U.S. media juggernaut still a threat to Canada

September 14, 2011

CALGARY, AB, Sept. 14, 2011/ Troy Media/ – Once upon a time, there was a powerful federal agency responsible for ensuring Canadian broadcasters lived up to the responsibility of providing local programming in exchange for the privilege of having a broadcasting licence. Though it still exists today and its mandate is as relevant as ever, it seems to have lost its way.

Originally christened the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC), the regulatory body’s mandate was outlined in the Broadcasting Act of the late 1960s. The act itself was based on the notion that the country’s broadcasting system had an important role to play in the development of Canadian culture.

The 1960s were heady times for the broadcast world – or so we thought then. Television was a moneymaking juggernaut in the United States, a country 10 times Canada’s size in population terms.  A tsunami of U.S. programming was washing over the border, and policy-makers in Canada were concerned about the potential for foreign ownership of the media, and the need to ensure Canadian content on Canadian airwaves.

To the extent that any regulatory system works, Canada’s worked, however imperfectly. The country had local news in all markets and additional hours of other local programming, as well.

Programming expensive

As cable TV took hold and cable companies grew in size, they too were required to contribute to the development of Canadian films and documentaries. Given the high cost of broadcast production, little of that programming would have been made if Canadian broadcasters had not been compelled to support it.

Of course, times have changed.  The financial underpinnings of broadcasting have changed, and broadcasting technology has changed – dramatically. These adjustments and industry woes have been amply examined including by Troy Media in this 2010 piece.

The explosion of digital media and the Internet is a game changer on many levels, but just when it was more important than ever before for Canada to protect and promote our broadcast production environment the CRTC (renamed Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission in the 1970s with the arrival of satellite transmission) has more recently had its mandate expanded to include some regulation of phone companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) on such matters as bandwidth, and fees for use.

Expanding the CRTC’s mandate makes some sense given that traditional Canadian broadcasting companies are now owned by the cable companies, phone companies and ISPs. Yet, asking the CRTC to concern itself with bandwidth and cell market competition has arguably divided its attention to the point where its cultural mandate has taken a back seat.

Flood of U.S. content

Meanwhile, the U.S. programming tsunami is still pushing across Canada’s borders in greater quantities than ever. Netflix discount movie series now has more than one million subscribers in Canada paying eight bucks a month for access to thousands of mostly U.S. films, few of which tell Canadian stories. Canadians are paying Netflix $96 million a year to bombard us with thousands of films that might be politely referred to as flawed.

We’re entering an era where the search for programming content is going to be relentless on one hand, but where companies are going to resort largely to repackaging, rebranding, rerunning, reusing, and flooding the Internet with programming options that are either free with your phone subscription, or provided by discount companies like Netflix. How can Canada ensure that local news and other programs continue being produced in Canada by Canadian talent, and for Canadian audiences?

The road back to relevance for the CRTC, and with the necessary support of the Government of Canada, is to ensure that every company that proposes to broadcast programming in Canada pays for the privilege. In the analog era, broadcasters once used publicly-owned airways, while today they are using publicly-controlled bandwidth. Though the technology has changed, the underlying premises have not.

If Netflix and other Internet content delivery companies pay a portion of what they earn to support the development of Canadian films and programs, we would be supporting Canadian filmmakers and broadcast programmers. Likewise, cable carriers Shaw and Bell need to continue to pay for the privilege of using the country’s broadcasting frequencies, while also paying for the privilege of broadcasting over cell phones and online.

Changing technology has not diminished the need to treat broadcasting as a cultural industry that makes an important contribution to the development of Canada’s cultural and social identify. In fact, changing technology makes it all the more important that Canada reassert the value of made-in-Canada programming.

Terry Field is an associate professor in journalism and chair of the journalism major in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta.