TV stations have a responsibility to produce local news, even if it hurts their bottom line, the head of the country's broadcast regulator told a Commons committee Thursday.
Earnings aren't everything, said Jean Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. He lamented the "disturbing number of television stations" that have cut staff, centralized operations and reduced the length of their newscasts.
"We do not believe that local television news can be allowed to fall by the wayside simply because it doesn't look good on the balance sheet," Mr. Blais told the heritage committee, which is studying the future of local media.
"The marketplace of products, revenues and profits is not the only marketplace that counts. Far from it. There is also the marketplace of ideas and information. That marketplace trades in a kind of wealth that supports every aspect of our Canadian society."
His comments came as news conglomerate Postmedia announced a plan to reduce its salary costs by 20 per cent through voluntary staff buyouts – just the latest in a string of cuts being made across Canada's media landscape as newspapers and other news organizations struggle with declining ad revenue and increased online competition.
While digital platforms offer an alternative source of coverage, they don't have the funding and expertise in gathering information possessed by professional TV news outlets, Mr. Blais told the committee.
"They're accessible and gaining in popularity," he said, acknowledging the appeal of social media sites to which more and more news consumers have turned. "But so far they lack the funding, the experience and the news-gathering expertise to offer the focused, professional coverage that Canadians have a right to expect."
In June, the CRTC announced changes to the way broadcasters can pay for local TV news and required licence holders in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary to produce at least 14 hours a week of local news content – and to keep all of their stations running.
In smaller English-language markets, minimum programming was set at seven hours a week.
French-language stations are to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but must produce five hours a week of local programming.
But it was another decision, issued over the summer, that had committee members questioning whether the CRTC was harming Canadian TV production rather than bolstering it.
The regulator announced a change in August to the point system that determines producers' access to funding and tax credits for creating Canadian content, reducing the number of points required to be eligible for funding to six from eight. Critics have warned this could mean fewer Canadian creators and stars on the airwaves The Writers Guild of Canada has said the shift could make it easier to hire more Americans and called the decision a direct attack on Canadian creators.
In announcing the decision, the CRTC acknowledged the concern that the change could result in "fewer opportunities for Canadians."
But at committee, Mr. Blais defended the new system, arguing that it offers producers a small amount of flexibility in order to qualify for larger grants through other programs. "There's been much ado about this particular decision when the funding from this represents less than 2 per cent of all the federal funding available."
As Mr. Blais spoke, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report calling for massive reforms to the CRTC that would shrink the agency's mandate. The Ottawa-based think tank also recommended the regulator end Canadian content requirements for all broadcasters except the CBC/Radio Canada and stop dictating to cable and satellite TV providers what kind of channel selections they should offer.
"Regulating how much Canadian content is shown on traditional over-the-air television when Canadians are spending roughly one-third of a day per week watching Internet-based content, for instance, seems like a losing battle," stated the report written by Len Katz, former CRTC commissioner and a cable and telecom executive, and Sean Speer, a former Harper government economic adviser.
The report was similar in tone to those published earlier this year by the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute, which declared the CRTC outdated in the Netflix era.
The Department of Canadian Heritage has been canvassing Canadian businesses, interest groups and individuals on the government's approach to cultural industries in cross-country hearings that are set to conclude Nov. 25.