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john doyle: television

There's a large group of Canadians who are champion complainers. Whine, whine. Gimme, gimme. No fair. I want my MTV/HBO/Showtime/Fox News/that channel with all the celebrity news. I want it now and I don't want to pay for it. Canadian content shoved down my throat? Screw that.

You know what I mean. Consumer greed for American popular culture disguised as a robust belief in the inherent integrity of the free market.

Yesterday afternoon, after the Canadian TV racket and a small army of pundits waited with bated breath, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission imposed an attempted resolution to the "fee for carriage" fight between broadcasters and cable companies - a complicated new system that allows broadcasters to negotiate a fee. A defeat for the cable companies? Perhaps. It's no coincidence that late last week the CRTC released figures about Canadian cable operators making pre-tax profits of $2.3-billion in 2009. (You can read the tricky details elsewhere in today's paper.) But I can tell you this: As sure as the sun rose this morning, some pundits are saying that the CRTC's existence is based on outdated ideas and that it should be abolished.

I hear it all the time and it is utter nonsense. Some Canadians - those great complainers - talk as if the CRTC were a unique Canadian body, something created by a Liberal government to protect Canadian culture and stop the encroachment of U.S. TV and radio. Further, many people take the view that technology has made the CRTC redundant. There are no borders for the Internet. TV's dead. Yadda yadda. Again, you know what I mean. And it's nonsense.

An equivalent of the CRTC exists in every democracy. The airwaves belong to the nation and the citizens are entitled to a say in the use of the airwaves. Broadband. Digital signals. That's the airwaves, people. And nobody is entitled to a monopoly on the airwaves. Regulating the airwaves is a necessary endeavour, like ensuring there's safe food and safe drinking water.

You think it's all free-market freedom in the United States and there is no regulations of broadcasting and cable? You think the "fee for carriage" war is an anomalous Canadian thing? Nonsense.

If you were in New York on Oscar night and the TV signal you watched came courtesy of Cablevision, then you missed the pre-Oscar red carpet social and the first 20 minutes of the Academy awards on ABC. ABC pulled its signal from Cablevision on the night of the Oscars in a high-stakes fight over how much cable distributors should pay for the right to carry its signal. Right now, in an uncanny echo of the Canadian situation, the FCC (their CRTC) has launched a review of how broadcasters ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and cable companies negotiate retransmission deals.

What's happening in the U.S. is not an exact replica of the Canadian predicament, but it should serve as a warning - sometimes regulation is vital.

In fact, the dispute here between broadcasters and cable justifies the CRTC's existence. Look at both sides here: They have failed utterly in finding their own resolution through adhering to market forces or indeed any sense of common purpose.

Both sides are treacherous, money-grabbing, hostile, egotistical forces. Nobody in the cable or TV racket will thank me for saying so, but they know they are. In fact, for the most part, they are the corporate equivalents of those complaining Canadians who want American candy now, preferably free, and are damned irritated about being asked to even consider the homegrown fibre diet.

This is what the CRTC exists to do: find a solution that assuages the interests of corporations and does the best for the consumer, both in the sense of cable's bill-paying customers and consumers of local news and other Canadian programming. At the same time, it has to examine the interests of the unions and guild representing actors, writers, directors and producers of Canadian programming, those groups who like to call themselves "the creatives." The cable and broadcasting bosses don't have a monopoly on egotism, believe me. The Canadian TV racket is shark-infested waters, and somebody has to regulate.

The CRTC has, in the past, made some sensible and many appalling decisions. In the 1980s, it allowed cable companies too much leeway in raising the price of service to customers. In the 1990s, it blithely imposed far less rigorous Canadian-content regulations on broadcasters. It has never dealt emphatically with the issue of the forced "bundling" of cable channels, thereby infuriating Canadians who are forced to pay for channels they don't want to watch.

But, complain all you like and until you're blue in the face. In every country that has even the vaguest notion of a culture and identity, there is an equivalent of the CRTC. The CRTC exists for a reason: Cable and broadcasters cannot be relied upon to self-regulate and provide the best services to Canadians. Whatever decision it reaches, it will underline why its own existence is a necessity.

Airing tonight

The Lost Tomb of Jesus (Vision, 9 p.m.) is a repeat and a sign that Easter is almost upon us. Controversial and heavily hyped when first aired two years ago, it has James Cameron as executive producer and is made by "the Naked Archaeologist" himself, Simcha Jacobovici. The story starts with the discovery, in Jerusalem in 1980, of 10 ossuaries (limestone burial boxes) that dated back to the first century AD. The inscription on one is translated as "Jesus, son of Joseph." From this point, through a tangled tale that involves seeking and finding other tombs and ossuaries, and having various scholars study the inscriptions, Jacobovici posits the possibility that he has discovered the final resting place of Jesus and his family, and that the family is not what many believe it was. There is an awful lot of supposition.

V (ABC, A Channel, 10 p.m.) returns soon and this is the catch-up episode. Here's the gist of V - a small group of people are going about their business, including Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost), an FBI anti-terror agent, divorced and mother to Tyler (Logan Huffman), a typically confused, rebellious teen; Chad (Scott Wolf), a shallow but ambitious news reporter/anchor intent on sleeping his way to the top; Father Jack (Joel Gretsch), a young, troubled priest; and Ryan (Morris Chestnut), who is about to be engaged to Valerie (Lourdes Benedicto) and wants to settle down. Along come the aliens. A huge spaceship hovers in the sky. The aliens seem nice. They're not. But they sure look hot. Trouble ensues.

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