Canadian Content is on the table—here’s why it matters

Written by: Valerie Creighton
*A shorter version of this op-ed was published in the Toronto Star on Jan. 3

2022 was marked by fierce debate about what Canadian content is and isn’t, how it shapes us, defines our identity, and represents us. As 2023 arrives, a conversation is coming to a head, one that aims to answer a pivotal question: Do stories that reflect who we are, were, and aspire to be as a country hold value or not?

The upcoming CRTC review of Canadian content regulations will sift through many differing opinions. Some argue that without Canadian stories, there is no Canada. Others hold the view that we are just an extension of the U.S. market, so it really doesn’t matter.

Broadcasting is being transformed everywhere, and Canada is no exception. The popularity of foreign streamers is on the rise, while the traditional linear broadcast system is under pressure to compete.

Canada sits in the top three nations of gaming production worldwide and is number one in the world per capita. Gaming and immersive media content is a huge success story for our country.

As a leader in content, we can influence a larger discussion on how authentic stories driven by Canada’s storytellers define our country at home and on the world stage.

Canadians benefit from the wide range of programming offered by streamers and U.S. studios. We love the magnitude of content offered from around the world.

Foreign companies also benefit. They have access to the best creative Canadian talent and world-class crews, matched by financial support through our tax credits. Foreign service production bolsters our economy and creates good jobs. Canadian subscribers generate healthy revenue for the streamers.

Here’s the challenge: Our broadcasting rules are antiquated, so foreign streamers like Netflix, Apple+, Prime Video, and Disney+ operate outside of the system. They benefit by doing business in Canada, earning significant revenue, without obligation to invest in Canadian stories. However, Canadian broadcasters are required to do so through regulation.

According to data from 2021, foreign-owned location and service production in Canada—like a movie or TV series that shoots in Vancouver or Calgary—increased by 212 percent in the past decade. Meanwhile, production of Canadian-owned programming fell by nine per cent.

Why does this matter? More productions are being shot in Canada yet fewer Canadian stories are being told.

Stories are unique to the storyteller’s lived experience. Canada’s stories define us as a nation and identify who we are. They articulate our values and a sense of place.

And they do well.

Kim’s Convenience, which tells the story of a Korean Canadian family running a convenience store in Toronto, was a hit at home and in South Korea and helped Simu Liu win the lead in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Schitt’s Creek, first rejected by U.S. networks, found a home in Canada at the CBC, who took the risk. After being produced here, the show’s originality and caliber was soon noticed and picked up by Netflix, eventually earning Canada a record nine Emmys.

The hit medical drama Transplant was picked up stateside by NBC, becoming one of their top-rated shows.

The CMF/Shaw Rocket Fund invested in Denis and Me, the kids animated series, which now has over 21 million views on YouTube.

Pour toi Flora, Sort Of, and Audrey est revenue have recently beat out foreign streamers at the prestigious C21 International Drama Awards in London, and both the Diversify TV Awards and CANNESERIES in Cannes.

These examples of Canadian content—owned, controlled, and invested in by Canadians—have greatly succeeded, in part because of the distribution strength of foreign companies.

Ownership and investment by Canadians is key if we want our original stories to succeed. The money stays in Canada and is reinvested in more Canadian stories.

Legislation is in process that is meant to modernize Canada’s broadcasting rules by levelling the playing field and require the streamers to contribute to the production of Canadian content.

The financial magnitude of foreign companies and their worldwide distribution far outweighs the ability of the Canadian system to compete.

It’s complicated, but also simple—we want productive partnerships with foreign companies in Canada through both their service production and their investment in Canadian content.

The definition of what qualifies as Canadian content is crucial. Should some foreign service production in Canada qualify? Streamers and foreign companies certainly think so. But Canadians want a system where ownership of intellectual property remains, at least in part, in the hands of Canadians.  

This much needed and possibly heated conversation through the CRTC process will define Canadian content. For Canada, it matters.

It’s time we work together, for the benefit of our Canadian storytellers, industry, and audiences worldwide.

Valerie Creighton is President and CEO of the Canada Media Fund, which is the country’s largest funder of Canadian content across all audiovisual platforms