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Television Kate Taylor: CRTC’s porn channel move highlights serious questions about broadcasting rules

You could hear the snickering from St. John's to Victoria Wednesday evening as news broke that Canada's broadcasting regulator was questioning whether three porn channels were living up to their Canadian content requirements.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released a notice that it would be holding a hearing in April to consider two applications to change the ownership structure of AOV Adult Movie Channel, and of AOV XXX Action Clips and AOV Maleflixxx, but in both cases it added that the channels may have failed to comply with their 35-per-cent Canadian content requirement. Nor were they closed-captioning enough programming. The CRTC notice made it onto the crawl on the CBC news and the jokes about Canadian quickies, CRTC spankings and other things we can't repeat here have been flying ever since.

It's yet more ammunition for those who mock the CRTC and question why it needs to even exist. You could say the regulator brought this one on itself when it decided to license porn channels a decade ago, and required them to contribute to Canadian broadcasting the same way every licensee does. But the sheer silliness of requiring Canadian content in adult movies isn't merely a dirty joke at the CRTC's expense: It exposes serious questions about the effectiveness of the regulatory system.

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They say tough cases don't make good law, and making the case that pornography contributes to Canadian broadcasting is certainly a tough one. If Canadian content regulations are merely in place to nurture a financially healthy industry – which is one of the objectives of the Broadcasting Act – then you could argue that a porn shoot hires lighting technicians and camera operators just like any other TV production and, hey, jobs are jobs.

But in a land awash in American programming, Canadian content regulations have a larger purpose, to reserve some portion of cultural space for domestic product so that Canadians occasionally see Canada and Canadians on TV. Adult movies may be culture in the broadest definition of the term, but they don't have much redeeming social value. Unlike sitcoms or dramas, which are potentially filled with meaning that contributes to a social conversation, porn is a generic product whose national origins are as unimportant as those of a light bulb or a vibrator.

Beyond that, however, lies a nastier question about all Canadian broadcasting: How effectively can you ever compel commercial interests to advance public policy objectives? Lots of anodyne specialty channels featuring comedy, cooking and cartoons as well as the main commercial networks themselves have to meet more onerous programming requirements than the AOV trio and it is often not in their best business interests to do so. Depending on their niche, they can usually buy American content more cheaply than they can produce Canadian, and they rarely show much enthusiasm for their obligations, squirming around the regulations in one inventive way or another. Commercial Canadian broadcaster is something of an oxymoron; one of the reasons Canada needs a powerful public broadcaster is so that at least one institution can operate free of that contradiction and dedicate itself to Canadian programming.

As for the pornographers, it's probably just easier to charge them higher licence fees than to bother counting Canadian crotch shots.

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