Fresh off its decision to kill a multibillion-dollar merger between two of Canada's largest broadcasters, Canada's television regulator is preparing to take on a far more formidable opponent – Oprah Winfrey.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and Corus Entertainment are set to do battle over the fate of the specialty channel that bears her name, in another example of the commission's new appetite for confrontation with broadcasters.
The problem is with the Oprah Winfrey Network's Canadian licence, which demands the channel must broadcast educational content. That worked when the channel operated as Canadian Learning Television, but when Corus replaced it last year with OWN, the commission took notice of the shift in content.
Now the CRTC is warning "all options are on the table" – including pulling Corus' licence for the channel – unless the Toronto-based broadcaster can convince commissioners that it will provide more educational programming and fewer guilty pleasures such as Are You Normal, America? and Lovetown, USA.
"The commission found that while OWN's programming was focused on 'enhancement programming,' it did not provide basic adult education, job development skills or professional development as reflected in its nature of service definition," the regulator said in a statement.
To keep both its licence and the legions of female viewers that come along with all things Oprah, Corus said it is willing to introduce four weekly educational shows to the channel's lineup to bolster its homegrown educational content – E-Commerce Done Right, The Job Seekers Guide to Career Happiness, Finance for Everyone and The History of Canadian Art.
The concession comes as public consultations into the dispute come to a close Friday. Once the comment period closes, the commission will schedule a hearing where it will decide the channel's fate.
"We would like to work closely with commission staff on an ongoing basis to ensure that all new basic adult and skills-related programming offered on the service meet with OWN's nature of service definition," Sylvie Courtemanche, Corus' vice-president of government relations wrote in a submission to the CRTC filed last week.
The dispute over what constitutes education material has been simmering for more than a year, which means it predates the appointment of Jean-Pierre Blais as the consumer-minded head of the commission. Corus said it will explain its programming decisions at the hearing, where it will likely face a barrage of questions from regulators about how consumers are better served by Oprah's life lessons than other more traditional educational fare.
When BCE Inc. and Astral Media Inc. appeared before the commission to explain the rationale behind its proposed $3-billion merger, executives sorely underestimated the emphasis the CRTC would place on how their programming decisions would affect Canadians and serve a greater public good. Corus took note – in its most recent filing to the commission last week it said it was excited to work with the regulator to comply with its licence and provide a public service at the same time.
"We are very enthusiastic about these new program concepts as they are not restricted to on-air programs," Ms. Courtemanche wrote. "In today's economy and with high unemployment rates, helping people to find new employment opportunities or become entrepreneurs represents a true contribution to not only the Canadian broadcasting system, but to Canada's economic fabric."