The last few months have showed a complex and potentially ominous relationship between digital content and community engagement. While Netflix announced stellar results in October (the result of a relentless global expansion), Shomi, the Rogers and Shaw domestic on-demand service was abruptly shut down. In November, Canadian Heritage ended its public consultations on the digital future.
Netflix presents many challenges for Canadian producers and consumers, and these have been widely discussed. The company that was started by mailing movies to customers has fueled a new generation of so-called ‘cord cutters’ that are happily oblivious to the bundle offerings of domestic telecommunications providers. These providers, in turn, are furiously lobbying the CRTC – and anyone else that will listen, in an effort to loosen regulation and perhaps even introduce new taxation (though for others of course…).
Netflix has earmarked an astounding six billion dollars on original content development in 2017. Once known mainly for House of Cards, the company now seeks to embed itself in various markets as a catalyst for endogenous culture. In Canada, for example, Netflix and the CBC are partnering with Halfire Entertainment on the adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace.
In a world of streaming, both broadcasters and regulators are confronting changing and more uncertain terrain. Are Canadian content quotas during so-called ‘prime time hours’ still relevant? On what terms should public carriers compete and co-exist with private carriers? Along with culture and entertainment, what about the provision of news and information to both the country and local communities?
It is arguably this latter point that merits closer scrutiny. While Canadian artists continue to thrive in a globalizing marketplace of platforms old and new, the health of local news providers is much more worrisome. Jean-Pierre Blais, the Head of the CRTC, lamented the state of the industry and its contractions, telling the federal Heritage Committee in October: ‘We do not believe that local television news can be allowed to fall by the wayside simply because it doesn’t look good on the balance sheet.’
The balance sheets of private sector media companies in Canada are not simply unimpressive – they are downright awful. Most recently, Postmedia announced significant losses and plans to reduce salary costs by twenty percent. Earlier in the year, the CRTC heard warnings that half of all local television stations could be shut down by 2020 due to declining audiences and revenues. Local newspapers face an equally daunting future.
Along with impacts on culture, such trends will also shape civic engagement and social capital. While the emergence of streaming services and social media platforms enables new forms of expression and new content alliances to be forged, little space remains for local news and civic affairs. In a world of social media stars and billion dollar production budgets, how interesting can a story on local planning be on a Facebook newsfeed?
Much as Netflix is going global, so too did the spectacle of the American Presidential election. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that fewer than one third of Halifax voters bothered to cast a ballot this fall for local elections, despite the possibility of doing so online.
Robert Putnam’s seminal work on social capital demonstrated that in order to remain economically prosperous, communities require civic vibrancy through participative institutions across both the political and volunteer sectors. To be involved, citizens must be informed – and streaming services and social media platforms risk de-coupling this social process in ways that both over-shadow and erode local democracy and communal forums.
Video and music streaming, social media, and virtual networks provide tremendous benefits. Whatever the threats, politics at the federal level can (at least for now) garner enough presence on media old and new to remain relevant. Yet we must also not lose sight of the fact that if communities are to be better connected and more collaborative and intelligent, localized forms of awareness and engagement must be preserved and, indeed, reinvented for an evolving online universe of ubiquitous content.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie