Some of Canada's biggest names on the little screen came down hard on the CRTC, cable companies, and Canadian broadcasters Monday afternoon at an ACTRA-organized rally on Parliament Hill.
Actors from shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie, Degrassi: The Next Generation, The Beachcombers, and Kids in the Hall called on the federal regulator to put Canadian programming first by “ending the free-ride” for big cable and private broadcasters.
The CRTC began hearings on the future of TV broadcasting Monday amidst an ongoing media war between cable companies and broadcasters fought through an ad campaign where each side claims to be the champion of Canadian television.
“If they have so much money to spend on a media war, they should spend some on Canadian TV,” said NDP Canadian Heritage critic Charlie Angus, a writer, broadcaster, and musician who spoke at the rally.
Among other things, the broadcasters want to be able to negotiate a fee for their local channels from the cable and satellite companies on a station-by-station basis. In previous hearings, the CRTC has twice rejected the broadcasters' arguments.
Calling the fee a “TV tax,” cable companies have vowed to pass the cost on to consumers. With declining advertising revenues, the networks say they need the money to maintain local programming.
Cable and satellite carriers led by telecom heavyweight Rogers Communications Inc, say the networks are actually spending too much money on foreign content and using local programming as a smokescreen.
Actra, (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), the national organization of professional English recording performers, slams both sides but is asking the CRTC to direct broadcasters to invest at least 6 percent of their gross revenues in Canadian drama and air a minimum of two hours a week of original-scripted Canadian drama and comedy in prime time.
The group's rally was attended by about 200 people and began when a parade of placard-holding supporters shouting “More Canada on TV” arrived on the Hill.
ACTRA National President Ferne Downey said Canadian English-language drama has been a rarity in prime time since the CRTC relaxed Canadian content rules in 1999 and all but erased Canadian programming.
Since then private broadcasters have been saturating Canada's prime time slots with U.S. shows. In this “disaster” scenario, broadcasters and big cable have gotten a free ride, Downey said.
According to ACTRA, last year broadcasters spent some $740 million on U.S. and foreign programming and just $54 million on Canadian English-language drama.
The Canadian stars that showed up in support were quick to point to Canadians success stories and the value of home-grown content.
Degrassi, The Next Generation star Charlotte Arnold said her younger brother’s favourite show was Corner Gas and that she grew up watching Mr. Rogers and Kids in the Hall. Jamie Johnston, who plays Peter in Degrassi, said Canada should be selling its programming to the U.S., not the other way around.
“Now more than ever, we need to show what Canadians can do,” added Degrassi star Dalmar Abuzeid.
Kids in the Hall actor Mark McKinney said that in the past, the usual way Canadians watched Canadians on TV was on Saturday Night Live and other American shows. But now more viewers can see Canadian actors through original Canadian shows like Flashpoint and Corner Gas.
At the hearings on Monday, Rogers argued that a fee-for-carriage type proposal was unacceptable as it combined the worst of two systems—signal compensation in the U.S. and mandatory carriage as well as content regulations in Canada.
"We are prepared to help broadcasters reinvigorate their business models for the digital and Internet age," Nadir Mohamed, Rogers' CEO told the commission. "We are not prepared, however, to support a fundamentally flawed compensation proposal."
McKinney said that if the CRTC “gets it wrong again” Canadian airwaves will continue to be dominated by U.S. programming, the industry will be crushed, and “we will lose yet another generation of actors and writers to L.A.”
“This may be the last chance to put the Canadian back in Canadian TV,” said Jackson Davies, who played RCMP officer Constable Constable on [/i]The Beachcombers[i].
ACTRA also held a press conference at the CRTC hearings in Gatineau and organized local activities in Halifax, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.