TV producers fear a la carte channel selection threatens jobs, kids’ content

TORONTO — An a la carte system gives TV fans more choice but they’ll ultimately have fewer channels to choose from, say some Canadian producers who predict job losses and less programming for kids.

But most at risk are channels that don’t really license original content anyway, like Book Television, says the head of the Canadian Media Production Association, referring to the struggling Bell Media channel that’s become a poster child for what’s wrong with the current bundling system.

“All broadcasting channels are going to be under pressure. Some will disappear and some won’t and that will really be determined by consumer choice,” said Michael Hennessy, noting that’s not entirely a bad thing.

“How many channels today — from our perspective that are really buying original content — are there? That are attracting a lot of audience? It’s a relatively small number. I would say once you get beyond your top 20 or 30 channels there’s a whole bunch of channels nobody’s watching.”

He estimates independent TV producers were responsible for more than 125,000 jobs and almost $6 billion in economic activity in 2013/14.

The CRTC’s new rules likely won’t boost those numbers, he predicted.

“All you will do is shrink the number of companies without making anybody bigger.”

Consumers across the country will soon have the chance to subscribe to individual channels or smaller TV bundles under regulations introduced Thursday by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC also ordered TV providers to offer a basic package at no more than $25 a month.

Just how that could change the TV landscape has yet to be seen, but some observers celebrated the likelihood of a thinned-out dial, where truly great homegrown productions might have a shot at finding audiences.

“Because there are so many channels, everything is massively fractured,” says Adam Shaheen of Cuppa Coffee Studios, responsible for animation productions including “Glenn Martin DDS.”

“You’re getting two people on every channel and that now makes up a sort of normal audience.”

And if people lose their jobs, maybe they deserve to go, he suggested.

“The cream of the crop rises to the top. Meaning the people who are producing programming that people actually want will stay in business,” said Shaheen.

“I’m not fussed about that at all.”

Still, Hennessy worried about the fate of kids-focused channels.

“Everybody I think would agree that having children’s channels is a good thing. But at the same time, if you have no children, you’re very unlikely to actually subscribe to a kids channel,” said Hennessy.

Jacob Leibovitch, director of public policy communications and research at ACTRA national, predicted the changes would mean “less for performers, less for writers, (less for) directors.”

“The industry itself will suffer,” said Leibovitch.

Others took a wait-and-see approach.

“Will we be better off or worse off? It’s very hard to say right now, I know there’s a fair bit of panic in the industry,” said Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada.

Of course, there will be opportunities in this new era of emerging online platforms. But these new services are not commissioning much original Canadian content, nor are they regulated, said Hennessy.

Nevertheless, Shaheen said today’s producers can’t rely on the old TV model.

“We’re working now on putting together a whole package of shows that just go straight to a major IT provider,” said Shaheen.

“I just sort of milk it as much as I can.”

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