Media @ McGill

Gregory Taylor - Canadian Broadcasting Regulation and the Digital Television Transition

Submitted by hive on

In 1997, the change from analogue to digital television was championed by then-Vice President Al Gore as

the greatest transformation in television’s that is truly bigger than the shift from black and white to color....It’s like the difference between a one-man band and a symphony…

While there has been no shortage of hyperbole to describe the change from analogue to digital television, much of it is indeed warranted. This thesis examines the evolution of Canadian broadcasting regulation since the 1991 Broadcasting Act with a specific focus on the digital television transition.  For Canada, this technological shift exemplifies many of the greater changes in policy post 1991 Broadcasting Act: a faith in market mechanisms, light-touch regulation, co-regulatory approaches, and the powerful influence of new technologies.  This dissertation will address the following central question: does the policy surrounding the transition to digital television broadcasting pose a challenge to traditional concerns of the role of broadcasting in Canadian democracy? Digital television offers a very large window into the policy process involving a profound and current structural change in Canadian broadcasting.  

Using primary government and industry documents and interviews with key actors, I examine the early policy statements of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (the CRTC) regarding digital television and compare these with binding regulations brought forth in later years. My work incorporates elements of Canadian, American, and European media policy. The results of this study speak to powers involved in the Canadian policy process, the influence of new technologies, and the greater prevailing policy directions in broadcasting since the 1991 Broadcasting Act.    

This dissertation will examine the changing role of regulation in Canadian broadcasting policy in seven chapters.  

1)    The Roots of Broadcasting Regulation and the CRTC

The first chapter will present a brief history and literature review on the area of broadcasting policy in Canada. It will seek to address the central theoretical question of why broadcasting has traditionally been viewed as an industry in need of regulation in Canada and abroad. What is the specificity and nuance to broadcasting as opposed to other media; in particular, the often strained relationship between government and regulator?  What is the role of communications in the greater picture of the democratic polity; in particular the elusive but central concept of the public interest?

This chapter will also offer an historical overview of the CRTC and how it differs from its regulatory predecessors. It examines the principles of the 1968 Broadcasting Act which created the CRTC and analyzes the ensuing power struggles as it asserted its new-found authority in the first two decades.   

2)    Technology and Neoliberalism

The second chapter looks at what this study perceives as the key contemporary pressures on broadcasting policy in Canada: changing technology and the rise of neo-liberalism.  Shifts in technology are a constant struggle for communications regulators, though the intensity of current changes is unprecedented.  This chapter examines the relationship between changing technology and broadcasting regulation.  
Just as broadcasting policy originally developed in the welfare state-building era of the 1930s, the current regime has been profoundly influenced by the global movement toward a neo-liberal economic paradigm. Few communication scholars have taken the time to address this 19th century economic revivalism on its own terms.  This chapter examines the writings of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and John Kenneth Galbraith and places them in context with the movement to bring market economics to broadcasting.      

3)  Policy Statements – the Digital Television Transition

This chapter will focus on the policy announcements of the CRTC and ask: what does the CRTC believe is the appropriate position of regulation in the current environment?

After a brief description of the science of digital television, I explore the early digital television policies of Canada and the United States via a comparative analysis examining the language, participants, and strategies appropriated by each country.  The chapter categorizes the Canadian approach into the CRTC policies designed for specialty and pay channels, broadcasting distribution undertakings, high definition, and over-the-air broadcasters.

4) Regulatory decisions

What has the CRTC done?  Does the action taken via specific regulations match the early policy plan?  This chapter examines key regulatory decisions regarding the digital television transition and place them in context against the policy statements of chapter three.  Is the CRTC living up to the policy principles stated in chapter three? How do public service criteria measure at the level of operations?

5) Self and Co-Regulation and the Digital Television Transition

This chapter will place self and co-regulation in the greater movement surrounding the changing governance in state policy.  How has the movement to ‘light-touch’ regulation affected the launch of digital television in Canada?

The key bodies for this chapter will be the industry groups associated with launching much of the digital television transition within Canada.  What does this say about the power structure at the core of the digital transition and is it consistent with traditional views of the public interest?  

6)  Conclusion

In the digital era, has the CRTC, via its regulatory structure, been attentive to democratic needs of Canadian citizens?  Have its actions matched the rhetoric about the role of regulation?  Has the movement toward co-regulation been accomplished in such a way as to provide similar levels of protection for the citizenry?  

Expected completion: fall 2009.