Mark Starowicz is a Canadian journalist, producer and member of the Order of Canada. This essay is adapted from a speech given at the Policy 3.0 conference in Ottawa on May 10.
What were the first words spoken in the history of broadcasting?
A clue: They were not Marconi’s, who invented the transmission of Morse code, not voice. Just dots and dashes.
A second clue: The first words uttered on radio were by a Canadian. Reginald Fessenden, born in Knowlton, Que., who had been doing radio research for the government of Ontario.
A third clue: That first transmission took place in the United States, on Cobb Island near Washington, because Fessenden’s funding in Canada had been cut off and he was subsequently hired by the U.S. weather office.
The words were between him and his assistant, Alfred Thiessen, one kilometre away. They are very Canadian, really: “One. Two. Three. Four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen?”
On Dec. 23, 1900, for the first time in the world’s history, intelligent speech was transmitted by electromagnetic waves.
When in a crisis, it’s often best to go back to roots of the enterprise and remind yourself of the founding principles. Let’s go back to the beginning, almost a century ago.
In 1921, when commercial broadcasting began, only six clear radio channels were available to Canadian stations. In the United States, there were 77 exclusive channels.
The battle was not only over channel allocation, but signal power. A station in Alberta could be wiped out by a mega-transmitter in Salt Lake City. The consequences were severe. For example, in Calgary, three separate competing stations had to share one channel. The same was true in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and Montreal. Four stations in Toronto had to share the 840-kilocycle spot on the dial – they could not have any continuity, any operational economy, any programming sense or make a rational profit.
Meanwhile, the United States was exploding in superstations and a dangerous concentration was occurring – the growth of networks such as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). These networks, particularly NBC, were more than producers of programs. They were consortiums of radio manufacturers, controllers of transmission lines, advertising and performance agencies – in other words, gigantic monopolies controlling the manufacture of radio sets, the transmitting stations, the terrestrial common carrier lines linking them and the ad agencies which not only made the commercials, but actually produced the programs.
Here is how Canada fared under unrestricted broadcasting competition: By 1932, the total power of Canadian stations totalled less than one 50-kilowatt station, against 680,000 watts of American transmission power. As Austin Weir wrote in The Struggle for National Broadcasting, “Canada was fast becoming a mere satellite of American Broadcasting.”
Faced with this flood, what happened in this country’s leadership?
We must understand, first of all, that national broadcasting in Canada was an act of political will, and of a national consensus. We as a nation, in 1932, made a historic decision regarding the cultural sovereignty of the country, a decision as fundamental as the transcontinental railway.
A parliamentary committee heard support for a national, publicly-owned broadcasting network from an array of organizations and individuals that crossed the political spectrum, regions, religions, labour and corporations.
The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act of 1932 is the constitution of this country’s cultural sovereignty, a declaration that the population north of the 49th parallel would have its own culture and cover its own news. This one act of Parliament had a more profound effect on playwriting than all the theatres of the Dominion would, more on orchestral and popular music than all the conservatories and entertainment halls in the country. The economic ripple affected generations of writers, singers and musicians.
There is little doubt as to the objective which we, as a nation, set for ourselves in 1932. Prime minister R.B. Bennett, when introducing the Broadcasting Act into the House of Commons, did so with these words: “This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources, free from foreign interference or influence.”
He was unequivocal about the method as well: “No other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of broadcasting … I cannot think that any government would be warranted in leaving the air to private exploitation and not reserving it for the use of the people.”
And here’s Lionel Chevrier, minister of transport speaking in the House of Commons in 1952, when television was introduced to Canada: “The essential reason for public development of television in this country is that we want … both popular programs and cultural programs to be produced in Canada by Canadians, about Canada … we want programs from the United States … but we do not want, above all, that these programs will come over and be in a position to monopolize the field.”
There has been a remarkable constancy of these objectives over the years. For instance, the Broadcasting Act of 1968 states that: “The Canadian Broadcasting system should … safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of the country.”
About the primacy of the public broadcasting element in that system, the act was equally clear: “When any conflict arises between the objectives of the National Broadcasting Service (the CBC) and the interests of the private element of the Canadian Broadcasting system … paramount consideration shall be given to the objectives of the national broadcasting service.”
This, then, was the will of the founders of the Canadian system, the objectives of the trustees of public policy and of the Parliament of Canada from 1932 until today.
We are in different times and different technologies, but we would do well to remind ourselves of our founding principles.
Lost on the seas of new technologies, we need our compass – because we are facing the digital deluge.
Netflix appeared in the Canadian market in 2010, and now commands more than four million subscribers, draws more than $600 million a year from Canadians (half the annual budget of the CBC) and pays no taxes in Canada – not one penny. It is not required to have a percentage of its catalogue be Canadian, nor contribute to Canadian television production. Canadian broadcasters have to not only pay HST and Canadian corporate tax, but must contribute 30 per cent their gross revenues to the production of new Canadian shows. The FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) say they are not broadcasters, so they are not bound by regulation – and so far, the government and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission have declined to bring them under our regulatory umbrella, even though they commission television programs and distribute them to millions of viewers, like any broadcaster.
Netflix is only the beginning. Amazon Prime is growing. Apple is launching its own equivalent of Netflix, as is the biggest of all giants, Disney.
Now, I subscribe to Netflix, and welcome Disney, but like most of the industry am perplexed by the passivity of the Canadian government and the CRTC in refusing to bring the FAANGs into our regulatory and domestic production universe. Stephen Harper made promising not to tax Netflix an election issue, and the Liberal government has held back, too.
Others haven’t. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Japan and South Korea have introduced tax measures, and the EU is requiring that 30 per cent of the FAANGs’ catalogues be European-produced.
This comes at a time when our newspapers are being hollowed out and local news faces extinction within a decade.
The public broadcaster is weak and endangered. The business model for private broadcasters in Canada is perilous.
We are in an existential crisis.
The migration of cinema and television to the digital spectrum is real. It presents huge regulatory challenges. But we have to recognize this is still a migration. It is not the collapse of narrative that many people were predicting. Yes, you can make some documentaries on an iPhone. But you can’t make Game of Thrones. The hour-long or feature-length form have not only survived, but exploded into massive series that are released 14 episodes at a time and that people spend all weekend binge-watching. Never has televisual production been longer, or more complex, literate and cinematic. We are living the golden age of television drama.
We are witnessing the renaissance of the long-form documentary, too, and producing some of the finest long-form documentaries and documentary series in history. We are living the golden age of the long-form documentary.
That is the main thrust of digital revolution. A massive migration of high-quality content to a new platform. That is the challenge that confronts us. Canada must also produce such quality that can compete on the world stage.
Of course we need to embrace digital platforms. But sometimes, cynically, the digital age is invoked in order to cut back on production.
If you’re a commercial television service that doesn’t want to spend money on high-quality documentaries, it’s convenient to invoke the digital age and say you’re funding cutting-edge digital shorts instead, as has happened with many Canadian private networks and specialty channels. In the meantime, Netflix, Amazon and HBO are spending millions on feature documentaries and series. So let’s be careful: “Digital” can also be used as an excuse to cut back on reporters, writers, and cinematographers, and water down the product.
And don’t succumb to technological despair, the argument that it’s sad that legacy media is declining, but that it’s a reality we have to face up to and accept.
No, we don’t.
And we don’t have to abandon public space either, any more than we did in 1932 with radio or 1952 with television. Quality media and local news are disappearing because we are not fighting for them. We’ve allowed the business model to be hollowed out by the FAANGs. The whole history of Canadian broadcasting sovereignty for the last 100 years has been us defending our sovereign airspace, our means of communication, our means of coming together.
And let’s not be so quick to accept the extinction of legacy broadcast media as inevitable. When I joined the CBC in 1970, the board of directors was actively discussing getting CBC out of the radio business. All the statistics were grim; it was obvious radio was a declining medium.
The CBC is now number one in many Canadian markets. In the U.S., National Public Radio, which was modelled on the CBC, became the most powerful force in radio news and current affairs. The advent of the podcast has introduced thousands of new voices around the world – and not at the expense of broadcast radio, but on top of broadcast radio.
Broadcast television will survive, in forms that are not immediately clear to us now. The human need to come together and share the news, a concert, a sporting event, will not disappear. Yes, it will migrate to the internet as its distribution platform, but the basic form will endure just as the hour-long drama has endured and even prospered on Netflix and Amazon.
Has the political will that was born in 1930s, and endured through every ensuing challenge, evaporated? The conservative party of Stephen Harper imposed a withering 10-year drought for the CBC, during which time the CBC itself seemed to lose a sense of clear purpose; the Liberals seem dazzled with digital, and the NDP has been muted. The issue seems dormant in Ottawa, but I think still survives in the core DNA of mainstream Conservatives, Liberals and social democrats, and that vision can be revived with clear-eyed leadership and an understanding of our peril.
We are facing the strongest challenge in a century to our national communications and culture.
Graham Spry, the co-founder of national broadcasting, and whom I had the privilege of knowing, once said, “Every generation will have to refight the battle for national broadcasting in Canada.”
That time is now.