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Media experts agree action is needed, but urge caution on how streaming is regulated

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OTTAWA — The Liberals have promised to quickly reintroduce legislation aimed at reforming the Broadcasting Act, which has media experts cautioning the government against bringing newer media platforms under an old regulatory framework.

“I think everyone agrees that it’s an older piece of legislation that doesn’t fully reflect the environment that we live in,” said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law.

The Liberal government introduced a bill, known as C-10, in November 2020 that would bring global online streaming companies, such as Netflix and YouTube, under the Broadcasting Act. It came under intense criticism over whether it would regulate user-generated content. The bill died in the Senate when Parliament was dissolved for the September election.

While its risks to the free speech of Canadians got the most attention, if the promised new legislation resembles Bill C-10, then several of its features would have a significant effect on Canada’s cultural industries.

On-demand streaming services — for streaming music, television and movies — would be obligated to provide funding to Canadian content as well as actively promote it, including work by marginalized and under-represented groups, through what are called discoverability requirements.

This could include a requirement for a streaming service to highlight Canadian content through its recommendation tools, such as personalized music playlists or curated film selections.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) supervises traditional broadcasters and enforces federal policies. This new legislation would empower the CRTC to do the same for online media services but is vague when it comes to how the regulatory body would perform that function. Critics have called this an unrealistic overreach, questioning how the CRTC could monitor all content published on the internet.

Gerry Wall, president of consulting firm Wall Communications, produced a study on the economic effects of music streaming for the federal government in 2018, and has recently completed a second study which is forthcoming.

Wall and Geist both said that setting discoverability requirements on streaming services is not easily done for several reasons.

Geist said the notion of discoverability in Canada emerged at a time when traditional broadcasters would prioritize content from the United States over Canadian content because it was more profitable. Today, on-demand streaming services operate under a different business model and are incentivized to cater their catalogue to the subscriber’s preferences.

Using Netflix as an example, Geist said, “If people are interested in Canadian content … it’s clearly in Netflix’s interest to provide them with that Canadian content to keep them as subscribers.”

He added that Canadian content is not hard to find in that anyone can type “Canada” in the streaming platform’s search bar and will find a suite of Canadian materials.

Geist and Wall both said that bringing discoverability to streaming services triggers a thorny debate on how Canadian content is defined today. “That’s a fundamental problem, I think, that needs to be addressed,” said Wall.

The Broadcasting Act sets out criteria to define what makes a cultural work Canadian. For music, what’s known as the MAPL system determines whether a musical work is Canadian if it fulfils enough conditions, like whether a song is performed by a Canadian, or if the piece was recorded in Canada.

Geist referred to this as a “tick-box exercise” that may not be equipped to fully capture the complexity of a television production that involved mostly Canadians but fails to meet the criteria because a funder was not Canadian.

“I think any sort of honest assessment about what certified Canadian content means is that it’s just as likely to come up with a cop show where Toronto is designed to look like New York, as it is to come up with something that people would view as genuinely Canadian,” said Geist.

The way listeners access music through on-demand streaming is unlike the one-to-many distribution method of radio, where there was a single linear schedule of programming, said Wall. On a streaming service, the catalogue of music is accessed by users on-demand and simultaneously.

“You could break up the 24-hour day and say, ‘This much of your time has to be spent providing Canadian content on that.’ But how would that work in the streaming world?” he said.

Music streaming services can push music to a user through personalized and curated playlists, a process that is largely driven by a platform’s proprietary algorithms. Making Canadian artists more discoverable by granting the CRTC access to a streaming service’s algorithms is a “very poorly conceived notion,” said Wall.

Andrew Forsyth is a consultant to MRC Data, formerly Nielsen Canada, a marketing data and audience insights firm. He said the government must figure out how it can properly regulate this newer media environment — a difficult task.

Wall and Geist both agree that while the Broadcasting Act needs updating, the tension is in how that is accomplished.

Wall said he does not think it’s a good idea to try folding in new services and technologies into a framework designed for older means of communication that are fundamentally different.

That sentiment was echoed by Peter Menzies, senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and past CRTC vice-chair.

“The idea behind the broadcasting industry is the government is licensing people to use a Crown asset,” he said. “That’s something the Crown owns; it can set the rules for its use. The Crown doesn’t own the internet, but it’s pretending that it does.”

In the world of radio, the CRTC was able to compel stations to help subsidize Canadian content by collecting prescribed amounts and transferring it to funding and granting bodies like Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) and the Canadian Music Fund.

“It all depended on a licensing system,” said Wall. “Well, are you going to license Spotify? How are you going to do that?”

If the goal is to ensure streaming companies contribute to these subsidies, Menzies said this can be done by other means “without pretending that the internet is broadcasting.”

Both Menzies and Forsyth said that creating a level playing field between on-demand streaming services and traditional broadcasters can be better achieved by imposing a tax on streaming services.

“You don’t have to regulate the internet. Carve out the companies that you want to get money from,” said Menzies.

Forsyth said the entire Canadian music industry exists because the Broadcasting Act allowed for it to flourish. “I think the problem is that the beast has been built,” he said, referring to the act and all the business generated by it. Revising the act will in turn affect the country’s system of funding, support and exposure for Canadian entities, he said.

“As a starting point, the user-generated content piece has to be out,” said Geist, because it fundamentally involves regulating the speech of Canadians.

He added that the legislation in its previous form was too vague and left too many details for the CRTC to decide.

Wall said he thinks the Heritage committee’s list of witnesses should be opened so that digital-first creators can have their voices included in the discussion. “I don’t think they ever had any input into this act, and they’re the future,” he said.

Menzies said, “The hope is that they breathe deeply, take a long look at things and figure out what is it you really want to get out of things and what’s the best way to get there? Because Bill C-10 sure wasn’t it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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The Kids in the Hall are back and getting along. ‘This time we’re not lying’

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TORONTO — It seems the Kids are all right.

Infighting between members of the Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall has been well-documented over the years, but as they promote their new Amazon Prime Video reboot of their original series, Dave Foley insists they “get along.”

“We would say that anyway, but this time we’re not lying,” fellow troupe member Kevin McDonald addedin a video interview with Foley.

“We still fight and we still backstab each other, but that’s the way we work,” agreedFoley.

“I always say when I’m on set: ‘Backstab away, just don’t tell me. Never ever tell me.’ And we’re OK,” jested McDonald.

Debuting May 13, the new Toronto-shot series is named after the original sketch series “The Kids in the Hall,” which aired from 1989 to 1995 on CBC. It also ran on CBS and HBO in the United States.

Joining it on the streaming service on May 20 and following its own premiere on Tuesday this week at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto is “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks,” a two-part documentary on the troupe’s past, present and future directed by Reg Harkema.

The doc includes archival footage, behind-the-scenes clips, and interviews with comedy legends who all took inspiration from the beloved Canadian troupe.

As Harkema noted at a Hot Docs press conference in March, he felt “proud” to examine the group’s impact on other well-known comics who have long seen The Kids in the Hall as “personalities that broke open a window to the (comedy) world for them.”

The fivesome, which also includes Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson, originally timed the comeback fortheir 30th anniversary in 2019.

“But then a different pandemic called The Kids in the Hall’s Inability to Make a Decision happened, so it took a little longer,” said Foley, citing delays including a longing to reunitewith the Lorne Michaels-founded production company Broadway Video, and find a global platform.

McDonald said they started writing the series before the COVID-19 pandemic hitand had to take a year off before resuming due to lockdowns.

Rounding up the gang again was like wrangling cats, they said.

“Cats that all have individual representation,” Foley said.

“And ex-wives,” added McDonald.

“Multiple ex-wives,” jested Foley.

“The Kids in the Hall” started in 1984 and pushed the boundaries of TV comedy, with cast members in drag and sketches that tackled heavy topics, including religion and sexuality.

“I always feel I’m a better person when I play a woman,” said Montreal-born McDonald, whose other credits include the Fox sitcom “That ’70s Show.”

“I’m smarter, I’m kinder to people. So it’s always fun — besides the three-hour makeup process.”

Memorable Kids in the Hall characters have included McKinney’s Headcrusher and Chicken Lady, Thompson as the Queen, McCulloch’s Cabbage Head, and Foley and McDonald as the Sizzler Sisters.

The new series will have a “very low quotient of nostalgia,” said Foley, noting they’re “basically just pursuing new ideas and new material.”

“Are we allowed to say characters? I don’t know if we’re allowed to say,” said McDonald, to which Foley quipped: “Allowed? We don’t follow no stinking rules.”

McDonald then let it slip that Thompson’s gay socialite character Buddy Cole likely returns, as do Toronto police officers played by McCulloch and McKinney.

The new eight-episode series was shot in studio and outside locations.

The proliferation of short comedy sketches on social media platforms including TikTok didn’t influence the length of their material, they said, noting a sketch comedy show should be short anyway.

“This is going to shock you: I’ve never looked at TikTok,” said Foley, to which McDonald said he hadn’t either.

The Kids continued to collaborate after the original series ended, reuniting for the 1996 comedy film “Brain Candy,” several tours and the 2010 CBC miniseries “Death Comes to Town.”

But, as Paul Myers wrote in his 2018 book “The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy,” it wasn’t always friendly.

Myers said Foley and McDonald sometimes fought with McKinney and McCulloch, while Thompson was a mediator of sorts. Foley once quit the troupe, resulting in tension on the set of “Brain Candy.”

But since 2000, they happily get together every three or four years to do something, says McDonald, likening their run now to “a B-movie version of Monty Python’s career.”

“I refer to it not as a reunion but a relapse,” jested Toronto-raised Foley, whose other credits include the series “NewsRadio,” “Hot in Cleveland” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown.”

“Yes. It’s a relapse. In a way, we’re drinking again and it feels good,” added McDonald.

“In between those three or four years, I look forward to it all the time. And I’m never disappointed. I’m always thinking ‘Oh, we’re funny. Oh, we love and get mad at each other the same way that we always do.'”

As long as there are no mirrors in the room, they always feel like they’re still “angry 20-year-old comedians,” said Foley.

McDonald agreed.

“Even when we’re about to look at the editing and I’m about to see a scene with Dave and I, I imagine I’m going to see skinny, crazy-haired Kevin and young Dave — and I always get shocked,” added McDonald. “I’m still always shocked when I see footage of us and we don’t look like we did.”

Said Foley: “Because we still act like we did.”

-With files from Sadaf Ahsan

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2022.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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‘Trailblazer’ Cree country singer Shane Yellowbird dead at age 42

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A close friend and fellow musician says Cree country singer Shane Yellowbird has died at the age of 42.

Blues and country artist Crystal Shawanda, who met Yellowbird in 2008, says he died earlier this week.

She says she spoke with his sister, who confirmed the Alberta singer’s death, but did not say how he died

Shawanda says Yellowbird was like a brother to her and always supported her career.

Yellowbird, best known for the song “Pickup Truck,” won the Rising Star Award at the Canadian Country Music Awards in 2007.

She says he was a trailblazer to Indigenous country music singers and was nominated for a Juno Award for country recording of the year in 2008 for “Life Is My Calling Name.”

“What he accomplished is huge,” Shawanda said Tuesday. “No male Indigenous country music artist has yet to do what he has done.”

Shawanda said Yellowbird was also a gifted artist.

“He will be remembered for what a good heart he had,” she said. “He was as good as they come.”

Shawanda said she lost touch with Yellowbird over the last few years after she switched from country music to blues.

But she said whenever they would go a while without speaking, it was as if no time had passed when they reconnected.

Louis O’Reilly, who signed Yellowbird to his record label in 2003 and worked with him until 2013, said Yellowbird was “authentic through and through.”

He said he was a “real cowboy” who always stayed humble.

“He will be remembered for his humility,” O’Reilly said of the musician from Maskwacis, Alta.

“He was grateful for everything he had.”

O’Reilly said Yellowbird was revered in Indigenous communities for his success in country music.

Others in the industry also paid tribute to Yellowbird on social media.

“He always believed in me as an artist and songwriter, long before a lot of people. A truly beautiful soul,” wrote country artist Aaron Goodvin on Instagram.

Aaron Pritchett said, “You will be missed by so many, buddy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2022.

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

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