The Economics of Abundance and Canadian Culture

21 Nov ’06

While many non-Canadians might wonder whether “Canadian Culture” is oxymoronic – the impression one gets of us from the foreign media is almost universally bland – many Canadians intuitively understand the importance of Canadian stories in their lives. I’m not talking here about celebrating just Farley Mowat or the CBC – not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m speaking about a distinct Canadian voice.

We’ve had a troubled relationship with this voice in recent years, and we’ve had a lot of difficulty convincing even ourselves on its value. For example, for many years we’ve had Canadian content rules – rules that require certain Canadian content (music, TV) to be given visibility – whether the consumer wants it or not. We’ve tried to figure out how to jury-rig the magazine business to give ourselves more profile. And of course we’ve just plain struggled – in so many ways – with how best to handle that cultural behemoth that lies to our south – the land of endless TV, the inaptly named talk radio (“shout” radio, perhaps?), and oh yes – the O.J. Simpson trial, the World Wrestling Federation, Ron Popeil and – sigh – Hollywood. All of this effort has had, in my opinion, dubious value.

But what I’ve found perhaps most surprising about the discussion over Canadian content is that in recent years there really hasn’t been one. Or at least, much less of a discussion than there was in the 80’s and 90’s, when we seemed to be quite earnestly – and constantly – trying to understand how to protect our culture. Looking back now, perhaps that period was a remnant of the Trudeau years, imbued as they were with a sense of the importance of Canadian-ness, perhaps it was a consequence of bitter and divisive discussion over the Free Trade Agreement – but in recent years, with the possible exception of Maude Barlow, the debate over the protection of Canadian culture has fallen silent. Which strikes me as odd, not least because now, more than ever before, does it seem to be at risk of becoming irrelevant. Indeed lately I’ve been wondering – will the Internet kill Canadian culture?

I don’t think this is hyperbole. With the effect of geography rapidly diminishing in the distribution of media (Dead tree publishing; radio; cable TV, etc.), old monopolies are dying fast, or soon will be, and the extraordinary growth of video online means that TV – the single most effective communicator of culture – will soon be next. In a billion channel universe, with the geographical monopolies imposed by old technologies fast disappearing, and Canadians able to sample from the whole world’s delights, will Canadians – or anyone else – continue to seek out Canadian content?

I’m beginning to believe that what many are starting to describe as scarcity economics, or the economics of abundance, is an illustration of the opportunity for our mass media domination. Not your garden variety 80’s or 90’s mass media domination, but your real “end of the world as we know it” mass media domination. As we move to information economies, in many markets scarcity becomes abundance, marginal costs are minimal, and price tends to zero. In this environment – and culture is a perfect example – geography becomes irrelevant, artificial monopolies fail, and (from a comment on Mike Masnick’s excellent recent post on the topic) “network economics starts to take hold. The very best free products will take the lion’s share of users attention, which has tremendous value for different economic models.” The scenario that this suggests is of living right next door to a cultural black hole – a market that exerts such a strong cultural pull that no customer can escape its gravity. In that environment, will anyone – Canadians or otherwise – care about Canadian voices?

It’s important to remember that competition in markets characterized by abundance has tended to produce business models that offer a wide spectrum of products for free, with revenues coming from advertising. So far, almost no one in the news media has been able to defend a subscription-based model in the face of that, and while it’s still early days in other media, prices are coming down. And the advertising model generally requires a mass audience. And competing for that mass audience against the entire world and every other form of content is – well – is a big job. Many Canadians will be much more interested in what the rest of the world has to offer. For example, since podcasting emerged as a broadcasting technology I’ve stopped listening to CBC radio (I’ve never listened to other Canadian radio). Since Wi-Fi I’ve spent considerably more of my entertainment time online and correspondingly less time reading dead tree media – a media in which Canadian publications had a decided advantage (distribution costs being what they are). As video moves online, what will happen to my TV watching? This is my last point of contact with the CBC – what happens next?

I’m not sure. But I’m inclined to think that the first effect will be the end of small voices – small niched Canadian cultural content providers who will have to compete against free globally produced mass-market content for their audience, a task too Sisyphean for all but a very few. And that inevitably that competition will start working its way up the food chain until the CBCs and CTVs of the world are struggling against it. One can’t help but suspect that in a very short while the face of Canadian culture will be very different than it is now.

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