Navneet Alang: Let’s make big tech pay for CanCon’s brighter future

Navneet Alang: Let’s make big tech pay for CanCon’s brighter future
“Oh, this must be a Canadian show.” That was what one would say back in the day, when a clearly low-budget show would come on TV, with that particular grainy look our shows used to have versus their more glossy, polished American counterparts.

Of course, there was always a sneaking suspicion of why they were on at all: CanCon rules. Those laws that dictated that a certain amount of Canadian content on the airwaves were and are part of life in this country, and were occasionally why Canadian content of sometimes dubious quality would also makes its way on to TV.

The future of CanCon that is now dominating discussions in cultural circles across the country. It’s because of the controversial Bill C-10, more officially known as An Act to Amend the Broadcasting Act. Though the act appears to be dead in the water for now, its ostensible purpose was to update the broadcasting act for the internet age, paving the way for the CRTC to regulate certain aspects of the internet, with a particular focus on web giants. Some of the potential changes could involve what content can and cannot remain online, or how tech companies surface content for Canadians to see.

That the web should in some way be regulated seems long past debating. The complete dominance of foreign big tech over the Canadian digital public sphere is absolutely worth pushing back against.

But what about CanCon rules? As a hypothetical example, should the streaming services that dominate media now work like TV — should we insist that a third of Netflix or YouTube’s content be Canadian, or that CanCon must show up on their home pages?

It sounds reasonable on the surface. But the shifting nature of speech, choice, and the media world in the 21st century means that traditional ideas of CanCon may no longer be viable — and that instead of regulating how much Canadian content we can see, we should instead be funding innovative new digital creators.

After all, in the second decade of the 21st century, Canadian content is no longer a global afterthought. TV shows like “Schitt’s Creek” gain worldwide acclaim. Maybe more importantly, online Canadian creators are wildly successful. Breakout stars like Lilly Singh parlay their YouTube success into high-profile gigs, while numerous other Canadian tech and lifestyle personalities amass millions of followers, sometimes leading their fields. If there was once a sort of self-fulfilling inferiority complex to Canadian content, the web era has seen a stark change.

Canadian content rules emerged out of a period of nationalism in the 1960s. Like Ireland, New Zealand, and other countries that live in the shadow of a more dominant neighbour, Canada looked to protect its cultural industries but also its cultural identity from the behemoth next door.

In the online arena, it can appear that Canadians need no such help. Look at YouTubers who talk about tech: Canadian channels like Linus Tech Tips, Unbox Therapy, or Dave2D have millions of followers. They are leading the conversation on their subject.

What that means for CanCon rules in the 21st century isn’t that they are obsolete. If the global reach of the internet means that American audiences dominate, then there is still a need for Canadian institutions to support Canadian creators making content for Canadians.
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