Canada's "TV tax"/"Save local TV" squabble explained

My last few trips to Canada, I've been puzzled by difficult-to-follow advocacy ads in which the broadcasters and the cable/sat operators have fought each other tooth and nail, begging Canadians to take side in a dispute over -- well, that's the problem. What was it over?

This Writers Guild of Canada YouTube clip does a great job of sorting it out. Both groups receive enormous subsidies to promote Canadian television (broadcasters get a "local programming fee" and cable/sat operators get a state-backed monopoly that keeps foreigners out). Both want more money, and both want the other guy to collect the fee, so they other guy looks like a jerk.

A pox on both their houses.

WGC: "Tv Tax?" "Save Local TV?" Here's the truth! CANADIAN tv! (Thanks, Emily!)



  1. I have worked for Canadian broadcast and cable TV stations for over thirty years. The one constant has been that the telecom and cable companies have been at each others throats all that time to see who gets to screw the consumer the most. This latest advocacy war is just embarrassing.

    I always thought that the reason that Coke ads don’t say that Pepsi tastes like crap is because it weakens both brands, and people just might get fed-up and switch to tap water.

    Well I personally don’t watch live TV and don’t subscribe to Rogers cable or BellTV. About a year ago I vowed to get a lot more selective about what I watch and/or listen to. So far, CBC/BBC/NPR podcasts and sites like have worked out very well. I’m not perfect. I also watch about six hours of network drama and sitcoms a week plus the Daly Show.

    Thank you Writers Guild of Canada for encapsulating my thoughts on this issue so succinctly.

  2. I also appreciate this short explanation of the debate–my partner and I felt pretty confused about the subject until now. I must say though, with very few exceptions, Canadian TV is not very good. The big US networks have more viewers, much deeper pockets, and frankly more courage to finance and produce innovative programming. Most of the time–and this is the other big difference–they’re not trying to explain what it means to be an American in these programs; they’re not so self-consciously identity-bound as Canadian programming. This deficiency cannot just be about the government’s control over CBC funding (and, to a lesser extent, content). The BBC frequently produces innovative content under similar circumstances. So what is it?

    1. The BBC does produce a lot of garbage programming, but only the “good stuff” is seen in North America. Even successful UK shows that are judged too “British” will not be distributed in the States, or shows like “The Office” will produce an American version.

      A similar filter is applied to Canadian produced shows. The few gems that get played into the USA or other foreign markets are highly regarded because they are our best product. We as Canadians get to see all of our own flops, or shows that are too “Canadian”.

    2. davidasposted: You are right about Canadian TV being mediocre, but not necessarily for the right reasons. I work both in French and English as a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. If I have a great edgy project, I know that English-Canadian broadcasters will never take a chance on it unless it’s proven itself in the states first (there are some exceptions, such as Showcase and, to some extent, Bravo). It just doesn’t pay for them to be innovative when the almost totality of their viewership has been raised on American TV and clamours for more of the same. They’ll broadcast the maximum American programming allowed by the CRTC and for the rest produce clones that are guaranteed to attract ratings (again, with some rare exceptions). To wit, two shows held up as Canadian TV success stories in recent years are ‘Corner Gas’ and ‘Little Mosque On the Prairie’, which I’d hardly call ground-breaking or innovative.

      French TV is different, but only because Quebeckers won’t settle for dubbed American shows. There’s still a lot of cloning, but it’s a much more vibrant market for innovative programming – although the funding process is tortuous and tends to go to producers with proven track records – i.e., middle-of-the-road stuff (again).

  3. This ‘debate’ has been very frustrating for a while now. The ads remind me of the Franken/Coleman ads during the US election. The attack ads just make me hate both sides, especially since they try and put words in my mouth.

    Honestly, I like Canadian content, but I would prefer fewer Canadian shows. It is fairly ridiculous to believe that Canada can reasonably compete with a country almost 10 times its size (especially since many US shows have Canadian actors and writers anyway). So instead of the stations having to spread their money out producing a number of so-so shows, I’d prefer them to focus on a few shows, and doing them quite well.

    Also, can somebody explain to me what the big deal is about the cable operators making $2.3 Billion is? Why are we always so outraged that companies are making profit?

  4. While I believe both all parties involved are greedy windbags I think the local stations need to STFU already. They’re the ones who wanted their signal rebroadcast by the big telecoms because it vastly increased the viewership and thus increased their ad dollar earning potential. So crying about how Rogers or Bell steal revenue from them is utter bullshiat. Furthermore, if they actually offered true local programming there might be some value, however as pointed out in the clip, they mostly just broadcast American programming anyway.

    It will never happen but I’d like to see the big telecoms take away basic cable bundles and offer all channels as a a la carte option, pick and choose your own menu, and then pay the networks based on subscription. That will make the the playing field even.

    Having said all that, the best option is to buy a HDTV antenna and screw them all. I have the internet, why do I need more then a dozen free channels?

  5. It’s a dinosaur fight. Let them squabble amongst themselves while the internet asteroid approaches.

    Will anyone still be paying for cable tv in 30 years? I don’t know anyone under 30 who does now. Will anyone get their news from a talking head? Again, I don’t know anyone under 30 who does now. (Excepting Jon Stewart…)

  6. Thanks for posting this – I was rather confused about what was actually being addressed.

    I’d like to see better Canadian programming, but I’ve very nearly given it up. The only shows I’ve really enjoyed in the last 10 years were The City, and Durham County (although the latter was really grim.)

    I cancelled my cable TV service about six months ago, and I thought I’d go through withdrawal. I haven’t.

  7. “Save local TV” is a reasonable call when smaller stations are shut down by the rationalizing large companies. The CBC would ideally be the local service, but the government doesn’t want to fund it.

    So yeah, the fees the Writer’s Guild talks about are bullshit, but there’s a larger issue of service to communities involved that requires support to – and representation of – local communities somehow.

  8. I don’t really watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch a TV show, it’s usually on netflix or hulu. The last explicitly canadian show I remember watching is Kids in the Hall.

    Screw you taxpayer!

  9. The worst of this is how the broadcasters and cable-cos bring this non-issue to the CRTC over and over again – thereby pushing back any interesting conversations about changes that could actually make Canadian TV better.

    I’m glad they’re finally doing these ads; the ads make both sides look bad, and in this case they both should.

  10. I have a thought about another possible reason behind this. The digital transition. I think that CTV and Global are pushing this “Save Local TV” thing hard right now so that if they don’t get fee-for-carriage, they can close down local stations (avoiding having to pay for the new digital broadcast equipment) and blame it on not getting fee-for-carriage. And if they do get it, then they have a new source of revenue that can pay for the equipment.

    1. This could be a possible reason. I remember hearing CTV will be shutting down broadcast towers in smaller areas that would cost them too much to upgrade to broadcast a digital signal.

    2. I don’t think the broadcasters are interested in closing local TV transmitters. But they may be interested in shutting down local production. Generally, media don’t mind capital costs like digital transmitters, but they really like to get rid of operational expenses. For you non-accountants these are called people, jobs and benefits.

      CTV for example, already has one master control room in Toronto that controls all of the programming and commercials for all of their affiliates 24/7. If they could get rid of local news they could shut down whole buildings and turf the people in them except for local advertising sales.

      BTW the CRTC hearings on this very issue started half an hour ago: Click below for a live stream to hear Canada’s finest spin doctors at work:

  11. I live in Toronto.

    Homemade antenna to pick up HD broadcasts of CBC, CTV, Global and various other channels (including PBS): $15.

    Shell account on UK server to run ssh proxy through and so get all BBC iplayer programming (and ITV too): $80 / year. for the Daily show: free.

    Avoiding paying gouging Canadian cable or satellite providers anything: immensely satisfying.

  12. I was on holiday in Canada a few weeks ago, and the ads confused me beyond belief. Especially as we have the TV license in the UK to cover this sort of thing already, and it seems to work well enough.

    What struck me was this: there IS no Canadian television. Apart from continuous rolling local news (of the “Oshawa man hits hand with hammer!” type), the ice hockey, and, well, “Being Erica”, everything I saw was either US or UK-produced.

  13. A farmer grows a field full of apple trees, and it ripens into a huge crop. The farmer could drive only a single bushel of apples to market to sell, so he only sells to 10% of the people who wanted to buy.
    Then, a man drives in a huge truck and pulls all of the apples off the trees, and sets up a roadside stand just outside of the market, getting 90% of the people who wanted apples. He sells the apples that he got for free at a price that marks up the actual process of getting the apples considerably, even factoring in his truck. The losers are the people at the market who just want to buy some apples at a reasonable price.

    The television companies are the farmer. They did all the work producing what they have to offer, but have limited means to distribute it. Then the cable company (the man) comes in, takes all of his hard work for free, and sells it at a marked up price.
    Granted, the farmer has a difficult time distributing it, but without the money to buy a new pickup truck that can carry more than a single bushel, he’ll have a hard time fixing his distribution model.

    The farmer is asking that the man with the truck pay for all the apples the farmer worked hard to grow, instead of stealing them and charging an obscene markup.

    That’s what the situation is about. Television companies may be lagging behind in distribution, but it still shouldn’t mean that cable companies can steal their product and sell it at a markup.

  14. Excellent, thank you!

    The only thing I had been able to decipher in the ads myself was that they were arguing two very different points. In that sense, they are both lying to you, a lie of misdirection. The ads are a shell game.

    As the video says, there is no competition. “Thanks for choosing Shaw.” Of course I “chose” Shaw; with my neighbour’s trees, I can’t get satellite. So, do I go with Shaw, or…maybe with Shaw?


  15. This ad is perfect. It explains everything and removes the confusion. The only thing that it doesn’t mention is that the $2.3 billion profit that cable, satellite, and telco TV providers make isn’t just from their TV signals. It also includes their profits from internet, telephone, and wireless products.

    As for the debate, I’m all for de-regulation. Deregulate all TV signals so consumers can pick-and-choose the channels they want. Lets see how fast the TV stations fold. And while their de-regulating that, de-regulate cable, satellite, and telco TV providers. Allow for more competition in Canada and let Direct TV, Comcast, Verizon, etc to come offer services in Canada. I, for one, would love to have Verizon’s Fios service.

  16. From what I see of the collection of TV taxes for supporting local TV. I believe that if these company cannot find better programing, than I say let the stations go defunk and not be supported by the general population. Ads on these TV stations are suppose to paid for the programing not the general population. Althrough ad paid to the stations we the consumer are already paying for programs. I do not like the idea of tax on something that we really have no control over.

  17. Think about it, why do Canadian companies even air NBC, ABC, etc? It would be so much easier if we could get American programming (shows) and put them on Canadian networks.

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