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A Rogers Communications Inc. office tower is seen in downtown Montreal, March 6, 2009. (Shaun Best/Reuters)
A Rogers Communications Inc. office tower is seen in downtown Montreal, March 6, 2009. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

broadcasting

In a hands-off era, CRTC rediscovers it’s in charge Add to ...

No one will shed a tear for CJRN. This week, regulators told the tiny Niagara Falls, Ont. radio station that it will have to stop broadcasting by the end of November after it repeatedly violated the terms of its license.

For the past 10 years, the low-power AM station has been permitted to air only pre-recorded information for tourists. But when elves from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission recently tuned into its programming, they heard other sorts of material: live news, sports, and programming about religion. After trying to bring the station into compliance, the CRTC finally just gave up and pulled the license.

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That might not be much of a story, except to CJRN’s owners, if it weren’t for another little-seen item that emerged from CRTC HQ last week. Back in February, Rogers Communications Inc. applied for a license to start a specialty channel known as The Entertainment Desk. Rogers presented its case to the commission in June, and even though not a single person or broadcaster filed paperwork expressing concern, the company was turned down.

The CRTC rarely revokes radio licenses. It also rarely denies applications for so-called Category B specialty TV services. But both recent decisions – along with Thursday’s announcement that it will look at developing a consumer-oriented code for mobile devices – are in tune with what appears to be newly emboldened commission that is tired of caving to pressure from the industry. If I were a Bell Media executive right now, Xanax might be my best friend.

It’s true that reading the CRTC tea leaves can be like trying to make sense of the Chinese Politburo: headaches are guaranteed, and you’re as often wrong as you are right. But in recent months, the Commission seems to have rediscovered that it, not the industry it regulates, is in charge.

From one perspective, the CRTC’s decision to deny Rogers a license for The Entertainment Desk license may seem like a relic, especially in an age of fewer regulatory restrictions. In its official explanation, the Commission noted that the entertainment channel E! (owned by Bell Media) has a Category A license, and is therefore protected by the CRTC against any other service that might want to cover celebrity and entertainment news. Rogers failed to convince the Commission that it wouldn’t impinge on the so-called “genre exclusivity” enjoyed by E!.

But rather than simply issuing a license and then dealing with possible infractions as they arose – as you might expect in a hands-off era – the CRTC is implying that it doesn’t trust the broadcasters to behave. It doesn’t have the power to issue fines for broadcasting infractions, which means the blunt hammer of denying or revoking a license is one of the few mechanisms at its disposal when a license holder fails to keep its promises. The Entertainment Desk decision is a warning shot to the country’s major media companies.

Which is why Bell Media executives might be tugging at their collars a little more frequently these days.

Last month, they seemed taken aback when they appeared before the CRTC to make their case for buying Astral Media Inc. On the very first day of the hearing, Jean-Pierre Blais, who was appointed CRTC chairman in June, chastised Bell for sweetening its offer at the eleventh hour – “pulling rabbits out of a hat,” he said – by proposing to launch a new mobile TV service if the acquisition were approved, and also to increase the amount of money in its so-called “tangible benefits” package.

Mr. Blais tried to extract assurances from Bell executives that local TV stations would be safe from closure. He also, remarkably, read aloud some of the hundreds of comments sent in by individuals who were upset with the proposed acquisition.

This may all have been a mere song-and-dance, intended to prove that the Commission is independent of industry and, especially, the Harper government. The Bell-Astral deal may yet sail through.

Or not.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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