Americans still invading, broadcasters still in charge

Last week Interactive Ontario hosted its first iLunch of the season, entitled “What is broadcast?” (I was involved in some of the planning.) Buddy Brady Gilchrist moderated in his usual immoderate, provocative and enlightened way. Two things kept jumping out.

First, I was surprised to hear a current of old-fashioned jingoism running through much of an otherwise useful discussion. After radio, TV, movies and magazines, now it’s apparently the turn of Google, Apple and the other US cyber-behemoths to be pouring over the 49th parallel and… messing with our digital media? Apparently we have to face up to this menace or… all is lost?

Apple is a menace because it’s taking money out of the country and creating its own new brand of walled garden. Yes and yes. And so what? Where is the biggest concentration of Canadian movies, TV, music and podcasts on the Web, in one place? If it’s not the Canadian iTunes Store, somebody point the way. There was complaining about rev share (is there another system?) and about the tilt to success for artists who get on the iTunes homepage. Yes, and other artists will be suffering in the background, not doing quite as well. That’s show biz.

Google, the other menace. Canadians are so addicted to navel-gazing we seem to forget Google is deemed to be a menace to privacy, copyright and competition in the rest of the world as well – especially Europe. Here’s how Eric Pfanner described it in yesterday’s NY Times:

“Google has a problem in China. But it may have bigger headaches in Europe. On issues as varied as privacy, copyright protection and the dominance of Google’s Internet search engine, the company is clashing with lawmakers, regulators and consumer advocates. And the fights are escalating across Western Europe.”

Nobody on the panel even mentioned that Ottawa has been taking vigorous action against the invading Yankee hordes, thanks to Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. Last week her office announced it was launching an “investigation” (another investigation) into the changes made recently by Facebook to its default privacy settings.

But this kind of initiative doesn’t count in the Canadian cultural calculus because Stoddart is protecting consumers at large, not just the production and broadcasting industries. Facebook has 12 million users – in Canada. Protecting the interests of one-third of the population is good policy and a good use of public funds. And unlike any amount of quality TV, Stoddart has shown she can produce concrete, positive and measurable results. You heard it here first: It’s time to move “protectionism” from the realm of cultural abstractions and into the realm of flesh-and-blood consumers. CRTC, are you listening?

Would make a great mini-series

And speaking of broadcasting, we were reminded of another unusual practice during the discussion. The Canada Media Fund will be launching in a few weeks and distributing some $300-odd million, after consolidation of the old TV Fund and Canada New Media Fund. The CMF is another incarnation of a long-standing policy instrument whereby cultural products deemed to be valuable to our social well-being are subsidized, to make up for well-known market failures. Well, wake up to a whole new breed of market failures.

We heard repeated reminders that most of this money can only be distributed once a Canadian broadcaster has agreed to license and broadcast a particular production. Picture a roomful of geeks, game developers, digital lobbyists and distributors – all talking about how their fortunes are tied to getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval from people who don’t understand their business and have nothing creative to contribute. (They said that, not me.) Many on the panel and in the room cited evidence that broadcasting is on life support… that the Broadcasting Act is a dead letter… that broadcasters have lost the only value-add they brought to the table: a schedule. A schedule in an on-demand world doesn’t have any value, hence the attempt to shift the value – by government fiat, not market forces – to the TV signals picked up by BDUs. Fuggedaboudit.

The three people sitting beside me looked oddly depressed, considering they still hold the money. They were all from one of Canada’s commercial TV networks. Did you hear the one about the broadcaster with $300 million to spend who couldn’t find an advertiser or an audience?