Look up in the sky. Is it a bird? A plane? No, it's Super-Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
Champion of the little guy, he flies around this vast land in seconds, bringing broadband access to the most isolated communities. Hero of the consumer, he leaps over regulatory obstacles in a single bound to make sure Canadians can cherry pick their cable offerings or get access to American Super Bowl ads.
Jean-Pierre Blais, the guy in a tight blue leotard with CRTC emblazoned on his chest, was at it again this week, announcing a new fund to get broadband into remote communities and setting minimum standards for speeds. For the 18 per cent of Canadians who don't have access to higher-speed connections, the digital divide creates a social, educational and cultural deficit that should be addressed. Blais's initiative is welcome – but it also reflects a leader who is more comfortable on the telecom side of his portfolio where issues of access and cost are paramount; it's not an approach that works well for the cultural issues that should dominate the broadcasting side of his mandate where his populism often misses the point.
Since he was appointed chairman by Stephen Harper in 2012, Blais has positioned the CRTC as the true friend of that group the Conservative prime minister used to call "ordinary Canadians." The most obvious example was his bizarre 2015 decision to get Canadians those fancy American Super Bowl ads they complain they are missing by making a Super Bowl exception to simultaneous substitution – the system whereby Canadian broadcasters can swap their own ads into the U.S. programs they simulcast. Bell Media, which buys the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl on CTV in Canada, has been fighting the decision in court.
Blais's second big gift to the Canadian consumer was to force pick-and-pay on the broadcasting industry as of this month, despite warnings it would do little to lower cable bills and a lot to kill off specialty channels. But hey, consumers refuse to understand why they should pay for channels they don't watch, so why not give them what they think they want.
Every superhero needs a villain, so as Blais champions the consumer, he has made a great show of tackling the broadcasters and distributors. If previous incarnations of the CRTC have seemed awfully cozy with industry, nobody could accuse Blais of getting cuddly with anyone, especially this fall as he has called out both the industry and Canadian creators for their lack of entrepreneurial spirit.
His hectoring reached shocking levels for a public servant in a November speech to an industry conference where he expressed surprise at Rogers and Shaw for shutting down their money-losing streaming service Shomi, wondering if the companies were "too used to receiving rents from subscribers every month in a protected ecosystem, rather than rolling up their sleeves …" Meanwhile, he also suggested the creative community has been too sheltered by Canadian content quotas, which he labelled "protectionist" ideas in a November speech to a consumer advocacy group. It's a loaded word and a very odd choice for a CRTC chair considering that, according to the Broadcasting Act, the primary purpose of the entire broadcasting system that he oversees is the creation of Canadian content.
It's politically easy to be a consumer advocate; most of us are broadcasting consumers. But a consumer-first philosophy can create a tyranny of the majority and the paradox of broadcasting, especially in Canada, is that consumer behaviour will not necessarily create the diverse programming that Canadians want. Pick and pay will likely produce less choice as specialty channel offerings narrow to the broadly popular. Most Canadians say they value local news but they no longer watch it in sufficient numbers to make it reliably profitable. Meanwhile, when it comes to comedy and drama, U.S. shows are consistently the ratings winners and the fastest way for a broadcaster to turn a buck; a consumer-driven system would seem to ignore the smaller but still very significant audiences who this season have been enjoying Murdoch Mysteries, Rick Mercer Report, Letterkenny, Kim's Convenience and Frontier.
The broadcasting proposition is a three-legged stool – industry, creator and consumer – and Blais has got to be able to work with the first two. His harsh judgments on Canadian creators show little understanding of how art and entertainment get made: without recognizing that it is quantity of production that creates the occasional hit, he has suggested the system needs to concentrate on quality, as though creators routinely set out to make bad shows. He has also stressed international competitiveness, although English Canada already has an enviable track record selling programming abroad while making export your first motive can produce generic mediocrity and discriminate against shows based in fiercely local tastes, especially in comedy.
As the sometimes irascible Blais speechified and browbeat his way through the fall, some observers began wondering if this was not a man busy building his legacy. After all, his five-year mandate expires in June and a CRTC chair sometimes gets an extension but rarely a second term. It will be hard playing Super-Blais if Justin Trudeau dismantles the phone booth.