An urgent call for a national digital media strategy

To Mark Bishop interactive is never an afterthought.

Bishop and Matt Hornburg are the creative minds behind marblemedia, the producers of such cross-platform projects as the popular kids’ cooking show Taste Buds, now in production for a second season on TVOntario.

Taste Buds ismore than a TV show; it is also a website extraordinaire. tastebudstv.com offers colourful recipes, videos, blogs from behind-the-scenes and an online build-it-yourself cookbook. The site also features games that teach children everything from counting money at a cash register and how to shop for groceries to how to be a “green” chef.

Over the past 10 years, Toronto-based marblemedia has become an award-winning Canadian company because it knows how to create original content that works on television, online, and on mobile devices.  Other projects such as This is Daniel Cook and This is Emily Yeung are now airing in over 85 countries and a dozen languages.

ln a globally-connected world, other independent Canadian producers who have relied on over-the-air (OTA) television to broadcast their Canadian stories must do likewise or be left behind in the digital dust.

However, while Canada has the talent to lead the world in interactive media it lacks a national digital strategy to support this market.

Except for a few progressive companies like marblemedia, Canada lags other countries in creating and promoting new media content. As a result, the world’s largest (mostly U.S.)media brands, as well as aggressive new media start-ups, are quickly populating the field. Canadian voices in new media broadcasting are in short supply and domestic viewers are spending more time visiting U.S. destinations.

To help the independent production sector reach a new level of excellence, Canada needs a comprehensive national digital strategy. Elements of this strategy should include:

• Infrastructure funds to build a competitive broadband system for Canada;

• A regulatory regime that ensures that the Internet remains an open access content distribution platform;

• A funding mechanism to support and nurture Canadian media content;and

• A sustainable and predictable business environment for new media producers by mandating the conclusion of Terms of Trade agreements between broadcasters and producers.

Last April, the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA) called on the federal government to launch national consultations in the form of a Royal Commission or a policy review panel to put Canada at the forefront of innovation. Our association, which represents more than 400 small-and medium-sized businesses, believes that independent producers, broadcasters and other industry stakeholders must unite to map a legislative and regulatory framework for the new digital generation.  Other countries such as Britain, France and Australia have already launched initiatives towards such a goal. Canada needs to follow their lead.

Ironically, only a few years ago Canada had a reputation for being a global broadband leader. But today it is a broadband laggard, falling further and further behind other countries in such key metrics as broadband penetration, speed and pricing.

Internet capacity and access are also key issues at the CRTC hearings on Net Neutrality this month. (July). We will express to the CRTC our strong belief that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must make significant investments in building bigger broadband “pipes” and that Canadians—rather than ISPs—should be the ones who determine which content and applications will flourish on the Internet and which won’t.

To ensure that the Internet continues to remain an open-access platform, it’s critical that there be rules that prevent ISPs from being able to arbitrarily target and throttle (i.e. to slow down or block) Internet traffic.  Currently, ISPs claim they need to throttle Bit Torrent and other Peer-to-Peer (P2P) applications in order to manage congestion on their networks.

We are of the view that upgrading network capacity is a farmore effectivemeans of addressing network congestion. And while P2P file-sharing has been the main vehicle for the unauthorized copying and distribution of copyrighted content, it has also become a versatile, cost-effective and efficient mechanism for independent producers to distribute their content to Canadians and audiences around the world. So when ISPs throttle P2P they are also impeding access to the Internet for both independent producers and their audiences.

The CFTPA is particularly concerned about the potential for ISPs to use traffic throttling as a tool for discriminating against competing content and service providers. What happens, for example, when an ISP is under common ownership with a broadcasting or cable company? There are clear incentives for it to manage Internet traffic in a way that favours its own content and services over those provided by competitors. That’s why the CRTC has to be proactive in ensuring that effective rules are in place to ensure that ISPs treat traffic in a neutral manner, and to incentivize them to invest in upgrading network capacity to address congestion issues.

New and stable funding is also needed to create more Canadian new media broadcasting content.

“The current Canadian funding streams are important but far too small to develop a critical mass of Canadian new media content,” says Bishop. “The CRTC, for one, must take a holistic view of the current landscape and build on the value the independent production sector can bring by creating quality new media content.”

The CFTPA believes that ISPs and wireless service providers should be required to contribute a portion of their gross revenues to a fund to support new Canadian media content, just as elements of the traditional broadcasting system do today.

Independent producers are creators and copyright holders of high-quality content that can and should be leveraged across all platforms. However, the CFTPA is concerned that broadcasters, after acquiring these rights from producers without appropriate compensation, often fail to exploit the content. The timely conclusion of Terms of Trade agreements is fundamental to establishing pride of place for Canadian content on digital platforms.

Just as important, there needs to be a change of attitude by all industry players when it comes to seizing the opportunities of the digital age. Consumers around the world are devoting more of their disposable income to consuming content on alternate platforms. But rather than collectively focusing on developing a strategy to obtain a bigger slice of that growing global pie, we squander valuable time and energy fighting over crumbs in the domestic market. This is a sure fire recipe for marginalization and decline in any industry, and makes no sense when we have such a high-quality product to sell to the rest of the world.

With the right tools and the right attitude, the independent production sector can follow the lead of companies such as marblemedia to become international leaders in the creative economy.

Norm Bolen is President/CEO of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA). He may be contacted by e-mail at norm.bolen@cftpa.ca.

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