February 26, 2009 Jill

Presenting at the CRTC New Media Hearing this week as part of the Writers Guild of Canada team was an eye-opener.  WGC President Becky Schechter, Executive Director Maureen Parker, Director of Policy Kelly-Lynne Ashton and I worked intensely on our submission — for weeks in advance and then the entire day before, staying up late, polishing every sentence, rehearsing and timing our read, predicting the questions and fine-tuning our responses.

By the time we arrived in the meeting room in Hull on Tuesday morning I was suffering from an attack of the killer butterflies.

The CFTPA — the producer’s association — were the first to submit that day.  Like us, they were rehearsed.  There were repped by a big team — two producers and three staff at the front table plus legal and staff backup behind.

The CRTC Commissioners filed in and took their seats at the grownup table — each with their own laptop, a couple of bottles of water and an imposing swivel chair.

I hadn’t thought much about the commissioners till now — I was too deeply focused on what we were going to say and how we’d argue our position.  But now, as the producers began their presentations, I studied the face of each commissioner, read their nameplates and tried to remember what I knew about them.

As writers, we work with producers on a day to day basis.  Whether it’s new media or conventional, the first two in on a project are usually writer and producer.  Then together, we go and out convince everyone else to jump in with us.  Many of our goals are the same and their association and our guild are closely aligned in many ways.

Despite this well developed relationship, what struck me about the producers’ position was that they seemed to be from a completely different planet than us.  The picture they drew of our industry, the words they chose, the concepts that backed their opinions — were alien to me me” even though, in many ways our bottom lines are similar.

And as I scanned the faces of the commissioners I started to see the world the way they must.

Imagine the day you get the call.  You come home, you say, “Honey!  Great news!  The government just appointed me to a cool job on the CRTC.”

Next day, you go to work; “you want me to do what?!”

That’s right, you’ll sit in airless, windowless room for 8 hours a day with every word you say carried live on television. Everyone who appears before you will first submit a 60 page document written in strict, dry, deadly serious legalese.  Then during the hearing, they’ll hand you another 15 page document which THEY’LL READ ALOUD TO YOU — probably in a monotone (and believe me, you won’t hear anyone say “boom goes the dynamite” in that room).  Each of the groups will present their own POV on the world, laying out their vision, their grudges and needs, the solutions that will best suit them.

And you, the lucky CRTC Commissioner, will have to read them thoroughly, listen attentively and then ask questions that prove how interested you are.

The Commissioners are charged with wading into an industry, learning everything there is to know about it and balancing everyone’s needs.  Oh yeah, there’s the little matter of the broadcasting act and the whole legal thing that strictly limits how much they can do.

I think I’d rather be appointed to the Senate.

The CFTPA finished their presentation and it was a good one.  The Commissioners engaged with them nicely and asked lots of questions.  Sometimes it seemed like they understood the producers’ points and were incorporating them into their world view.  Other times, it seemed like they were speaking different languages altogether.

Finally it was our turn to take the hot seat.  Our presentation which included some A/V was marred by technical difficulties.  We were delayed when the first laptop we borrowed from the commission had no Quicktime and the second couldn’t output to the conference room screens.  By then we’d delayed the proceedings significantly and the Commissioners were anxious to get going.  So going we got — and at exactly that moment, the laptop image appeared miraculously on the screen in front of us.

Breathing a sigh of relief, we proceeded with the first clip — only to be interrupted by the Chair, who informed us that the screens facing the commissioners weren’t carrying the feed.  In other words, everyone in the room could see our clips except the members of the CRTC.  It was all straight out of Alice’s Restaurant.

Still, we had some good points.  We came up with a great system for certifying that a project is truly Canadian.  Rather than the 10 point system used in traditional media, we suggested a flexible system that calls for the 5 highest paid creative positions to be held by Canadians.

One of my favourite sections in our submission came in our arguments in favour of a levy on ISPs to create a fund of money for new media production.  Kelly Lynne got to read this part, which is only fair since she did most of the work putting together our submission.  “A reasonable ask” by the way is some kind of technical term.

A reasonable ask of 3% of certain ISP revenues would amount to $97 million.  There is a clear need for that money.  The Bell Fund turns down two out of three applications for lack of funds.  The CTF’s $2 million dollar new media pilot project ran dry in just six weeks.  A levy would have an immediate impact on levels of Canadian content online.  It would energize an entire industry, creating permanent jobs in a highly skilled sector and would provide Canadians with more choice.

For the ISPs who earned $5.7 billion last year 3% is peanuts.  The ISPs should pay the levy directly and not pass it on to subscribers.  The levy will generate more content.  Consumers will need more bandwidth.  Thanks to graduated licensing, rather than being an expense for the ISPs, the levy could actually generate revenue.  Despite all the ISP hyperbole, a levy will not kill the Internet.
Maureen closed our presentation with this statement:

Even in a digital universe we look to the CRTC to ensure that Canadians can choose to watch Canadian programs.  The method of delivery is irrelevant.  The ISPs are looking for a legal loophole to avoid their responsibilities under the Broadcasting Act. Their future is secure.  What hangs in the balance is Canadians’ ability to choose Canadian content.  The time to act is now.

It was pretty stirring stuff.

The response from the commissioners was a little disappointing.  They didn’t have many questions for us, and those that they did have were fairly technical in nature.  I had hoped to be able to talk about some of my experiences creating content for the web, but alas, they gave me no opening.

Maybe it was because we delayed things too long with our technical difficulties.  Maybe they just needed out of that boring ass room.  I don’t know.

For me, it was an education.  Plus, Ink Canada named me Creative Citizen of the week for my efforts.  The experience definitely gave me a taste of what being a citizen is all about.  Creative” not so much.

Comment (1)

  1. Good for you, on both the presentation and being named Creative Citizen. It’s good to have someone like yourself giving voice from an end of the industry that is rarely listened to – even if it may have fallen upon deaf ears.

    I suspect the CRTC will do their usual half-measures at the behest of, and in favour of, the “industry” which they now find themselves beholden to support. protecting the cultural needs of Canadian citizens always seems to take a back seat to the needs of business. And as we watch the broadcasters slowly drop off the edges of their flat worlds the “business” of the internet will take precedence.

    Properly funded or not, the net is about content and community combined (if that’s not being too alliterative for you) and there can be no distinction between the two – they are one and the same. The attempts to retain the status quo of power within the media industry will be the downfall of that industry and a mere turd in the middle of the infobahn we are all charging down.


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