How’s that pick-and-pay thing working for you so far? In my household, we have just discovered that if we have the temerity to opt for skinny basic, our cable provider will be charging us $25 for a digital box it had just recently started offering us for free. And that’s before we even begin considering channel options.
Forcing pick-and-pay on the broadcasting distribution industry was a bad decision from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, a piece of ill-conceived populism that did not, in the end, make any difference to the election prospects of the departing Tories and won’t actually save consumers much money – but still has the potential to do damage to the Canadian television industry without ever addressing the hard decisions that need to be made about broadcasting regulation.
First of all, it was an inconsistent decision. For years, the CRTC had maintained that Canada has enough competition amongst our oligopolistic cable and satellite providers that no price regulation was required. Now, just as Internet television promises to make that competition more than a polite fiction, in swoops the CRTC with a form of price regulation. Second, it was a call that should have been left to industry: Surely it’s the job of the providers, not the regulator, to address unhappy customers – or face their cord-cutting wrath.
Third, it was a premature decision, removing a form of support for niche channels – which are providing diversity of choice in the system – without considering how independent producers of Canadian programs, whether they are making blockbuster cooking shows or obscure documentaries, are going to operate in the future. Polls show Canadians value Canadian programming but the hard realities of our pocketbook decision-making as consumers often overwhelm our more abstract interests as viewers or citizens. Right now, for example, the CRTC is trying to figure out how local news can survive dropping advertising revenues: Everybody agrees local news is important but who is still watching the ads?
And last of all, it was a decision that will prove mighty distracting. Rather than plucking at one strand in the tapestry of subsidy and regulation that produces Canadian shows and puts them in front of Canadians, the CRTC needs to consider the whole fabric. The Broadcasting Act, last revised in 1991, stipulates that the system is intended to strengthen the Canadian cultural, social and economic fabric and that broadcasters are expected to carry local, national and international programming. But it also assumed a world in which the regulator could control how much foreign programming or how many foreign channels were available and could require all broadcasters to air set amounts of Canadian content. In other words, a world before YouTube and Netflix.
There are ways the Canadian-content regime could be updated to continue subsidizing domestic producers and to make sure their shows don’t sink below the waves in a sea of international content. The CRTC would need to consider how Internet service providers and foreign Internet broadcasters such as Netflix could start contributing to the system. It would also need to find the means – and this one, at least, the CRTC is currently working on – to make sure that the shows thus subsidized are “discoverable” in an era of plenty.
Not all of these measures would be popular; in particular you can imagine the howls of outrage if everybody’s Internet bill started including the same kind of small production levies that have long been included on the cable bill. That’s why it’s important to talk about what we want from our broadcasting system, to discuss whether we feel the goal of contributing to the Canadian fabric is still relevant and attainable. The Canadian broadcasting system was not developed to enrich Bell, Rogers and Shaw; nor was it created to ensure that all Canadians have cheap and easy access to U.S. programming, but we shouldn’t decide that its true goals are impossible or obsolete until we have a national conversation. Instead, here we all are, fussing away about how much it might cost to get Treehouse or TSN 5.Report Typo/Error