The CBC’s CEO recently compared Netflix to British and French imperialism and colonialism. It’s the latest stage in a long-running battle between Canadian content policy and Netflix. Photo: CC, VDdigital.
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Canadian content easily accessible on Netflix—so why are broadcasters worried?

Canadian content policy and mega-streaming service Netflix have had a rocky relationship the past year. Between a $500-million deal with Netflix failing to deliver and a heated argument around taxes and content creation funds, Netflix has upended Canadian cultural policy. Last weekend, the debate took on a new form, as Canadian Broadcasting Corporation CEO Catherine Tait likened Netflix’s cultural imperialism to that of the British or French Empires during the height of colonialism.

It was a comment that caught many off-guard, including Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor who teaches common law and serves as Canada Research Chair in Internet and eCommerce Law. He’s been writing about the intersection of digital streaming services and cultural policy long before Netflix arrived in Canada and runs a popular blog on Internet law issues.

One recent blog post serves to highlight how off-the-mark Tait’s comments were. While her fears over Netflix’s possible cultural hegemony are shared by others, Geist performed a personal experiment which found that Canadian content is readily available on Netflix. Type “Canadian” into Netflix’s search bar, Geist found, and you’ll get several categories, ranging from “Bingeworthy Canadian TV Shows” to “Critically-acclaimed Canadian Movies.” Geist’s experiment even found that if you watch some Canadian content, Netflix’s algorithm will recommend more for you. So, where Tait is coming from is tough to figure out.

“I think (Tait) was trying to make the point that Netflix is a very large player, bigger than any Canadian player, and that its impact on Canadian culture and the ability to tell Canadian stories might not be a good one. Notwithstanding their popularity, they might ultimately represent a threat to the creation of Canadian film and television productions,” Geist said.

At the core of the debate is the question of whether Netflix will continue to broadcast or even help create more Canadian content by its own volition, or whether the government needs to step in with regulations.

“If the market says this is the kind of content that we want to see, it’s in Netflix’s interest to provide it,” said Geist. “And, in fact, they are providing a fair amount of Canadian content so that would suggest that there are many Canadians who want to see some Canadian content when they watch video and a streaming service would do well to ensure that it’s there.”

“So, at a certain level the debate is really more about do you need regulation to ensure that these services supply and help fund Canadian content, or will the market supply all the incentives that are needed. Tait and others argue that this will only happen if we require regulation, but part of the Netflix experiment suggests that the market creates great incentives to create Canadian content.”

While one aspect of the debate involves the quantity of and access to CanCon, which is what Tait’s remark concerned, there are also separate debates about applying sales taxes to Netflix and the question of Netflix’s obligations to funds set aside for the creation of new Canadian media content.

Geist said that the sales tax isn’t particularly controversial, and Netflix has said that they will pay sales tax if required to do so. What caused more controversy is if Netflix ought to be required to pay into a content creation fund or whether they should ensure that a certain percentage of their content is Canadian. Domestic broadcasters already do these things, but under current Canadian policy, Netflix exists in a grey zone.

“In theory the government can legislate anything it likes and can set those regulatory conditions on anyone who wants to operate in its jurisdiction … whether or not it can do so under the law as it currently stands is subject to some debate,” said Geist.

The Canadian Radio and Television Commission is currently reviewing their broadcasting policy, and the next likely step in the seemingly endless struggle between CanCon and Netflix will be in the form of recommendations from the CRTC, due in 2020.

While the argument continues and broadcasters worry, Geist has shown that at least one thing is clear—Canadian content is easy to find and readily available, you just have to choose to watch it.


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