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Eased CanCon rules allow Corus to lean into unscripted reality, lifestyle fare: exec



Eased CanCon rules allow Corus to lean into unscripted reality, lifestyle fare: exec

TORONTO — New rules allowing Corus Entertainment to spend less on scripted drama and comedy shows will allow its channels to lean more into news, lifestyles and reality fare rather than “content that audiences don’t want to see,” says Troy Reeb, executive vice president of networks and content.

Reeb says the CRTC’s decision to grant the media giant’s request to reduce the amount it spends on so-called “programs of national interest” frees up about $35 million to devote to other genres of Canadian content for properties including Global Television, W Network, YTV and History.

Reeb says Corus wants “more flexibility to do the kinds of programming that we can get a better return on,” including news and “lifestyle programming” like the HGTV tropical restoration series “Island of Bryan” and History Channel’s docu-adventure “Deadman’s Curse.”

“These are all programs that can be done in the unscripted space at a lower price point than scripted comedies, dramas and kids shows, and reach just as many – or in many cases more – audiences than scripted Canadian programs do,” he says in a recent call from Los Angeles where he was attending the annual TV event known as the LA Screenings.

That flexibility was granted Monday when the federal regulator approved Corus’ plea to lower its obligated spending on programs of national interest (PNI) to five per cent of the previous year’s revenue, instead of 8.5 per cent. 

Corus cited advertising uncertainty and “severely constrained” finances when it asked the regulator to “urgently” lower its requirement last October.

Programs considered to be of national interest include dramas, comedies, documentaries and children’s programming.

Reeb described them as typically “financially challenged” scripted genres. He pointed to the Victor Garber legal drama “Family Law,” renewed earlier this year for a fourth season on Global, and the defunct Jason Priestley cop show “Private Eyes” as examples.

It would also seem to include Global’s widely panned hip-hop drama “Robyn Hood” – a reimagining of the Robin Hood tale by Director X that premiered last September – which a publicist said was not being renewed for a second season.

Reeb wouldn’t say which Corus shows would be impacted by the new funding rules.

“The last thing anyone wants to see is a reduction in the amount of Canadian content being produced. But the solution to that is to not force struggling Canadian companies to create content that audiences don’t want to see,” Reeb says.

Even though PNI spending can drop, the overall amount Corus must spend on Canadian programming remains at 30 per cent of the previous year’s revenue, said a CRTC spokesperson. 

According to its 2023 annual report, Corus revenues totalled about $1.5 billion – a five per cent decrease from the previous year. Reeb attributes the drop to last year’s Hollywood actors and writers strikes, the ongoing shift of advertising dollars to Google and Facebook, and the exodus of audiences to “unregulated foreign”streaming giants like Netflix and Disney Plus.

But if more of the money designated for CanCon goes toward less labour-intensive shows, groups representing Canadian actors, writers and producers say they will suffer and viewers will get fewer original homegrown stories.

Many Canadian creators are still struggling to find work after last year’s strikes, says Neal McDougall, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada.

He says previous production levels have not returned and that job opportunities would shrink further if similar regulatory concessions are made for other media giants also looking for relief.

“This will likely result in a reduction of tens of millions of dollars of broadcasters’ spending on PNI, and since broadcaster spending triggers other production funding, the overall impact on Canadian creators will be even greater,” McDougall says.

“This means fewer Canadian creative jobs and fewer Canadian stories being told.”

ACTRA’s national president Eleanor Noble said the union representing Canadian actors was “deeply disappointed and concerned” the CRTC is allowing Corus “to turn its back on the media production sector.”

“This sector contributes $14.05 billion to Canada’s GDP and creates nearly 240,000 jobs. The CRTC loosening CanCon requirements weakens our country’s cultural fabric,” Noble said in an emailed statement.

The relaxed content rules will also contribute to “the hollowing out of Canada’s kids’ production sector,” predicted the Canadian Media Producers Association.

“This is a genre that is already in crisis, and by reducing Corus’s PNI obligations, the almost certain result is less new independently produced programming for Canadian kids,” president and CEO Reynolds Mastin said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the CRTC said it approved Corus’ request on an “exceptional basis” considering its unique position as Canada’s largest private broadcaster that does not also own a cable or satellite television service. 

They also noted the company’s spending on programs of national interest is among the highest of all private broadcasters. Bell and Rogers – the parent companies of CTV and Citytv, respectively – are obligated to spend around 7.5 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively, of their previous year’s revenue.

The CRTC said requests from other broadcasters for regulatory relief will be addressed as part of ongoing consultations to modernize the Canadian broadcasting framework with Bill C-11.

Peter Menzies, a former CRTC vice chairman and current senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says Corus faced “higher than normal” expectation to deliver PNI amid declining revenues and “something had to give.”

“Once the regulator gets into telling you specifically what the genre of programming you have to spend on, you’re always going to run into difficulties like this because the companies don’t have the flexibility to be able to move with the market,” says Menzies.

While there’s an argument to be made that broadcasters prefer making reality shows because they’re cheaper, “the fact of the matter is that people like watching those shows,” he says.

“If you’re in business to make television, you want to make shows that people want to watch. That’s how you stay in business.”

Media expert Gregory Taylor argues that relying on reality shows is “lazy broadcasting” that doesn’t require media companies to pay writers and often involves importing a ready-set formula from a U.S. franchise, as is the case with Global’s “Big Brother Canada.”

Still, he says the CRTC now has a “difficult balancing act” in safeguarding Canadian television production while ensuring foreign streaming giants like Netflix and Prime Video also create Canadian content.

“When we look at these cuts, we’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” says Taylor, a professor of communications, media and film at the University of Calgary.

“We’re also now going to see contributions coming in from the streamers in ways that we have not seen in 15 years that streaming has been available in this country.”

Reeb says the solution to dwindling screen industry jobs is in leveling the playing field between broadcasters and streamers.

“(We need) to ensure fair competition with these foreign platforms that right now don’t have to play by the same rules and are allowed to come in and poach audiences and poach advertising dollars without any obligations to support the Canadian sector,” he says.

“We’re optimistic Bill C-11 is going to do that. But what we absolutely can’t be doing is continuing to force Canadian companies that are struggling to play by a different, more difficult set of rules.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2024.

Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press

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