The Metaverse & The Canadian Television Industry

While seemingly a radical innovation, the idea of a “metaverse” has been around for at least 30 years.

“Metaverse” is a term coined by author Neal Stephenson in “Snow Crash” in his 1992 novel (Browning, 2021). Kellen Browning in The New York Times describes this zeitgeisty space as, “a variety of virtual experiences, environments and assets,” and that “together, these new technologies hint at what the internet will become next” (Browning). 

So if it’s been around since the 90s, why is it the topic of dinner parties now? Blame it on the pandemic.  “People were indoors, and so thinking more about online interactions, because a lot of times, that’s all they could do… and at the same time, we saw a huge growth of usage in platforms that could be said to be early metaverse … which started getting tens and millions of active users,” said author Wagner James Au (Killick, 2022). 

Seridenipously, in January 2020, an influential essay by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball identified key characteristics of a “metaverse”. He thought the core attributes of the metaverse would: 

  1. Be persistent 
  2. Be synchronous and live 
  3. Be without any cap to concurrent users, while also providing each user with an individual sense of “presence” 
  4. Be a fully functioning economy 
  5. Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds, private and public networks/experiences, and open and closed platforms
  6. Offers unprecedented interoperability
  7. Be populated by “content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be informally organized groups or commercially-focused enterprises. (Ball, 2020)

The thing is… no one quite knows what the metaverse truly is. Its technology trajectory is unknown.  As Eric Ravenscraft says in Wired, “To a certain extent, talking about what “the metaverse” means is a bit like having a discussion about what “the internet” means in the 1970s.” Essentially, the puzzle pieces were there but no one knew what the puzzle might look like. “So while it was true, at the time, that “the internet” was coming, not every idea of what that would look like is true” (Ravenscraft, 2021).   Overall, it’s “a broad shift in how we interact with technology,” and it’s incredibly important to note, “it’s entirely possible that the term itself will eventually become just as antiquated, even as the specific technology it once described becomes commonplace” (Ravenscraft, 2021). 

The alluring attribute of this space is the potential gold rush. The economic possibilities for visionaries and tech pioneers are drawing investors, futurists and executives to try to stake their claim in the metaverse (Browning, 2021). 

So how can Canadian TV producers make use of this innovative space and mitigate the risks that could make the industry obsolete, while still navigating domestic legacy broadcasters and regulatory rules, and desperately trying to keep up with the complex, competitive, and disruptive international streaming ecosystem? 

The Canadian film and television industry is both critical to the culture of Canada, but also its economy.  According to the Canadian Media Producer’s Association, in 2020, Canada’s film and television production industry generated over $9 billion in production volume, contributed $12.2 billion to the GDP and created approximately 244,500 jobs (CMPA, 2020).  In Canada, we have legislation, The Canadian Broadcasting Act that tries to protect and foster Canadian content: “The Canadian broadcasting system shall be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians” and should:

The issue is that while The Broadcasting Act has valiantly tried to do this, the emergence of the internet has caused chaos. When the latest iteration of the Canadian Broading Act passed (1991), the web as we know it today didn’t exist. The idea of streaming wasn’t even a thought. The industry desperately needs new and updated legislation for the unique needs of producers in 2022 and beyond.  Bill C-11 is aiming to modernize our current broadcast standards and redefine what Canadian Content is. However, with the speed of legislation, the fear is the recommendations and safeguards in this new bill will become obsolete before it’s even passed.

This is an ongoing global policy conversation Many countries are grappling with ways to protect their industry, creators, and original IP. Even in the dominant U.S., tech companies are squeezing traditional broadcasters out: case in point, the three biggest global ‘media’ companies in 2021 were Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon (Chung, 2022).

While COVID brought the idea of the Metaverse to the forefront, COVID’s impact on streaming is undeniable. As we all stayed home, at-home entertainment options like streaming consumption “skyrocketed, giving streaming platforms a major subscription boost in 2020”. However, as the world began opening back up, “subscription growth decelerated rapidly and major players like Disney and Netflix felt the pain” and as more and more players get in the game, “saturation is driving immense competition, and old strategies and models aren’t cutting it in the new era of streaming” (Chung, 2022). When talking about tech and media, it is natural to blend the two into this new idea of TechTainment (= intersection of tech and entertainment). As Bridge and Wallenstein so eloquently put it, “Both are about attaining mindshare, whether via eyes or ears; and both are increasingly taking a direct-to-consumer orientation, with monetization efforts focused on advertising and subscriptions. And even though one industry may be focused on content over hardware and software, both can’t afford to ignore the other’s specialty, either (Bridge & Wallenstein, 2022). 

So as we move towards the mainstream adopting the metaverse, how can Canadian producers use the metaverse to create content that a) benefits the Canadian cultural landscape and b) brings in new revenue streams? 

First off, the metaverse offers an avenue to find new audiences. Many think younger generations are poised for the metaverse after growing up with the internet. “In our studies, Gen Z prefer gaming to TV and movies, and both Gen Z and millennials are flocking to short-form videos on social media. These younger generations are already immersing themselves in virtual and social experiences that TV and movies—for all their artistry—can’t currently replicate” (Westcott, 2022). Those new audiences will also be more engaged with the content in front of them. “[The attention rate in the metaverse] is 92%. A PowerPoint [is] 46%. That’s something to take into consideration” says Harold Dumur, President and CEO of OVA, an immersive technology company based in Quebec (Johnson, 2022).

The metaverse also allows for a new way of interactivity with those new audiences. Gone are the days of calling into Canadian Idol to vote for Ryan Malcolm. Now you can interact with your favourite celebrities by buying houses next to celebrity neighbours like with MetaCity (Hsieh & Wallenstein, 2022) or go visit Paris Hilton on her island (Chmielewski, 2021).  Disney CEO, Bob Chapek, wrote about this new level of interactivity in a company memo. “We realize that it’s going to be less of a passive-type experience where you just have playback,” says Chapek. “Whether it’s a sporting event or whether it’s an entertainment offering and more of an interactive lean forward, actively engaged type experience” (Spangler & Wallenstein, 2022).  In the UK, ITV is launching into the metaverse with The Voice.  “We are only at the beginning of exploring the potential of the metaverse for TV studios, but what’s clear is that entertainment will be an important part of these worlds,” says Neil Bowler, head of games at ITV. “So TV companies are in a really interesting place, not only in terms of using our existing IPs but also the opportunity to create new formats for a new audience” (Sutcliffe, 2021). 

If this platform does bring in new audiences and keeps them engaged, this could be a huge game-changer for Canadian producers. However, once you get them in and watching, how do you make money?

In the Deloit 2022, “Digital Media Trends Report”, Westcott found “In every country we surveyed, SVOD subscribers—particularly Gen Z’s and Millennials—are getting savvier about how to get the most value out of entertainment for the least amount of money” (Westcott, 2022).  If consumers are getting savvier, so too must producers.  In the world of GIFs, images from TV shows (especially reality TV shows) are extremely popular. It’s time to exploit that through NFTs. As Canadian Data Scientist Anh Le says, “​​NFTs can also help to make the media industry shoppable. Media companies can create and trade digital assets on the Metaverse platform, which allows for an additional revenue stream. This benefits creators by creating a new revenue stream from their work” (Le, 2022).  This is a growing avenue: NFT sales totalled $25 billion in 2021 compared with $95 million in the prior year, according to market tracker DappRadar and media companies are getting their piece of the pie. ViacomCBS and Fox created collectible NFTs with their IP, such as The Masked Singer and SpongeBob SquarePants and organizations including the NBA have also tapped into the growing NFT business (Chung, 2022). 

In Canada, there are plenty of investment opportunities in the space. The Canadian Media Fund put together a guide to show creators and producers how much money is out there, that included the following tips:

From a consumer perspective, there are a few concerns. Obviously, the cost to access this technology will be a barrier for many. There will be costs for complementary goods and there is a potential for a dominant design to have a monopoly on the space.  But from the perspective of media consumers, until the safety concerns of metaverse users is taken seriously, the risks might be too high to join in at this stage. Here’s the problem: Andrew Bosworth, the CTO of Meta, wrote in an employee memo that moderating what people say and how they act in the metaverse “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible (Browning, 2021)”. This is a major red flag. In VRCChat, a popular virtual reality game, a violating incident occurs about once every seven minutes, says the Center for Countering Digital Hate (Browning, 2021). Add in the immersive experience that the Metaverse creates and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. “Once you’re actually embodied in a space, even though you can’t be physically touched, we can be exposed to things that take on a level of realism that could be psychologically assaulting,” says Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist who serves as the director for medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (Huddleston, 2022).  But do tech companies care?  Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee says no. “Facebook should have lost the right to make its own choices. A regulator should be there giving pre-approval for everything they do. The amount of harm they’ve done is incalculable” (Wakefield, 2021). Tech reporter MacDonald agrees, “[The Metaverse] is being constructed by people to whom the problems of the real world are mostly invisible. Unless companies put immense efforts into dismantling prejudices and unconscious biases, they are thoughtlessly replicated in whatever they create” (MacDonald, 2022). 

An added safety concern is around minors in this space.  Let’s look at Disney for example: as argued by Genevieve Bellarchive, there is a direct line that ties Disneyland to the metaverse through the development from the Great Exhibition to today’s metaverse (Bell, 2022). As part of the ‘experience’ pipeline, of course, Disney would want to get involved. However, while parents generally trust Disney, will parents be willing to put meta headsets on their kids when a) the research is constantly telling parents to reduce screen time (Christensen, 2021) and b) kids can be harmed by the lack of safety policies. As CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed says, “I think parents will be asking themselves: Do I feel safe knowing that Mark Zuckerberg is the guy in charge of deciding who influences my children, who might be able to bully them, and whether or not they’re safe in cyberspace?”(Huddleston, 2022).

Media ethics as its own topic could fill a whole paper, but the power of the media in the metaverse could be immense. This new space opens up new considerations for producers. “There’s opportunity to design the metaverse from the start for social inclusion and equity amongst many stakeholders, rather than letting it become the domain of the rich and those with access,” says Stee Varley, EY’s Global Vice Chair – Sustainability. “We need to address issues of accessibility, diversity, inclusion, and equity in the metaverse before they become ingrained” (Bianzino, 2022).

From an environmental standpoint, the Metaverse is projected to be an intense consumer of energy and the creator of a large carbon footprint (Miller, 2022). However, it also could be a space where virtual experiences use fewer resources and could be more carbon-efficient. Some argue that the metaverse could also potentially help raise awareness about climate issues that could spur action. “You can get people to care much more because their brains treat the experience as real, as opposed to the narratives published by climate activists for many years,” says David Markowitz (Bianzino, 2022). Nature docu-series, like The Nature of Things, have done great work in this area for years, but in the future TV, producers could use the metaverse to fully emerge viewers in the conversation and inspire meaningful change. 

Companies also need to consider who their leaders will be when entering the metaverse. Tech and media companies have traditionally been dominated by white men (Bhuiyan & Dean, 2020) and in this new space, perhaps it could be different. Unfortunately, the big companies seem to be maintaining the status quo: Disney, for example, has appointed Mike White to be the “SVP of next-generation storytelling and consumer experiences” (Spangler & Wallenstein, 2022). How do we ensure that the leaders of the metaverse are not making sexist policies or setting “standard” images that make others feel unwelcome and excluded by creating “subtle, yet consistent, hints of sexism that add up over time” and learn from past “traditions” like “Lenna (Iozzio, 2016)? 

Overall this is a critical point for ethical leadership and corporate responsibility. “The metaverse opens new dimensions of sustainability, and now is the time for business to lead in this critical moment, leveraging its innovation, convening power and investment. It begins with working together with stakeholders to develop a vision of the metaverse we want and need and designing a future-back strategy for achieving it” (Bianzino, 2022). 

TechTainment is the future of television. More and more shows are moving off traditional network channels and finding success on streaming: The Kardashians is Hulu’s biggest show yet (Wagmeister & Wallenstein, 2022) and Dancing with the Stars is moving from ABC to Disney+. Will the next phase be to move shows from steamers onto new Metaverse platforms? 

Experts in this space say we’re still a “decade away” from this reality (Chung), but it’s time to start planning.  As a reality/factual producer myself, I’m fascinated by the use of the Metaverse in this genre. Netflix’s smash hit The Circle, has a metaverse quality to it. Will we see more shows like this? Would there be HGTV style, “How to Build and decorate your Metahouse” shows? Would shows like Big Brother Canada ever move cast members onto a metaverse set? Do we create new content for folks to watch within the Metaverse, content about the metaverse, or is taking existing IP and transforming it for this new platform? The opportunity for innovative and creative programming is potentially endless. Canadian first-mover producers need to ensure that CanCon on the Metaverse is protected and included in Bill C-11. The bill needs to be designed to evolve as the metaverse (and other future borderless technology) evolves.  

As Variety says, “There is still so much unknown, but media and tech industries have shown resilience in the face of uncertainty. Innovation will be the most important path forward for media and tech, and the companies that position themselves best in the high-growth environment by taking on new challenges will see the most success” (Chung, 2022). 


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