Why Forcefeeding “Cancon” is Going to Backfire on C-11 Supporters

With rumours that the CRTC is going to start manipulating algorithms by the end of the year via Bill C-11, it’s worth revisiting why it’s going to backfire.

One of the conspiracy theories we’ve heard throughout the Bill C-11 debates that resulted in the Online Streaming Act was that there is something nefarious going on with the algorithms. The ominous “algorithms” were someone treating Canadian culture unfairly and, thanks to that, Canadian culture is dying and without government intervention, Canada would lose its entire cultural identity because it’s now showing up on YouTube (yeah, I couldn’t keep a straight face typing that).

Obviously, that whole narrative was a complete fabrication. Canadian culture has never been stronger and Canada’s cultural identity isn’t going anywhere. The only ones who are actually under any actual threat are the traditional producers and broadcasters. For decades, those traditional Canadian producers and broadcasters had an outright monopoly on Canadian audiences. If you didn’t like what was shown on television, well, the only option you had was turning the TV off. If you didn’t like what was in the theatres, then your only option was to not go.

This, of course, brought about enormous implications for those who are trying to produce something creative. If you didn’t bend to every whim of the traditional gatekeeper, whether that is signing away all of your rights for that work or even ceding creative freedom, it was their way or the highway. Some talented creatives were forced to take their chances on the US market, finding widespread success in the US, before the Canadian monopolistic gatekeepers begrudgingly allowed them to showcase their work in Canada afterwards. It was a brutal monopolistic system that really put the squeeze on the creative for decades.

The thing is, with the advent of the internet, creatives could find a new outlet for their works. They could reach audiences that were once effectively off limits to them. Instead of trying to appease some executive in an office building, creatives could actually showcase their work to an audience without meeting whatever arbitrary rules or guidelines that were set by the large corporate monopolies or the Canadian government. A video was uploaded and the audience could, for the first time, determine what they did or didn’t like.

As more and more creators tried their luck on these online platforms, the audiences followed more and more. Traditional outlets initially dismissed these platforms, and the internet itself, as little more than a fad that would burn out on its own. Some argued that YouTube would get sued out of existence eventually or people would tire of the so-called “low quality” content and go back to the “professional content” that traditional producers make. The dismissive attitude got us to where we are today: audiences leaving the traditional media outlets in droves and platforms becoming the go-to source for entertainment.

While the audiences may have left many of these traditional producers, the attitude of being entitled to success never did. For many of the traditional producers, they know what is “high quality” and “professional” content. They decide what audiences like and push out what they feel audiences like. Meanwhile, digital first creators flip that mentality on its head. They produce content, then put that out of the audiences with the hopes that audiences would like it. The decision of what is good ends up in the hands of the audience. The level of risk of producing something different was up to the creators, but it was still up to the audience to determine if they liked that content or not.

Between the attitudes of traditional producers and an audience increasingly moving away from their offerings, it’s probably not a surprise that we got to this point. Those traditional producers are demanding that audiences return to them immediately, calling on the government to pass a law that says that online platforms must force audiences towards their content, not to what they call “cat videos” of online creators (spoiler: it’s not just cat video’s that get uploaded). That’s a big part of what Bill C-11, now the Online Streaming Act, is all about. That’s forcing the audience to go back to traditional producers content at all costs.

For that, they conjured up a convincing cover story of a sort of evil “man behind the curtain” nefariously directing audiences to non-Canadian content largely produced out of the US. Because audiences are more drawn to the online content, Canadian culture is dying and it was up to the government to do something about this before it is too late and Canada would be gone forever.

The evidence, overwhelmingly, said otherwise. Spending in Canadian content is actually significantly up. There are more Canadian productions than ever before. What’s more, there was no evidence that those “evil” algorithms are doing something nefarious to erase Canadian culture. Of course, in a time when evidence-based governance has been largely rejected by North American governments in the lawmaking process, evidence became a mere obstacle into forcing this bad bill forward.

Creators have long protested this legislation. After finding success online, many are seeing their careers now in serious jeopardy thanks to algorithms that would, ironically, be manipulated by the very “man behind the curtain” characterization pushed by the bills supporters in the first place. Their reach for audiences would get downgraded in favour of traditionally produced content regardless of what the audiences are using the platforms to find in the first place. Everything they have worked for all of these years could get severely knee-capped as a result of a CRTC forcing government certified “Canadian Content” or “Cancon” onto audiences.

While the Online Streaming Act is currently before the CRTC, delayed by a whole year recently, there are reports saying that the CRTC could go ahead and implement algorithmic manipulation even before it has held consultations on what even is Canadian content in the first place. Matt Hatfield noted the following:

.@CRTCeng now telling senators that “discoverability” – mandated promotion of Canadian content – will start in 2024.

How, when they’ve yet to even start determining what Canadian content is? #BillC11

Hatfield also noted this:

I need to emphasize that I don’t mean this as “deciding what is Canadian is a hard question with complex answers.”

I mean @CRTCeng literally has not begun consultation to decide who and what counts as Canadian, but is promising to mandate promoting it by end of year. How?

The comments will no doubt set off fears of platforms could be heavily manipulated to turn audiences away from creators and towards the cultural elite in this country.

There is one pretty critical piece that is missing in all of this: the audience. Has any of these Online Streaming Act supporters even bothered to ask what the audiences wanted in the first place? Of all the comments I’ve seen, I haven’t seen any real acknowledgement of what audiences want in all of this. There’s a famous Principle Skinner meme which has Skinner asking himself “Am I so out of touch?” After a brief pause, he then says, “No. It’s the children who are wrong!” Really, the meme does fit here:

The idea that audiences are leaving because of their low effort content is such a foreign concept for the cultural elite, the idea that audiences are the ones who are completely wrong with their tastes ends up being a very plausible idea for them – as ridiculous as it sounds. I mean, there’s a reason why there has been an effort to manipulate the algorithms to force feed their content to audiences over everyone else.

The major problem in all of this is that audiences – especially audiences who get their content online – have grown used to getting content that they want to watch. The algorithms that have drawn so much ire from the cultural elite are there to simply offer content that would be relevant to that audience members interests. That is, after all, how the algorithms generally work in the first place.

If you, as an audience member, like video’s about building PCs, you’ll get more video’s about building PCs recommended to you. If you like science related videos, you’ll get video’s about science recommended to you. Audiences in the online environment have had these features for years – arguably over a decade now. Tastes can change, to be sure, but the algorithms today can easily adapt to those changing tastes. After all, the platforms have considerable data to help with that. This is through tracking likes, watch time, and more.

This is where we get to the old style way of thinking vs the new style of thinking when it comes to producing content. The old style is basically arguing that after whatever process they came up with, they have decided that the audience likes their content more than anything else. Therefore, they should be the top result for everything. If their content is not being recommended to everyone, then it’s the algorithms fault, not the fault of their content.

That, of course, clashes with the new style of audience first content creation on a platform where that style of thinking is king. Audiences in these online platforms are used to getting content they want to watch, not what some producer personally believes you’ll like. The natural conclusion to this clashing of mentality is that audiences will suddenly start seeing content recommended to them that they never had any interest in. Some might curiously look at why such a video was recommended, but generally, will largely reject that video with down voting and flags urging platforms like YouTube to not recommend that content.

I’ve heard some supporters of the Online News Act respond to this scenario by saying that, well, that is YouTube’s problem, not theirs. It’s up to YouTube to make audiences like their content. The reality is, no, that is not YouTube’s problem. That is the cultural elite producers problem. If that content doesn’t land with audiences, then it doesn’t succeed. You can manipulate the algorithm all you want, but no matter how many times government certified “Cancon” is recommended, many in the audience aren’t going to end up liking it.

It all makes sense, obviously. If you are constantly watching video’s about car repairs, then get recommended a video about Family Feud Canada, you’re either going to ignore it or tell the algorithm this is not something you want to watch. Same thing for the person who watches home improvement video’s getting recommended the arguably inaccurate Canadian Culture minute about the origins of Superman. That person is going to see those video’s and go “what the heck is this???” and down vote it or flag that video as something to not recommend.

Contrary to what some of the Online Streaming Act supporters might think, the audience isn’t stupid. They don’t just blindly click on just any video that gets recommended to them on a large scale and like and share just anything. What’s more, audiences generally are used to even higher quality content then what is shown on crummy TV channels these days. The mediocrity that many attribute to a broken “Cancon” system isn’t going to magically completely succeed just because the algorithms are manipulated in their favour. Depending on the implementation, audiences might even get to the extreme of revolting against this. Review bombing wouldn’t even be a huge surprise to me.

This isn’t even just my opinion either. During the senate hearings on this bill, Morghan Fortier, talking about how there was a slight mistake in an effort to make YouTube more family friendly. That resulted in video’s being recommended for a brief period of time to users who had no interest in that content. Here was my summary of her comments at the time:

Fortier then said that if it helps, she has an anecdote. They are in the kids and family space. What they have available to them as tools on YouTube is different because of COPPA compliance that took control in 2020. Something happened to the algorithms in 2019 where they reportedly changed the algorithm where she believes that the goal or the attempt was to get quality kids content out onto the platform so that parents could easily find it. What ended up happening was that everyone suddenly started getting recommended kids and family content. The majority of it was in a non-English language and coming from other countries.

On forums like Facebook an Reddit, people were trying to figure out why they were being recommended kids and family content especially if they didn’t have a child in their universe. She says that it was brutal to be a part of it because the popular opinion or perception of it was that YouTube was forcing content onto people. So there was distrust on the platform, there was a sentiment that kids and family content were trying to do a money grab which is not a good look when you are trying to have trustworthy quality content. There was a general sense that people’s viewing habits were violated because regardless of what they were doing on the platform – what they were watching – suddenly, content was forced to them. It ended within a day or two. The algorithm got adjusted and it stopped. Everything went back to normal.

The incident clearly offered a window into what happens when audiences are forced into watching certain kinds of content. This was something that happened for a brief period of time thanks to what sounds like an honest mistake that got corrected quickly. Brands ended up suffering and taking a reputational hit and audiences were reacting very negatively towards it. Now picture this happening for a long period of time in an effort to be in compliance with a law that tries to shove a square traditional broadcaster peg through a round online hole. To put it briefly, things aren’t looking like it’s going to be pretty.

This isn’t even getting into the negative hits that online creators, you know, the very people who are compelling audiences to come to these platforms in the first place, are going to take in all of this, making them convenient collateral damage to supporters of the Online Streaming Act.

All of this, of course, is bad enough, but to combine this with what Hatfield said is being proposed really only makes a massive mess even worse. After all, the CRTC is going to eventually host consultations on what Canadian content even is. Those consultations have generally not even happened yet. According to the CRTC Timeline (or, at least the timeline of today), those consultations won’t even be happening until next year.

This suggests that the CRTC technically doesn’t even have guidelines for what platforms need to push in the first place. It stands to reason that the old definition would apply here and that content that has been certified as “Cancon” already would be what content gets pushed – assuming that content is even available on something like YouTube in the first place. To be sure, such a debate was already destined to be fierce. Currently, content made by Canadians don’t necessarily get classified as “Cancon” and the stranglehold that the cultural elite has on the process would all but ensure that this never changes.

Still, it doesn’t necessarily explain why the CRTC would push for something like this in the first place assuming they technically don’t know what to push. It’s possible that they already know a certain subset of content that they want to push and are basically putting the cart before the horse just for the sake of being quick and responsive, but the decision to move forward with this so early in the process is just bizarre. Why not hold sham consultations on this particular topic in a similarly rushed process like the first set so they can at least say “there, we asked the public. We’re transparent!”?

It’s hard to believe that forcing content onto users who don’t want it is a recipe for success in the first place. Add in the possibility of manipulating algorithms when the regulator isn’t even technically prepared to define what “Cancon” is in the first place seems to only add to the potential problems all of this faces. It stands to reason that all of this is just bad ideas all the way down.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

1 thought on “Why Forcefeeding “Cancon” is Going to Backfire on C-11 Supporters”

  1. There is another issue that could backfire and its what requirements the CRTC imposes for French content and promotion.

    The Canadian broadcast system has always had single language broadcasters. American streamers have followed the Hollywood model of making English content that is dubbed into foreign languages for the international market.

    A number of the backers of c11 have indicated they expect the streamers to be bilingual by having a certain amount of original French content. The CRTC has zero experience in making and enforcing bilingual requirements. If they draft discoverability requirements that cause French content to be promoted to English customers then there will be a backlash. English customers will hit the dislike button for the French shows and some will complain loudly that English tv channels don’t have to air French content so why should the streamers be forced to. They will be called bigots by the usual suspects.

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