Policy Matters: Is This the Best We Can Do?

With the broadcast industry enmeshed in a crisis, the CRTC has let down the cause of independent producers

5 mins read

Jean-Pierre Blais, chair of the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Televison and Telecommunications Commission), should be fired or have the decency to resign. This is no longer a controversial thing to say about the chair, and I’m far from alone in saying it. Just about every major independent producer is calling for his head. The Corus–Shaw merger rubber-stamped in late March, with no public hearing and no benefits for the industry, was just the latest move that saw the unmistakable cynicism of the Blais Commission and its indifferent destruction of the 48-year-old foundation of Canadian media content.

Blais has called broadcasters yacht-owning fat cats. He has sneered at producers and filmmakers who come before the Commission and sees them as entitled, soft and disposable. Not once during the appalling exercise in public policy called #Let’sTalkTV was there any authentic display of even a modicum of knowledge or respect for story and content creation. Make no mistake, with its decisions since early 2015, the CRTC has shown a desire to privilege big broadcast group competition and their health, profit stability and reach over public interest and the importance of a diverse, independent production sector.

As I’ve written before, the whole industry needs an overhaul, and we need access to internet/broadband fees to pay for our digital story telling future. The old TV world is disrupted and dying. But Blais is not the pied piper to lead and envision change in the public interest.

Let’s review the grim reasons why, for the aforementioned merger is merely the cherry on top of the rotten barrel of apples the Commission handed out to the big internet service provider cablecasters.

First, how about this apple? The CRTC did away with “terms of trade.” This was a kind of rules-of-engagement document concerning pitching ideas, stories, series and documentaries that was negotiated between most of the private ’casters and producers. No terms of trade wouldn’t be a problem if the networks weren’t keen, as the new Corus–Shaw chiefs have now stated, to grab as many rights as possible. Get ready for indie producers to be turned into service producers, whose ideas will no longer be theirs. This shreds section three of the Broadcasting Act which seeks to balance the interests of a vital broadcast and the independent production industry.

Second is the apple of unbundling cable into “pick and pay” to help keep cable on life support and cut consumers a break. But did the CRTC really think that cable would, in good faith, market a “skinny basic,” as mandated? If so, it was colossally blind to a central historical fact of our TV culture: cable always wins. The consumers that Blais seems to care so much about are now suffering with lousy fee offerings in this new “pick and pay” world, and they’re mad as hell and complaining in force to the Commission.

The final apple? A highly distorted notion of market share. This is a measure of whether a merger or sale can proceed or not. If it is deemed that there would be too much concentration of audience share in the hands of a single big entity, thus threatening the diversity of voice in the system (a key concern of the Broadcasting Act), then the merger can’t take place. In this recent merger decision, audience share of about a third of the entire system was considered unproblematic.

But it confounds basic logic how “diversity of voice” can be achieved when there are now, in English Canada, only three actual people making decisions across the whole system. For Corus–Shaw, this means one person in charge of deciding on content for over ten networks. Their reasons were tautologically based on their own flawed decisions arising out of the #Let’sTalkTV hearings about opening up markets. Frankly, it’s crazy making.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

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