[This commentary was also published at Cartt.ca]


If the internet had been something that was created from scratch, rather than a rapid and almost spontaneous evolution of technology and networks, governments around the world would have played a much bigger role in its development and deployment.  It likely, too, would have been much less the global network that it is today and much more a collection of inter-connected national networks.  Controlled cross-border exchange of information, entertainment and commerce would likely have been the norm. And... we'd have an online media world that closely resembled the traditional, tightly controlled one.

In effect, though, the internet arrived uninvited and, for some, at least from a video content point of view, remains an unwelcome guest.  Nonetheless, it's already permanently re-shaping the way we distribute and consume media.

English Canada has a significant cultural affinity to the United States and we have consumed a diet that has consisted of a lot of American fare for more than 50 years.  Of late though, on all fronts, from our Canadian English-language broadcasters through to new digital distribution channels like iTunes and YouTube, we've super-sized our consumption of foreign content.

In the conventional system, Canadian content requirements ensure, at least to a degree, that Canadian producers and talent have a role to play and a vehicle to tell Canadian stories to Canada, and, on a good day, through foreign sales, to other parts of the world. There are, however, no corresponding requirements when it comes to alternative distribution channels.  Across all distribution channels, Canadian audiences are increasingly turning their attention to foreign content (primarily of U.S. origin) and we face an increasing attention trade deficit.  We're accustomed to thinking of trade deficits mainly in economic terms, and that's true here, but our attention trade deficit also comes with an undeniable cultural impact.

When broadcaster dollars go to buying foreign content, that takes money out of the country - and doesn't help our domestic creative industries any.  But it is far worse in the online world.  When Canadians acquire foreign-produced content directly from foreign-owned content aggregators like Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others, there's no Canadian middleman involved.

When fees are involved, they go to the aggregator.  When the content is ad-supported, Canadian advertisers increasingly are following Canadian eyeballs and buying space on these foreign sites.  The fragile Canadian content ecosystem is by-passed and, other than traffic flowing across our network plumbing, we're passive observers to the whole exchange. No Canadian company profits from the transaction, the government receives no tax revenue, and dollars flow out of the country.  These lost dollars can't be channelled back into our content creation industries - and our ability to tell culturally relevant stories is diminished.

Foreign entities, of course, have no obligation - and, arguably, little interest - in Canadian content, and, while our independent production model has been a great success, the result has been that few Canadian content producers have the scale or catalogue depth to attract the interest of foreign players.  On the home front, we have very few Canadian content marketplaces or aggregators to showcase Canadian content to Canadians or the world.

Many nations today are now developing national digital strategies that - they hope - will shape the future of the internet in many ways.  Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain are among the countries that have already released digital strategies.  Even tiny New Zealand released the second version of its strategy in 2008.  

The scope of such strategies is broad.  Content, though, does not have a significant presence in most of these strategies - and that's actually not that surprising.  While none of these countries is immune to the unprecedented influx of foreign content that the internet has made possible, these countries are, with the exception of New Zealand, the dominant economic power within their primary spoken language within their geographic region. Germany and France, in particular, enjoy the advantage of limited content in German or French that is foreign-produced. 

Our content funding today is, in large part, tied to the old broadcast-centric system and this doesn't encourage development in new forms of entertainment that exploit new capabilities on new distribution channels.  The new Canada Media Fund will address this to some degree but we don't know yet what its newly formed policies (or their impact) will be.

We can't - and shouldn't - try to force Canadian content down consumers' throats.  But we can - and should - take active steps to ensure that there is a viable Canadian digital content eco-system.  That includes Canadian-owned marketplaces and aggregators, both to showcase Canadian content but also to give us an economic stake in the game regardless of whose content is being consumed.

This isn't a call for regulatory intervention, but, as part of our national digital strategy, we do need to address this problem.  Losing the battle for attention from Canadian eyeballs may happen anyway, but if we don't act soon to offer alternatives to Canadian consumers, it will be a virtual certainty.  That, compounded by a lack of capabilities to help Canadian content reach a global audience, could be the death knell of our creative industries.

 

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Alan Sawyer published on February 14, 2010 11:51 AM.

The Canadian broadcasting system crisis was the previous entry in this blog.

Canada's Endangered Digital Sovereignty is the next entry in this blog.

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