The last thing the CBC needed was a sex scandal. The beleaguered public broadcaster, which is set to shed more than a quarter of its work force by 2020 to accommodate deep government cuts, needs to look nimble, hip and relevant. Instead, 2014 will only be remembered as the year when its hippest offering was exposed as the toxic fiefdom of a man alleged to be a serial abuser of women.
Allegations of sexual assault against CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi clearly created a personnel file that would have challenged any organization, but the affair left the broadcaster looking so desperate for celebrities that it had acted too reluctantly when faced with gossip about Ghomeshi's behaviour outside work, and not acted at all when faced with complaints about his behaviour inside the Q studio. The scandal exposes the CBC to yet more criticism when it can least afford it. On the one hand, it is subject to what are disproportionate and clearly partisan cuts from the federal Conservative government; on the other hand, it is dismissed as irrelevant by Canadian audiences awed at the way Netflix can deliver U.S. programming on demand.
The CBC is not alone, however, in this difficult spot: The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates Canadian broadcasting, is friendless for rather similar reasons. In a country of small government and big consumers, where any cultural regulation is viewed with deep suspicion, national media institutions are increasingly without a natural political constituency.
As the CRTC launched its "Let's Talk TV" hearings in September, the commissioners' ears were already ringing with the public demand for just one thing: the ability to cherry-pick cable channels rather than pay for packages. Meanwhile, media commentators jeered that the very notion of television hearings was hilariously out of date.
But the government should have little reason to believe a broadcasting and telecommunications regulator is a dodo: The CRTC has helped contribute billions toward the federal budget in recent years by rationalizing the use of the public airwaves. (It forced the TV broadcasters to go digital in 2011, thereby freeing up the spectrum that the government has been auctioning to wireless companies.) So what support did the government give its arm's-length regulator as the CRTC held its TV hearings? Prime Minister Stephen Harper came out and practically promised Canadians pick-and-pay cable and satellite services, and denounced any "tax" on Netflix or YouTube, thereby knee-capping any possibility of a Canadian-content levy on foreign services competing with regulated Canadian broadcasters.
In other words, he short-changed democracy by prejudicing the outcome and handing the CRTC its marching orders.
Canadians – apparently unaware that without some regulation of the airwaves their televisions, radios and cellphones simply won't work – love to hate the CRTC. They mistakenly associate the regulator with cable packaging (largely a product of television industry business models) and blame it for Canadian-content regulations that they perceive as out of date in a global economy.
On that score, the CRTC had a little sex scandal of its own in 2014 that was just the kind of thing it didn't need. In March, it issued a notice that it would hold a hearing into an ownership restructuring at Channel Zero – and noted there was evidence that the group's offerings, including three adult movie channels, were not compliant with Canadian-content quotas. You could hear the guffaws and the beaver jokes from St. John's to Victoria. What you didn't hear was any serious discussion of why this was a problem.
Alongside the actual monetary fee that Canadian broadcasters pay for their licences, Canadian content obligations are the price they pay to be in business. The content obligations are built on the understanding that Canadian programming is not much of a business proposition but is a public good. If you don't think porn has any public value – and to judge from reaction to the CRTC notice, most Canadians don't – you could ask the adult channels to pay a higher fee than other specialties, rather than ask for Canadian porn. In the end, the CRTC allowed the channels to escape regulation under an exemption that allows services with tiny numbers of subscribers to operate unlicensed, but not before the possibility of imposing the Cancon rules on them brought the regulations into disrepute, bolstering Canadians' sense that the regulator is hopelessly behind the times.
Many Canadians might think that maintaining a national film producer is also a rather quaint idea – if they bothered to think about the National Film Board at all. Yet despite suffering budget cuts of its own, that organization is the epitome of media hip these days, successfully delivering content online, experimenting with interactive digital documentaries, and planning to launch the Netflix of the documentary world.
NFB executives must have been wiping their collective brow as the Ghomeshi affair unfolded, however: On a single day back in February, the board had quickly shut down its own mini-scandal when it accepted resignations from both former commissioner Tom Perlmutter and Ravida Din, general director of English-language production and the woman Perlmutter had allegedly been dating when he promoted her. Perlmutter, the visionary who had galvanized the cash-strapped national institution since 2007, had just made a puzzling move from the top job into a short-term consulting contract with the board – before departing altogether.
He was temporarily replaced by his deputy Claude Joli-Coeur, and this month the government announced it is making Joli-Coeur permanent in that role. If Joli-Coeur, an entertainment lawyer rather than a filmmaker, fails to deliver on Perlmutter's ambitious vision, he will be judged to have served merely as a placeholder. And yet, as Perlmutter himself had warned, the NFB's current method of cannibalizing other programming to pay for its digital initiatives cannot go on forever. Like the CBC, the NFB is going to need more money to keep looking nimble, hip and relevant.
What do Canadians want from their media institutions? Cheap and easy access to U.S. content, and woe betide any bureaucrat or politician who stands in their way. Yet Canadians also want to see themselves as a prosperous and innovative country, to which end they need a government that supports the Canadian industries and organizations that create content, and the public mechanisms for making sure that content gets distributed.
Some days, it's easy to believe that all Canadians hold both the CBC and Canadian-content regulation in utter contempt, but it's worth remembering that the large majority of those who bothered to fill out the CRTC questionnaire in which so many demanded pick-and-pay were young men over 25 with above-average incomes. Meanwhile, the millions happily tuning into Dragons' Den and Murdoch Mysteries or the popular Radio-Canada talk show Tout le monde en parle go largely uncounted in these debates.
Next year, we need smarter discussions about how we create content and how we regulate it, for there will certainly be more difficulty in store for the isolated institutions of Canadian media culture as emboldened consumers chip away at their foundations. In 2015, you will still be able to watch any noxious porn you want on the Internet; you will still be able to write any scurrilous screed you care in the online comments; but after the scandal of 2014, no deviation from probity will be tolerated in the corridors of cultural power.