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Jean-Pierre Blais likes to portray himself as the people's regulator. Last week the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission unveiled a new code of conduct to protect wireless phone consumers, and on Wednesday he told an audience at the Banff World Media Festival he wants to hear from Canadians in an upcoming regulatory review of the country's TV broadcasting system. "It is time to take stock of the reality of television from their perspective," he said. "It is, after all, their broadcasting system."
But by trying to stand up for Canadian consumers, Mr. Blais may emerge as an enemy of the Canadian identity industry that his predecessors have fought for 40 years to protect through a thicket of regulations. A true overhaul of the outdated broadcasting regulatory regime would strike at the heart of a system that funds much of Canadian cultural content.
Mr. Blais is right to push this debate to the forefront. It wasn't long ago that government regulations substantially restricted the means through which Canadians learned about the world, via CRTC rules governing broadcasters and foreign ownership restrictions on Canadian media properties. Now the unregulated Internet and streaming websites like Netflix are blowing a hole through that model. The airwaves are a public asset; the Internet isn't.
Mr. Blais was one of the first bureaucrats to truly grasp this shift when he was at the federal Heritage department, where he created a task force to study the impact of new technologies on cultural policies. "Regulatory fiat is becoming an obsolete concept in a borderless world," he said Wednesday. Earlier this year he told domestic film and TV producers they should prepare to compete globally without depending on subsidies that are now there for them, but may not be in the future.
That was the first indication that Mr. Blais understands the magnitude of what he's trying to do: pull on the loose thread of Canadian cultural protectionism by way of the broadcasting regulatory regime. If Mr. Blais is really serious about opening consumer choice, his work will move beyond addressing the common complaint by consumers that they are forced to pay for cable TV channels they don't want.
Any full and honest discussion about the future of broadcasting must address whether we should dismantle or replace the way the system funds Canadian content. At present, Canadian producers receive much of their funding from private broadcasters and distributors, who must show a certain amount of Canadian content on their networks.
It's an artificial closed loop system that benefits producers and placates nationalists, but real live Canadians have switched the channel – literally. Other than news and hockey, few Canadian TV shows appear on BBM's Top 30 weekly ratings.
A debate over whether consumers or Canadian content should come first is not likely to end with cable TV packages. The defence for protected cultural industries makes less and less sense in a borderless, digital world, and Mr. Blais is steering toward the centre of a political storm."Do the assumptions that lie beneath our current regulatory policies still hold true?" he said yesterday. They don't. Kudos to Mr. Blais for starting an important conversation with Canadians. Whether lawmakers are prepared for the blowback is another matter.
Sean Silcoff is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights , and follow Sean on Twitter at @seansilcoff .
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