It’s that time of the year again, the frigid weekend when media-saturated Canadians get all heated about that one bit of U.S. programming they can’t get: the fancy ads on the Super Bowl broadcast.
Coincidentally, this week the Canadian broadcast regulator released a summary of recent public consultations about television.
The grumpy public made the usual demands: Stop bundling cable channels, ditch Canadian-content rules and, while you’re at it, why not abolish the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission altogether?
As long as there are airwaves, we can’t simply abolish the CRTC, the federal agency responsible for deciding who gets what radio frequency, what spot on the channel lineup or, most important of all these days, how much wireless spectrum.
The television airwaves are a public space or resource; in most Western democracies, they are handed out to businesses in exchange for both cash and programming commitments. In Canada, the chief commitment in exchange for the licence has been Canadian content.
Canadians should be debating that deal: You can argue that it’s unfair to require CTV, Global and CITY-TV to sink both money and about half the programming day into Canadian content when Netflix, the Internet television provider, doesn’t have to.
In 2011, the CRTC set aside the Netflix issue, ruling that it would not start regulating online services yet because there was not sufficient evidence the TV streaming company was challenging traditional broadcasting.
Indeed, Statistics Canada numbers released this week show that, despite all the talk of cord cutting, overall cable and satellite penetration rose slightly from 2010 to 2012.
Still, you could say that it is only a matter of time and that instead of trying to regulate Netflix, the CRTC had better just release the commercial broadcasters from their Cancon commitments.
You could take the money they spend on their domestic programming – some of which is granted to them from a public fund anyway – and funnel it to the CBC instead, turning Canada’s quasi-public and quasi-private broadcasters into purer models.
But, if you stopped requiring the broadcast of Canadian content and the Cancon spend, would you still protect the broadcasters from foreign ownership and from competing U.S. signals? Would you still let CTV require the distributors to drop its Canadian ads into Fox’s Super Bowl signal? It’s a broadcast, you have to remember, to which CTV has bought the Canadian rights.
If you ditched simultaneous substitution – the policy that lets the broadcasters put their ads into competing U.S. signals with the same programs in the same time slots – you would damage their business; if you ditched foreign-ownership restrictions, they would quickly become subsidiaries of U.S. broadcasters. So, your choice seems to be simply enrich Canadian broadcasters at the expense of Canadian TV writers and actors, or kill their businesses instead.
As for bundling of television channels in cable and satellite packages, that too has been a form of Cancon regulation, used to keep Canadian specialty channels in view.
But it is also the standard entertainment industry business model whereby the hits, in this case the sports channels, act as the tent pole for the rest of the circus.
As the CRTC cautiously opened the door to unbundling, it ruled in 2012 that distributors should be allowed to charge more for each channel if the subscribers take fewer channels.
Then in last fall’s Throne Speech, the government promised “pick-and-pay” – while still somehow protecting Canadian jobs – but how that will work is unclear: A cable and satellite industry that was forced by the CRTC to sell all channels individually at one price would leave consumers with a couple of poles but not much tent.
As the sometimes-borderless Internet puts increasing pressure on Canadian-content rules, we should know why we have them and discuss which elements we would want to preserve.
We have to recognize, however, that broadcast regulations are a web of interlocking protections and requirements.
Picking out a few irritants while leaving other bits in place would be fraught with unintended consequences.