CRTC Hearings Wrap Up in Ottawa
by Greg Taylor
CRTC Public Hearings, Dec. 6, 2006
The final day of the CRTC public hearings was a collection of mixed messages and messengers. The primary focus of these hearings was allegedly the future of over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting in the face of declining profitability and viewership; however, Wednesday Dec. 6 was filled with issues as diverse as pleas for funding for regional development, museum foundations, and research institutions, along with a command performance from an unexpected source and, during one presentation, a noticeably fawning panel of commissioners.
Ian Morrison of The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting began the day and dealt directly with the OTA issue, siding with the broadcasters who fear declining returns and relevance in a digitized multi-channel environment. Friends disagreed with OTA broadcasters who have made the case for a fee to be placed upon all BDUs (Broadcast Distribution Undertakings – satellite and cable) in the same way specialty channels receive fee for carriage. Instead, Morrison requested “the Commission consider permitting OTA broadcasters to obtain subscription revenues based on the total number of digital subscribers” and that all extra charges for various channels be placed on the customer’s bill.
Morrison did not believe the dire predictions of consumer backlash opined by Ted Rogers on a previous day and advised the CRTC to be “appropriately skeptical”. The Friends noted such sky-is-falling proclamations have been brought forth by this continual growth industry in the past (when I asked Florian Sauvageau, co-author of a seminal 1986 study on Canadian broadcasting which preceded the 1991 Broadcasting Act, about the proceedings, he noted the protestation of the BDUs could have been lifted word for word from their 1986 testimonies when they were facing the uncertain spectre of satellite broadcasting.) It should be noted that Ted Rogers had said last Wednesday that if any network is to receive the fee for carriage proposal, it should only be the CBC, a point seconded on this day by Arthur Lewis of Our Public Airwaves.
The central role played by public regulation in the television production sector was front and centre as groups such as the Syndicate des Communication de Radio-Canada, the Canadian Film and Television Production Association and the Alberta Motion Pictures Association lobbied the CRTC for assistance. The producers had common concerns about a centralized, increasingly privatized system (though the Alberta group was clear to place no blame upon the private market) that is not serving Canadians broad range of interests. Of particular note was the relative pittance networks currently spend on domestically produced drama (3% of budgets according to CFTPA) as opposed to the money spent to purchase American shows (CTV’s addiction to the CSI franchise was often cited). A common refrain at these hearings were the references to the success of Corner Gas – the current poster child for successful Canadian content. The Alberta group was quick to note that this show was the product of a regional incentive program in Saskatchewan
It became clear during the proceedings that viewers who are bothered by product placement in television programming had, simply put, better get used to it. It was interesting to hear from the Association of Canadian Advertisers, since ad revenue (or lack thereof) was a common theme for the previous seven days. Product placement is just on of the “non-traditional” styles of advertising being pursued. It is noteworthy that advertisers were not in support of network proposals for increased commercial time on television (the current limit set by the CRTC is 12 minutes per hour). Canadian advertisers are well aware we change channels during the commercials and increasing their volume would only turn off more viewers. The ACA called for a truce between the warring factions of BDUs and broadcasters in the Canadian system which they see as restraining the creative thinking necessary for how the system will proceed. As VP of Policy and Research Bob Reaume put it “we are going to have to free television in order to keep television free”.
The political accountability of an arm’s length regulator like the CRTC, was featured in a lively exchange between Arthur Lewis Our Public Airwaves and Commissioner Richard French. Using blunt language that put off some people (including Globe columnist John Doyle who, mistakenly according to what I have heard, claims in the Dec 7 Globe that French is the front runner to succeed Charles Dalfen as chair of the CRTC) French reiterated his previous position that it is not the place of the CRTC to question levels of funding for public broadcasting, despite repeated testimony asking the CRTC to do just that. Speaking of his colleagues, French said “we are not politically accountable” and rhetorically asked “Do we second guess the decisions of the democratically elected Members of Parliament”? This exchange lasted for some time.
The most dramatic testimony I heard in my two days at the hearings came from a man who spoke alone (many other speakers were flanked by lawyers and advisors) in a voice he said he rarely employs: he represented the Canadian Association of the Deaf (my apologies for not noting his name). For ten minutes he effectively grilled the CRTC for its poor support for captioning, and refuted broadcasters’ claims that captioning requirements are expensive and difficult – positions the Association of the Deaf stated were “phoney” and “already discredited”. The CAD representative spoke of a history where captioning finally came about after only after Human Rights court challenges forced the hand of the CRTC and broadcasters. He also noted that despite hard fought progress, the CRTC has still never sought punitive measures against broadcasters who were negligent in providing captioning. Apparently names of foreign players are still routinely misspelled during hockey games, and the three to five second delay (which the CAD claims can be remedied) makes comedy and drama almost unwatchable. Before he finished, the CAD representative challenged the room to try to watch TV with the sound off for a length of time to get a sense of the difficulties faced by their membership.
The tone of the proceedings shifted dramatically later in the afternoon during a submission from the Canadian Media Research Consortium. The Consortium was represented by York University’s Fred Fletcher, Florian Sauvageau of Laval U and former CRTC/CBC chair Pierre Juneau. In a strange twist, the Consortium’s reasonable request for a permanent institution for applied media research in Canada was “ambushed” (a word used more than once that afternoon) by the Commission and taken in an entirely different and unscripted direction. After days of not flinching in the face of testimony from multi-millionaire owners and well-known actors, the CRTC representatives were finally thrown off by the obvious reverence with which they held these academics.
In a regulatory sense, the CRTC officials were star-struck.
They bluntly asked the members of the Consortium what they would do if they were in charge of these hearings, and no Commissioner seemed to think this was an unreasonable request. While M. Juneau was obviously unprepared for the question, he obliged the Commissioners and spoke in general terms about the changing face of broadcasting and the continuing relevance of broadcasting as a service, not just an industry.
The CRTC is expected to submit a report this coming summer on the future of television broadcasting in Canada.
To listen to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting intervention at the hearings, go to http://www.friends.ca/News/podcast.asp