Sunday, November 27, 2005

Canadian TV and the New Technology

There was an interesting article in the Friday November 25 issue of TV Times, the listing book that comes with many Canadian newspapers on Friday mornings (because of course most Canadian newspapers don't do Sunday editions and putting it in on Saturday would be just too much for people to read on one day).

The article, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be available online, is by Eric Kohanik the TV Times editor. In it he writes: "Canadian TV broadcasters are in big trouble" and goes on to explain why.

"First, ABC revealed that it will now be 'podcasting' episodes of Lost on its website....

The next logical step in this iPod craze is video. Once it really catches on, everyone will have tiny portable TVs that let you import shows and watch them whenever - and wherever - you want.

Shortly after ABC's announcement, CBS and NBC unveiled deals with American cable and satellite services to make CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the Law & Order spin-offs available via video on demand for 99 cents US per episode. VOD basically turns your cable or satellite box into a video player, letting you watch stuff at your convenience.

There's also the news that TV programming will now be available on cellphones. And at the other end of the TV spectrum, American networks are moving aggressively towards digital and high-definition television.

Add all of this to the fact that many shows are available on DVD or can be downloaded from the Internet, and you suddenly realize that TV is in the midst of a huge transition."

So far, Mr. Kohanik has basically reported material that is reasonably well known to anyone following recent technological developments. (Well except for the fact that he doesn't seem to grasp the real importance of the ABC announcement. They aren't podcasts; what ABC is offering in cooperation with Apple and the iTunes Music Store is the ability to download the complete one hour TV show to be seen on the Video iPod. In other words, what he calls the next logical step has already been taken.) He also missed - or it wasn't announced at the time that he wrote the article - that it will be possible to download shows recorded on a TiVo to the Video iPod. What he hasn't explained yet is why Canadian networks are in trouble although perceptive readers may have already figured that out.

Mr. Kohanik continues:

So why are the Canadian [broadcasters] in trouble? They've been lazy. Many have lagged behind technologically, not even embracing stereo television, let alone HDTV.

The far bigger problem, though, is content. Rather than creating a healthy appetite and market place for homegrown shows, government regulation and television welfare funds have led to shows that - with a few notable exceptions - are mostly just filler.

This isn't about Canadian culture; it's about economics. Canadian networks have become addicted to American shows because they're cheaper to air and they can simply rake in the advertising bucks.

But Canadian channels don't own the American shows they air. And so, the emerging revenue streams will flow elsewhere.

In short Canadian broadcasters will suffer because they don't have quality content of their own to offer for sale and they, rightly, won't participate in any revenue generated by the recent technological developments.

Of course by this he means the Canadian private broadcasters, and he's also speaking about English language television. For the way that people - and in particular the private broadcasters - bitch about it, the CBC has been essentially free of American programming content for a number of years. Certainly they show American movies but virtually all of the CBC's prime time programming is Canadian or British. No other Canadian English language network - broadcast or cable - can make that claim. In a world where content is finally coming to be seen as king, the CBC is better placed than networks which have treated their Canadian content requirements as a cross to be borne rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

The private broadcasters have always worked under a philosophy stated by the then Roy Thomson, later Lord Thomson of Fleet who described owning a television station as "a license to print money." For them the easiest way to make money was to show as much American programming as possible and then state that they had to because otherwise most people would watch American stations (since the largest proportion of Canada's population lives within range of American TV stations - mostly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia) and Canadian advertisers wouldn't spend their money on TV. When cable became widespread they demanded and got the ability to overlay their signals on top of the same show running on the United States station (if it was being shown at the same time and the Canadian stations arranged their schedules so it would happen that way) to protect their revenue stream. That is as much an example of television welfare as government funding for programming but it's not something that gets mentioned for what it is.

I am less concerned about the fate of private broadcasters than Eric Kohanik is. I am sure that the Canadian cable and satellite industry will not introduce American programming "on demand" - or they won't be allowed to. If nothing else the private broadcasters will use the regulator - the CRTC - to block or delay it. Even if I had the Video iPod I can't buy Lost or Desperate Housewives at the iTunes Music Store. They don't have the rights to sell it in Canada. It may be that when we're finally able to purchase content either for the iPod or through Video on Demand, government regulation will see some funds going to the company that owns broadcast rights to the content in Canada. I'm sure that eventually the technology will come to Canada but it will come with the broadcasters kicking and screaming and figuring out a way so that they could make money on the deal even if they have nothing to do with the creation of the content.

It would be desirable if the development of new technology, which threatens the existing advertiser driven model of television, would result in Canadian private broadcasters spending money to to produce quality Canadian programming rather than make "filler" to put on the air because they have to. I don't think that's going to happen for a long time, not before the pressure to bring in the new technology become too much to resist and if they can get the right deal maybe not even then.

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