say is a first-of-its-kind “Discoverability Summit” in May 2016; to gear up for those conversations, they will also host two half-day “En Route” forums—one in Vancouver on Dec. 1, and another in Montreal—that will congregate experts to spark new strategies to tackle a looming crisis in digital media at large.
“We’re using our convening power to bring to the forefront a conversation that we need to have, not just in Canada but around the world,” said Jean-Pierre Blais, the chairman of the CRTC. “We’re ahead on the thinking, and other regulators are excited about what we’re doing because they want to be part of that.”
What’s the new crisis? Here it is: There’s a ton of TV shows, movies and music, and more ways than ever to get it into your eyes and ears.
If you think that doesn’t sound like a problem, well, fair enough. But making sure Canadians find the stuff they really want to see—that’s not something many broadcasters are doing well—is a tricky and evolving macroeconomic issue that has wide-ranging repercussions on what you’ll consume.
For the sake of focus and clarity, let’s look at TV specifically, for example. To exist as your favourite TV show, a series needs to be funded. Historically, funding comes from advertising, and advertising follows where eyeballs are going—or, as with applications like Netflix and Shomi (which is owned by Rogers, which in turn owns Maclean’s), which surface shows and movies with algorithms and recommendations, funded by a subscription model. Networks, many of whom commission content, are still watched by a significant market, but is losing ground to those other streaming models.
That hasn’t stopped creators from flinging content at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s what influential FX president John Landgraf controversially referred to as “peak TV”—with more than 400 original scripted series set to air in North America by the end of this year alone, there’s a belief that this is a heady bubble that will pop. To make sure the good stuff continues to get made, the priority is to make sure people find that good stuff in a hyper-crowded market with payment models that are deeply in flux—or, as Blais says more simply: “You’ve got to be conscious of the stability of the economic model.”
One of the things at risk in this minefield are documentaries, the NFB’s bread and butter. Claude Joli-Coeur, the NFB commissioner, cited a Hot Docs survey that found that while 60 per cent of Canadians want access to documentaries, only seven per cent can easily find them. For him, these three events are essential to make sure the industry is working together with information they currently have in piecemeal.
“People [in the industry] are starting to become more conscious of [the importance of discoverability]; there are still a lot of people who are not concerned because they don’t want to see the problem is coming or are too comfortable in the current system,” said Joli-Coeur. “But it’s something that’s coming at a fast speed, and we just need to focus on it and to handle it. It’s just a matter of time.”
Then there’s the additional trickiness of being Canadian—which is to say, often the ugly stepsister of TV and movies within our own country. That’s the trouble with sharing a border with the world’s cultural superpower, after all, a problem only exacerbated by the way the Internet can melt geographical borders. Discoverability, then, takes another kind of meaning for Canadian content creators: It’s about showcasing themselves in Canada and beyond to survive. “I think it’s a particular challenge we’ve always lived in this country because we live next door to the producer of some wonderful content that we know a lot about. We’ve had to find ways to find these corners to tell our stories,” said Blais. “If you want to increase the amount of money that flows into our production sector, you’ve got to tap into international markets.”
This nitty-gritty macroeconomic view on the stuff we watch and listen to in our down time can seem like inside baseball. Most Canadians will want to simply pay your Netflix fee and chill, rather than pop into the event live stream. But Blais warns that a forward-thinking direction is needed to make sure Canadians are able to find what they want to watch, or we’ll feel the pinch down the line.
“It will affect the diversity and choice of the content they have,” said Blais. “Even if Canadians may not see it, the ability of a particular audiovisual work to find an audience will actually affect maybe not that particular show, but the next show of a similar nature.”