What's This?

A blog kept by Ira Wagman of the School of Communication at Carleton University.
Let's be honest -- this blog is so-so at best.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The rest of the story...

And now, the rest of the story on the CRTC's broadcasting policy directives, with perspectives from panelists at the CAB convention along with my own opinions.

So, what else did the commission recommend?

Local Programming Improvement Fund: Since the CRTC believes that Canada’s local markets, especially smaller markets, are not being served by local programming, the commission announced the creation of a Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF), which will devote $60 million annually for the next 3 years into the support of locally produced programming, especially news and information. The fund will be divided up into two streams -- $40 million for English-language markets, $20 million for French-language markets. The fund will come from BDU’s, who already contribute 5% of their gross revenues towards the Canadian Television Fund. An additional 1% will now go into the LPIF.

This one has many people at the CAB convention scratching their heads. Some wondered how the $60 million was determined; others wondered whether this was within the CRTC’s mandate; even more wondered about the wisdom of the CRTC in announcing a new production fund without a consultative process. Everyone agreed that this will mean higher cable and satellite fees for Canadians, since the extra contribution will be passed onto consumers.

In my mind, there is something to this. In fact, there’s a lot to this. First of all, this is the second time that the CRTC has become directly involved in the newsrooms of the nation in the last year or so. Remember the TQS controversy in Quebec? That’s important here, because one of the representatives from the CRTC who was sitting on the regulatory panel I attended drew reference to the TQS case as part of the commission's rationale to create the LPIF. For me this is indicative of something else: that the previous decision on TQS did not represent a precedent for other broadcasters.

When pressed by other panelists, the representative from the CRTC could only offer that "some surveys" show that Canadians “want to see themselves on television”, and that a fund for local programming in places with populations of less than 1 million people was the way to address this. A representative from Bell asked, "Where in the Broadcasting Act does it state that news programming, local news programming, and local news programming in small markets, is something that falls under the CRTC’s jurisdiction". No response was offered.

There are other problems with the LPIF that didn't come up here. For example, CBC stations will be able to apply for this funding. This would mean that taxpayers will be paying twice for their public broadcasting: first from a Parliamentary Grant, and now through cable fees. It seems as though the CRTC will be administering over the LPIF, but it has asked the CAB for guidance in setting up the fund. How will the CBC be given a fair shake for the funding if the CAB is playing a key role in the structuring of the LPIF?

Beyond the technical issues, there is another problem. The question is not whether local programming could use some support in some way. This point is probably true, although we would have to determine what constitutes the conditions for support. The question is whether this is the appropriate place to exercise that support, and whether there are any problems of having the state’s regulatory body engaging in policies that dictate, or structure, or direct news production.

Distant Signals
: With this decision the CRTC has allowed broadcasters to negotiate a fee with BDUs for carrying out-of-market signals to their subscribers. Now broadcasters and BDU's will have to negotiate what the fee will be.

The reaction to this by the broadcasters was was generally positive here, but the overarching idea is that this is small consolation for losing the big prize. The big prize was fee-for-carriage, a policy that would have allowed over-the-air broadcasters to charge BDU’s to carry their signals. Naturally, this would have generated considerable revenues to broadcasters and would have increased the price of cable and satellite services for Canadians. The CRTC rejected this proposal, arguing that the broadcasters did not put forward a convincing case for FFC. The broadcasters didn't like the decision one bit.

The revenues generated by distant signals, which the industry claims as between $70-90 million, can now be realized through negotiations with BDU’s and, in the case those talks break down, mediation from the CRTC. A representative from Bell, clearly stinging from new rules which make life more difficult for direct-to-home satellite services, likened the distant signal decision to an additional charge Canadians will have to pay every month, another LIPF.
Again, there may indeed be something to this, but until the results of the negotiation come through, it’s hard to say. What’s also problematic is the issue of copyright; unless the Conservatives make changes to C-61, time-shifting would be illegal, I believe. The negotiations over distant signals may well include discussions on copyright, but we’ll have to wait and see.

In the end: So what does all of this mean? Some initial thoughts:

1. The CRTC has decided that, in a time of considerable economic and technological change, the best thing for the country's broadcasting system is to keep all of the same players in the game and to build policies which ensure the continued existence of those already under the policy framework. This is not new. Ideas about "stability" in the broadcasting system have been a cornerstone of regulatory ideology at the CRTC for years. That idea draws on more than simple economic protectionism (although that's a big part of it). It also draws on perceptions about technological panics -- that Canadians will be flustered if somehow the channels that were once on their televisions are now gone. What would be the loss if, instead of the Food Network Canada we got the US Food Network? Indeed, those Canadian programs would go off the air, but wouldn't they find a new place on a different channel, or on a Canadian channel? Clearly, this is a bigger issue than I wish to address here, but a policy framework that favours national industrial stability has its consequences.

2. If the players on the field are the same, Canadians will now be paying more for the tickets without seeing any appreciable difference on their television screens.

3. While the CRTC may be contracting its regulatory processes as a regulator of broadcasting services, it is at the same time expanding its regulatory oversight as a regulator of programming. The creation, without consultation, of a separate programming fund is evidence of this. The effect of this is important, because those costs will be passed onto Canadians, such moves represent the expansion of fiduciary responsibility for the Canadian broadcasting policy apparatus away from institutions and onto individual Canadians. Both the CRTC and the CAB should take this into consideration when they establish boards for the LPIF. It might be nice to have a member or two from the public involved in the process.

4. The jury is still out when it comes to the issue of how Canada's radio and television broadcasters will deal with new media. By "deal", I don't just mean in the policy sense. That process will winds its way through the CRTC's headquarters in the coming months. But judging from the effective absence of discussion during the regulatory panels (even on subjects such as copyright, which have been "in play" for some time now), and based on the unbelievably lame panel discussions around how broadcasters use "social media", the news is not encouraging. This may have to do, in part, with the fact that "traditional" broadcasters don't understand or use the Internet. It may also have to do with the fact that people don't expand their engagement with media properties from the radio or the television to the web. But it may also have to do with the fact that the industry doesn't feel as though it has to be all that creative in dealing with it.

And with that, I can now move onto other things, like my upcoming public lecture at Carleton on November 12 on the Conservative Party's cultural policies. I can promise you it'll be a lot less wonky than this blog entry. Hope to see you there!


Anonymous said...

CRTC announces that a local programming fund will be available for cable networks to improve local TV programming. No funds will be available for NBTV however. NBTV broadcasts video in the form of streaming media commonly called (internet TV) on it's website www.nbtv.ca. Once again, CRTC's descision leaves NBTV at a disadvantage and the ability for NBTV to continue providing the highest quality TV programming for this area may suffer. This also affects the ability of NBTV to compete with cable companies on a level playing field. If you have any concerns about this please contact NBTV.

Anonymous said...

shouldnt we have the option to pay this? instead of just seeing a change to our bill? we need to pay you to improve services to us?

Anonymous said...

I refuse to pay the CRTC LPIF tax. Since Bell Express Vu won't remove the $0.92 charge from my invoice, I have down-graded my tv programming by removing 1 theme package, thus a $3.00 monthly saving. This more than covers the above CRTC tax! Sorry Bell, indirectly, you're paying for it! Y. Raymond