I love the smell of free markets in the morning. Child labour. Adulterated goods. False advertising.
But seriously, discussions about deregulation often make it sound as though the ultimate goal is no regulation at all, when in truth it's a question of getting the rules right. Case in point? Canadian television, of course, where the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's recent decisions to start dismantling some Canadian-content rules and let consumers select their cable offerings channel by channel have been greeted with many cries of "about bloody time."
It was certainly time the CRTC did something. The federal regulator, which delivered the last of its five decisions from the 2014 Let's Talk TV hearings on Thursday, needed to face the widening gap between the viewing choice offered by the Internet and regulations devised for the linear television schedules of conventional broadcasters. But the CRTC's response – dropping Cancon requirements for daytime TV; forcing distributors to unbundle channel offerings and proposing they follow a consumer code; changing protections for specialty channels and removing broadcasters' ability to block U.S. ads on major sports events – demonstrates an ad hoc mix of realism and populism rather than a coherent approach.
The thing is, without regulation, there would not be any Canadian TV. In an open North American television market, Canadian broadcasters would probably exist only as affiliates of the American networks. You might get a local evening newscast and that would be about it for Cancon. It is not that you can't make money creating original programming in Canada, it's just that it's easier and faster to make money redistributing American programming.
What Canada has developed since the 1970s is an intricate web of protections, requirements and subsidies that determine not merely what mix of Canadian and American programming airs, but also who makes money off Canadian television. As content creation and television viewing move to the Internet, those regulations look increasingly lopsided if not altogether irrelevant. Is it fair to keep requiring CTV and Global to invest a percentage of revenues in Canadian programming when Netflix doesn't have to? Will the simultaneous-substitution (simsub) rules that let broadcasters drop their Canadian ads into competing American signals when they simulcast the same shows make any sense when most programming – aside from major events such as the Super Bowl or the Oscars – is viewed on demand?
But if you simply drop these protections and requirements, you won't have any Canadian TV. What is needed is a major rethink, and what is disappointing about the recent CRTC decisions is that they seem so calculated to be popular – I mean, who wouldn't sell their Canadian passport for the chance to see those big-budget Super Bowl ads? – that they don't form a consistent policy.
Instead, in a long-standing CRTC tradition, we get horse trading between competing interests. On the one hand, pick-and-pay may please consumers, but it will place a big new business pressure on the broadcasting groups. On the other hand, the CRTC has removed the genre protection that forced specialty channels to remain within their niches, so the broadcasters can now adjust the programming mix on less popular channels at will.
The regulator came up with a similar trade-off for simsub, maintaining it for the main networks while removing it for the Super Bowl and the specialty channels (whose main area of simulcasting would be big sports events). That means simsub lives on in the area where it can be expected to become less lucrative as the on-demand model makes simulcasting less prevalent, but it dies in the area – sports – where it could be expected to remain an important source of revenue. (No wonder Bell, which owns CTV, the Super Bowl rights and 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail to boot, is gnashing its teeth and taking that decision to court.)
There's some realpolitik in all this, but not much discussion of what the new TV bridge will look like as the CRTC begins to dismantle the old (to mangle a metaphor borrowed from CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais). In theory, you could impose new regulations on online services, setting percentages of Canadian content for catalogues and insisting it be properly promoted, but in practice the CRTC has always maintained a politically popular hands-off approach to the Internet. So, if you can't regulate, you subsidize. How are we going to fund the new bridge? What is most obviously missing from all the Let's Talk TV talk is any discussion of money.