Canadians #TalkTV: The Question Surrounding Digital Content Licensing

Canadians #TalkTV: The Question Surrounding Digital Content Licensing

For the past month the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has been attempting to open its policy and regulation processes to the Canadian public. On October 24, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais launched A Conversation with Canadians with speeches and discussions at the Université Laval and Ryerson University. As Mr. Blais stated during his presentation at Ryerson, this conversation is designed to ensure that Canada’s future television regulatory framework is “dynamic, adaptive, and sustainable.”

Similar to broader trends in global media industries, Canada’s television landscape is undergoing significant changes as a result of the "digital era". In this evolving situation, new and emerging media and communication technologies are threatening the traditional business models that television creators and providers rely upon.

As the Government of Canada has pointed out, "new business models and new market strategies will be needed if the Canadian digital media sector is to succeed in the global digital economy. " For example, "Over-the-top" service providers, such as Netflix, as well as an array of companies offering on-demand or à la carte options, notably Apple Inc. via iTunes, are growing in popularity, one-third of Canadians now watch television content via Internet-based services, and demonstrating the shifting nature of the contemporary television landscape in Canada and across the world.

Due to these changes in how Canadians view television content, the country’s television regulator is seeking advice from the Canadian public to determine if and how television regulations must change. For the CRTC, “making the right choices about how we shape Canadian television requires a complete and in-depth understanding of the Canadian television viewing experience.”

The regulator has, therefore, asked Canadians to reflect on the their habits and offer advice on three areas: “Programming: What do you think about what’s on television?; Technology: What do you think about how you receive television programming?; and a so-called Viewer Toolkit: Do you have enough information to make informed choices and seek solutions if you’re not satisfied?”

A common area of concern for many Canadian television viewers sits at the convergence of these first two topics: the relationship between programming — often of foreign content — and emerging technologies. Canadian consumers are often irritated to find that the content they wish to watch online is unavailable to them because of their geographic location.

Due to the nature and complexity of content licensing agreements, many popular programs are "geo-blocked" for viewers based in Canada or are otherwise unavailable to Canadian-based service providers. The frustrations surrounding Netflix’s 2010 entrance into the Canadian market epitomize this. At the time, many Canadians were irritated by Netflix Canada’s relatively limited selection when compared to the service as offered in the United States. These sentiments continue today; websites have been created to track the differences between the Canadian and American services.

Geo-blocking and the unavailability of foreign content are distinct but related issues for Canadian viewers as well as service providers. Geo-blocking is a technological protection measure, allowing rights-holders to determine who can view content based upon the geographic location of a user’s Internet Protocol address. Rights-holders employ this technology in order to recreate traditional, geographically-based broadcast boundaries in the online environment. In a study for the CRTC, digital media consultant Alan Sawyer argues: “since this is consistent with the realities of the physical world, it's a logical approach for broadcasters to take and makes a sensible foundation for enforcing territorial licensing agreements – and it preserves the effectiveness of the existing ad-supported model and helps broadcasters avoid disintermediation.” Foreign websites restrict access to the content that they host based on the territorial markets that they are attempting to serve and generate revenue from.

Territorial licensing agreements also determine what content Canadian websites and services can offer to their markets. Much of the television content offered by Canadian service providers as well as foreign companies operating in the country is produced internationally, primarily in the United States. Service providers in Canada must therefore negotiate licensing agreements with particular rights holders in order to deliver this content to Canadian audiences. In certain cases, popular foreign programming is often unavailable to Canadian viewers.

The CRTC is not directly involved with what content service providers license from rights-holders. So while many Canadians may wish to discuss this topic during the CRTC’s Conversation, the regulators hands may be tied in terms of addressing the problem.

Instead of attempting to solve the business model challenges of Canadian service providers, better results might be obtained if the regulator focuses on ensuring that Canadian content continues to be produced and delivered to Canadians via traditional and emerging media. As more and more content migrates to online platforms, the CRTC will need to explore whether or not Internet-based content providers need to be regulated so that they contribute to the creation of domestically produced content.

[Note: As part of the #TalkTV proceedings, The Communications Policy Working Group (a non-partisan, student-run initiative of the York & Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, Politics & Policy stream), is hosting a ‘Flash Conference’ on December 4, 2013. More information is available here.]

Joseph F. Turcotte is an IPilogue Editor, a PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in the Communication & Culture Program (Politics & Policy) at York University, and a Nathanson Graduate Fellow at the Jack & Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at Osgoode Hall Law School.