Netflix confuses entertainment with culture

The video-streaming giant Netflix recently told a panel reviewing Canada’s Broadcast Act that “market forces” should determine the programs that Canadians watch, not pooled resources like the Canadian Media Fund.

image: Lifewire

In making this claim, Netflix is essentially saying that they will determine how to spend our money –the fees they collect from Canadians- and not be dictated by what Canadians want to see.

Netflix’s arrogance is offensive, not just because it’s paternalistic, not just because it treats programs as entertainment, but because it pretends that it’s not a Canadian broadcaster.

Netflix claim that it’s not a broadcaster is suspect. It’s a disingenuous argument considering that millions of Canadians now watch shows and movies through video-streaming. Surely, that makes them a broadcaster.

OK, maybe Netflix is not a broadcaster in the traditional sense that their broadcasts are not over-the-air. That’s a technicality. But TV stations don’t stop being broadcasters because they transmit over cable. Our Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, currently under review, should be updated to include video-streaming as broadcasting.

The reason Netflix doesn’t want to be defined as a broadcaster is because they would have to pay into the Canadian Media Fund like every other broadcaster. The Canadian Media Fund produces programming that reflects who we are. It’s a modest fund run by a not-for-profit corporation to deliver funding for Canadian TV and digital media.

If your eyes glaze over at the talk of culture, digital media and regulations, it’s because there are so many distractions in the Netflix debate that it’s hard to keep track of them. Last year it was the so-called “Netflix tax” which has nothing to do with Netflix specifically. Rather, it’s a proposed tax on the entire internet. That’s obviously a bad idea because the internet has become essential in accessing education and government, not just video-streaming. The internet has insinuated itself into our lives that’s necessary for a functioning democracy.

Then there is the sales tax that Quebec and Saskatchewan have imposed on subscriptions to Netflix. While Netflix is not technically obliged to collect the tax and pass it on to provinces (they are not a Canadian corporation), they have agreed to do so.

Why is Netflix so agreeable in the matter of collecting sales tax and so disagreeable when it comes to contributing to the Canadian Media Fund?

It’s because they persist in claiming that what they sell is a product. But what they see as entertainment, the rest of the world sees as culture.

It’s a blind spot that all big American media giants have. They see the exportation of American culture as subject to the forces of the marketplace. They studiously ignore the fact that exported American culture is intended to swamp local, more poorly funded, productions.

Don’t get me wrong. Netflix produces some very good programs and is rivaling Hollywood in quality. It also produces some mundane and derivative schlop.

As much as Netflix wishes, programs don’t compete in a marketplace where the most popular ones win. The stories we tell ourselves capture our identity. While those markets are as small, they are as important as a tile in our cultural mosaic.

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