Canada’s broadcast regulator is rewriting the rules that protect Canadian television programs, hoping it can nurture better, more popular shows by reducing the quantity that has to go to air.

To steer producers and broadcasters in that direction, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is drastically reducing the number of hours each day when Canadian programs must be broadcast. And it is scrapping a policy that has protected some niche channels from direct competition.

Instead, the CRTC chose to maintain substantial Canadian-made content in prime-time evening hours, while giving broadcasters new freedom to program the rest of their schedules and concentrate production dollars on fewer, high-quality shows – even if it puts some producers and channels out of business.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said he wants to foster “an environment where Canadians want to watch content made by our creators – not because it is forced upon them, but because it’s good,” in a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa on Thursday.

The changes are an attempt to respond to a fast-changing technological environment that has upended TV’s business model. The industry is in an “age of abundance,” as Mr. Blais calls it, where video content comes from a vast array of sources, often online, on demand and sometimes for free.

Yet the content Canada currently produces “doesn’t always connect with audiences,” Mr. Blais said in an interview.

The changes are the latest outcomes of Let’s Talk TV, a sweeping public hearing into the future of television held last year.

“The Canadian industry right now is based on this quota system, so any time you tinker with the quota system it has an impact,” said Gregory Taylor, a Ryerson University researcher who intervened at Let’s Talk TV. “The system that we’ve had has, in a lot of ways, worked. But it’s time to get ahead of the curve.”

The decision eliminates the daytime Canadian-content quota on local networks entirely, from the current 55 per cent, and sets an across-the-board base of 35 per cent throughout the day on specialty channels. It aims to prevent broadcasters from meeting targets by simply recycling and repeating shows – a practice the CRTC says accounts for more than half of Canadian programming on air.

And it does away with “genre protection,” a policy that protected Canadian specialty channels such as Food Network and Discovery Channel from direct competition while they found their feet. The policy constrains the subjects channels can cover and hinders competition. But some less popular channels will undoubtedly fold without it.

Other key policies are unchanged. Broadcasters still have to spend the same amount of money supporting Canadian productions. And local stations will have to keep half of their prime-time lineups Canadian – between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. – when the largest audiences still tune in to traditional TV.

“So we’re going to fish where the fish are,” Mr. Blais said.

The CRTC has faced political pressure from the federal government, which has all but demanded more choice for TV subscribers. A spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover said her office “will review the CRTC’s announcement closely,” but supports “any decision that lets consumers choose what they want to watch.”

Yet many Canadian producers are bracing for the impact. They have built livelihoods on the old model, which saw Canada pour about $4.1-billion into Canadian content in 2012-13, supporting 60,000 industry jobs. Mr. Blais acknowledged that some creators may suffer or even fail.

“There will we fewer production companies, there will be less volume [of Canadian shows] produced, which means over all, in terms of the union jobs the industry sustains, there will be a ripple effect there,” said Michael Hennessy, president and CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association.

Mr. Blais insists his critics are mostly trying to protect their “private entitlement,” and not the public interest. “Having tons and tons of content that’s broadcast but never gets seen, I don’t think that’s a success story,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Mar. 12 2015, 1:02 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 12 2015, 10:47 PM EDT