Globe and Mail TV columnist John Doyle called out the Canadian TV industry last month in a damning article asserting that Canada has contributed “pretty much nothing” to the Golden Age of TV.
The era is widely considered to have begun with the 1999 arrival of HBOs The Sopranos, which paved a corpse-littered way for the likes of The Wire, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and Mad Men… and (cough) True Blood.
Not included in the argument is the poorly conceived, badly written and atrociously acted flotsam – a large amount of which drifts in yearly from the U.S. – that has been washing up on Canadian TV dials for decades.
Doyle’s column cited a “paucity of creative ambition,” but Barry Kiefl, who spent 25 years as a researcher with the CBC before establishing his own consultancy, Canadian Media Research Inc., in 2001, says the problem is deeply woven into the fabric of our broadcast system.
In a recent blog post, Kiefl said that while Canada has created a successful TV distribution system, it has starved it of the funding necessary for the development of compelling Canadian content.
He proposed two controversial ways to address the problem: 1) An annual license fee charged to consumers, and 2) A distributor tax (which he calls the “Doyle Tax”) of 7% charged to all TV/video distributors, including cable/direct-to-home providers and telecommunications companies.
Both would doubtless draw howls of protest from the two constituencies, followed by CRTC hearings stretching into the next decade, but Kiefl argues they could ultimately help elevate Canadian programming to the same level as that of other nations.
Among the G7 nations, Canada and the U.S. are the only countries that don’t charge consumers an annual license fee. The French pay an annual license fee equivalent to $160 Canadian, while the Japanese pay the equivalent of $330 each year. In both cases, most of the revenues derived from the fee are devoted to programming, said Kiefl. Broadcasters in those countries, he said, recognize the license fee’s importance in helping develop viable indigenous programming.
In his exhaustively researched post, Kiefl said that English-language viewing of foreign (read: U.S.) content has consistently accounted for about one third of all English-language TV viewing in Canada since 1960, peaking at 35% in 1993. Among the G7, Canada is the only country where foreign programming accounts for the majority of all TV viewing.
Such data leads to one of the persistent conundrums of Canadian TV: Do Canadian audiences avoid homegrown programming because it lacks the quality of U.S. programming, or are Canadian broadcasters failing to commission and create compelling original content because they perceive audiences as indifferent?
Kiefl’s post says that Britain’s BBC alone spent as much on programming last year (the equivalent of $4.1 billion) as all Canadian broadcasters combined. Britain’s annual $241 license fee is a big contributor.
Speaking with Marketing, Kiefl said advertisers could also pay a vital role in any revitalization of the Canadian broadcast system. He said Canadian advertisers have historically tended to underpay for audiences on a per-capita basis, largely because broadcasters haven’t offered them a desirable environment.
Revenues generated by a license fee and/or the “Doyle tax” could change that, he said. “If you suddenly put extra billions of dollars into Canadian television programming, you’re going to be producing programs that advertisers would find very compelling,” he said.
Kiefl said that studies have proven that the more engaging the program, the more engaged audiences are with the advertising. “If you have mediocre Canadian programming, it’s not going to be a good environment for advertisers,” he said. “If you create higher quality Canadian content, it can’t help but create a better environment for the advertiser.”
But would Canadians be willing to pay $240 a year for homegrown programming as highly regarded as that of HBO or the BBC? Kiefl argues that it would be less than 10% of what Canadian households currently spend on cable, phone and other communication services, and would generate $3 billion a year for improved programming.
Similarly, a 7% distributor tax – paid by all services, including Internet and wireless companies – would generate up to $3 billion a year, potentially enabling the government to phase out existing funding programs such as the Canadian Media Funds and government grants for the CBC.
The latter could become an ad-free service, although Kiefl jokingly acknowledged that groups such as the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) “would have a heart attack” if that were to occur. “From an advertising point of view, many would see it as a negative if they didn’t have the CBC as an option,” he said.