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CBC can’t beat Netflix’s ‘imperialism’ with subsidized Cancon nobody watches
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CBC can’t beat Netflix’s ‘imperialism’ with subsidized Cancon nobody watches

Written by
William Watson
Published by
Ottawa Citizen
on
February 5th, 2019

Columnist says that while Netflix should pay tax, it should not have to contribute to a Canadian film and TV production fund.

As she may now regret having done, CBC president Catherine Tait wandered off script last week to compare the popularity of Netflix, a U.S. multinational, with the French and British empires. You have to be careful, she reminded us, taking a trope from Donald Trump, of the harm foreign influences can do to domestic communities. Nineteenth-century Brits may have thought they were doing good by painting the globe pink, but many of those painted didn’t agree.

There’s nothing worse you can call somebody in this day and age than “imperialist.” Unless maybe it’s “settler” or “white male.” But give Mme President the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it’s not so great if everyone in the world (I exaggerate) gets their entertainment from the same source.

Except that if Netflix is imperialism, it seems a lot like United Nations imperialism. When I think back on the Netflix series our household has watched, they’ve been very international: Danish (Borgen), Swedish-Danish (The Bridge), Icelandic even (Trapped), Norwegian (Occupied), British of course (with various mysteries about ghastly murders in Cornwall, London, Oxford, Wales and several other places you might have thought would be quiet, green and pleasant), British-French (The Tunnel), German (The Same Sky, Berlin Babylon), Israeli (Fauda), Australian (Rake, Secret City), American naturally (Ozark, Breaking Bad, The Killing) and so on and so on. If I have mistakenly attributed some of these series to Netflix when in fact we got them from other sources, that only goes to show the empire faces competition.

Netflix has internationalized to the point where we now actually favour subtitles. Originally this was because the dubbing in the Israeli-Palestinian thriller Fauda was so comically bad — you’d think dubbers would be required to actually read a script before hitting “record” — but it also helps with the almost unlimited number of regional British dialects (which, by the way, weren’t radio and TV supposed to eliminate)?

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All these shows have something in common, apart from the facts that crazed killing takes place and cops have difficult personal lives just about everywhere. They’re all beautifully written and acted and stylishly directed and produced. They’re all middlebrow or maybe in some cases upper middlebrow. And, most importantly, they held our attention. Some Netflix series, although not many, we have given up on. That was our choice. Which as National Post columnist Chris Selley has pointed out, makes it a crazy kind of imperialism: Indians couldn’t switch the Raj off whenever they liked.

Another thing these offerings aren’t is Canadian — although, who knows? The way the Can-Con subsidy system works, some may have been shot in Canada, but with all distinctively Canadian markings camouflaged. Netflix does offer a “Canadian movies” option. So far we haven’t clicked on it. Over the years our experience with movies financed without the need to attract viewers hasn’t been happy.

Should Netflix pay tax? Of course it should. It provides a newly produced service, and the whole idea of the GST is to tax all newly produced goods and services, with the rate of tax getting lower and lower as the tax base gets wider and wider. That said, it would take a brave politician, or a foolhardy one, to tax people’s Netflix. (Where are Joe Clark and John Crosbie when you need them?)

Should Netflix have to contribute to a Canadian film and TV production fund? No, it shouldn’t. Earmarked taxes are a bad idea. You want to tax where the cost of taxation is lowest and spend on public purposes where the social returns are highest at the margin. Tax money should go into general revenue, which should be allocated to wherever benefits are greatest. Diverting revenue streams to specific purposes messes that up.

Plus, if we’re going to have a programming fund, why should people who enjoy Netflix programs be the ones to pay for it? If Canadian programming truly benefits all Canadians, that’s yet another argument for taking the funds out of general revenue. If everyone benefits, everyone should pay.

But how is it again that everyone benefits? We now have a mechanism where if people make excellent film or television, they can show it around the world, even if it is Canadian. Netflix is a for-profit company: If the world wants something, you can bet Netflix will provide it.

With the market now taking good care of in-demand properties, the programming funds must be to support properties that either can’t or prefer not to attract enough viewers, whether at home or around the world, to pay for themselves. In effect, they’ll go mainly unwatched.

It may not be imperialism when a government takes your money to produce films and TV you don’t care to watch, but it’s nothing good.

© Ottawa Citizen

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Netflix isn't required to pay one cent to support Canadian culture.
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