In the eyes of today’s CRTC chair, the consumer is king

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But if Jean-Pierre Blais really wants to reflect Canadian broadcast history, he would well advised to listen to the words of esteemed Canadian television pioneer, Graham Spry.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 29, 2016.

OTTAWA—The conundrum of Canadian broadcast policy was never more evident than in a recent speech by chief regulator Jean-Pierre Blais.

The chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission started his remarks by quoting American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and then vowing: “We’re staying the course we’ve mapped with Canadians and we’ll follow it to the end.”

It was curious to highlight an American writer in defence of Canadian broadcasting law.

Blais’ choice was an accurate reflection of his approach to the new world of broadcasting. The chair devoted much of his speech to lauding consumer choice and trashing broadcast executives as a bunch of money-grubbing capitalists who are change resistant because they have spent years benefitting from the status quo.

Blais had done his public opinion polling before the speech. Most Canadians love to hate the major telecommunications players. From Rogers, to Bell to Shaw, consumers believe they are all in a conspiracy to charge more for less.

On the telephone side, there is some truth to the criticisms. Canadians pay among the highest prices in the world for cellphone service and there are swaths of rural Canada that still do not have internet coverage. In the eyes of today’s CRTC chair, the consumer is king.

But if Blais really wants to reflect Canadian broadcast history, he would well advised to listen to the words of esteemed Canadian television pioneer, Graham Spry. Credited as the father of the modern Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Spry coined the phrase “The state or the United States” in support of the establishment of a made-in-Canada public broadcaster back in 1930.

From those humble beginnings, governments of different stripes have always been deeply involved in making sure that broadcast licence provisions include specific Canadian content commitments. Consumer pricing has been an integral part of the accessibility equation but it became the only relevant factor during Stephen Harper’s time in power.

Until then, government support for content creation was always crucial.

Blais made reference to the health of the radio sector in his speech. Back in the nineties, radio stations were bleeding red ink. Government was forced to intervene, with regulatory changes to increase Canadian content while permitting multiple licence ownership in single markets.

Those legal modifications were crucial to turning the industry around. Most stations survived and became profitable because of government help, not in spite of it.

Blais wrongly attributed the radio renaissance to sectoral creative forces, ignoring historical market realities.

In his speech, Blais even warned broadcasters not to go whining to governments if they are unhappy with CRTC decisions. “Others are just complaining. They’re forecasting doom and gloom: job cuts, revenue losses, and station closures. They run off to court, they run off to Cabinet to seek relief. It’s their right to do so, but it doesn’t make them right. … Their stock in trade these days seems to be divisive and self-interested polemics rather than forward-looking action.”

The last time I looked, the authority for broadcasting legislation actually rested with cabinet. Blais is not the head of a private company.

He is a there as the result of a governor in council appointment, with specific reporting requirements to Cabinet.

When it comes to fundamental changes to the Canadian broadcast system, government not only has a role to play. It is the key player.

The CBC, the Canadian Media fund, the CRTC, Telefilm, the National Film Board, and the Canada Council for the Arts all play their parts in Canadian content creation. Private broadcasters carrying local news and Canadian drama and documentary content also influence public access.

When Hamilton’s CHCH television laid off a massive number of workers only to rehire some of them immediately under a different corporate umbrella, Blais could have stepped in by yanking the company’s licence.

Instead, he referenced CHCH in his speech as one of the long list of victims of modern broadcast changes. Blais further confounded the discussion by deliberately mixing local licensed television newscasts with newspaper copy.

“I listened as Canadians spoke with intelligence and passion to many of the issues I just described, while corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies.”

There is no doubt that modern Internet transmission methods have changed the way Canadians access news and creative content.

There is also no doubt that our chief broadcast regulator should be looking to Canada for inspiration.

Past governments have promoted unique content streams in multiple sectors.

Today’s complex broadcast environment needs smart government more than ever.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.