Columns

Policy Matters: Miracle in Ottawa

The CRTC grows a spine

Me, I want to put the Kardashians in your pocket.
Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media

One of the first lessons you learn about the distinction between public goods and the private operation of them is that it’s a privilege—and not an entitlement—to operate public assets for profit. What’s so hard about understanding that such privileges must come attached with conditions that flow back to the general population?

Yet for the last 50 years or so of our media history, the desire to grow the private/industrial side took precedence over the rights of media producers and common citizens. It made room for a lot of cosy relationships with the industry to the detriment of content creators. And the consumers? Let’s just say they were held as an afterthought. After so many decades, pretty much everyone had learned to accept the ‘privilege’ part of the equation because Canada’s broadcast regulator has shown itself to be keen to fertilize media concentration over and again.

But this all came dramatically to a halt on Thursday, October 18, 2012, when the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission) said a resounding non to Bell’s proposal to acquire Astral Media. As media analyst and law professor Michael Geist put it refreshingly in his blog from that day, “This is not your parents’ CRTC.” It is the first time in Canadian media policy history where the “no” was issued on a deal this large.

It completely caught all policy wonks and watchers off guard, myself included. In short, no one ever thought this would happen. If you’re Bell Media, you’re ‘shocked and appalled’ (as they put it in their subsequent press release) because you want to party like it’s 1950, when you were openly invited to operate a monopoly. But times and media corporate growth in Canada have changed dramatically. Recent reports put it that, in spite of the bogeyman threat of over-the-top services like Netflix, we possess the 8th largest media industry in the world.

Bell’s monopolistic attitude comes with a tremendous degree of arrogance too and just plain ‘not getting it,’ as the above quote from Bell boss Crull betrays. (By the way, would it have killed him to mention a Canadian show? Can he even name—let alone promote—one?) As The Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt put it in his Oct 26th piece, perhaps it was this attitude that “spurred the CRTC’s smack-down of Bell.” Indeed, entitlement framed Bell’s own application, their response to interveners, and their appeal now to the feds to overturn the Commission’s decision.

It was an attitude too that revealed a fundamental disconnect with the need to treat media assets as something more than another set of commodities or services ripe for exploitation. For CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais, Bell failed to provide an overall vision that was, well, visionary enough to warrant a secure nod of ‘yes’ to a deal so vast.

I would add that Bell failed to understand the need to create a diversity of voice by offering assurances that network programming slates would be independently managed by commissioners with real talent and power.

The current bottleneck, where one or two broadcast executives are in charge of too broad a range of content should stop. As one former broadcaster remarked to me, Bell is the worst possible owner of media properties because they function like a bank: nickel here, nickel there.

As I wrote in POV’s last issue, we’re at the tipping point of having a rigid, risk-averse environment, where there are fewer doors and taste makers across the board to pitch to.

With the Bell deal, it would have made a bad situation disastrous. And I’m not just special pleading here as a ‘content’ creator. The CRTC’s ruling has real implications for viewers—hungry, I believe, for content that emerges from a varied environment of visionaries and tastemakers with clout to shepherd bold new projects.

There were many technical and straightup consumer-minded reasons for the slap down that had little to do with programming. But I like to think that when the time came to consider diversity of voice (as they call it), the CRTC did so in a nuanced way. That they understood, in other words, that what comes with media concentration is a rationalization of operations and a top down narrowing of innovation a la “Kardashians in your pocket.”

Read the entire blistering decision here.