By Sean Davidson 03-06-2013
The winds of change look to be freshening within Canadian TV, as protectionism comes under fire and calls for a more entrepreneurial market grow louder.
Schadenfreude reached record highs recently in Canada as broadcasters – one in particular – converged on Ottawa for yet another round of regulatory talks.
The purpose of the discussion is scarcely important. Hearings at the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) these days seem to take place about as often as the sun comes up, and the real gist of the conversation never seems to change. Everyone insists they’re being strangled by hard economic times and asks for a) relaxed regulations and/or b) tighter rules on the other guys.
Predictable as the tides.
This time, at least, we got to see well-mannered executives and, later, the journalists they employ try to conceal their glee over Sun TV’s troubles. The Quebecor-owned news channel came cap in hand to the CRTC, pleading for mandatory carriage on cable and satellite systems, lest it go out of business.
That’s got to be a tough thing to admit for a gang of arch-conservative, free-market capitalists whose boss once dismissed mandatory carriage as “tantamount to a tax.” The struggling two-year-old channel often attacks its competition at CTV News Net and CBC News Network, the country’s reigning 24-hour news channels, over perks they receive including mandatory carriage.
Imagine the smiles that would curl the lips of Al Gore and the folks at MSNBC if, in the US, execs from a desperately insolvent Fox News converted to Islam and began ululating the praises of gun control and universal health care and you’ll get an idea how Sun TV’s failure is playing out in Canada.
“Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are apparently no free-market capitalists in a financial black hole,” noted one columnist in The Globe & Mail, the national newspaper part-owned by CTV’s parent Bell Canada Enterprises.
But any network exec looking for mandatory carriage (which was the whole point of these latest hearings) stands a good chance of being disappointed. If not immediately, then soon.
There are signs of a sea change in Canada that could – some say should – dial down certain protections and attitudes under which the industry here has long operated.
CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said as much when he addressed delegates at the annual conference of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) in March. “Under my watch, you will not see a protectionist. I’m a promotionist,” said Blais, who took over last summer. “You will need to compete, just like any other sector.”
His remarks echo those of CMPA boss Michael Hennessey, who since his arrival last summer has also been charting a more competitive, entrepreneurial course for his sector. The two men appear to share a speechwriter.
But these are not the sorts of things Canucks are used to hearing, at least not in the screen trade, and some tealeaf readers take Blais’s remarks as a sign his five-year term will place less emphasis on Canadian content requirements.
This would delight the many broadcasters who insist Cancon rules stifle their programming choices. Even national pubcaster CBC asked for its Cancon levels to be tweaked during its most recent licence renewal, though at press time the answer was still pending.
But isn’t mandatory carriage just protectionism for channels? Arguably, yes. Does Blais see it that way? We don’t yet know. He hasn’t spoken as bluntly to broadcasters as he did to producers, but the CRTC’s rejection of the Bell/Astral deal in 2012, under his leadership, proved Canada’s chief regulator is mindful of consumer interests.
And there is much dissatisfaction among Canadian consumers when it comes to cable/satellite providers and their corporate twins, the networks. Not just the usual, self-interested demands of ‘I want my MTV’ but far sharper criticisms about the millions those vertically integrated conglomerates make off a system that forces bundles of neglected, almost unwatchable channels on consumers.
“The best approach would be to scrap the mandatory carriage rules altogether,” wrote law and media observer Michael Geist in The Toronto Star as the latest hearings got underway. This would accomplish at least two things: the broadcaster/distributors would lose a lot of money as all those formerly mandatory subscriber fees dried up, and for perhaps the first time there would be full and honest competition in Canadian TV.
Just like Sun TV seemed to think there was two years ago.