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The Globe and Mail

CRTC wants power to fine rule-breaking broadcasters

Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the CRTC

Sean Kilpatrick

Canada's broadcast regulator says too many companies in the broadcast system are breaking the rules, and it's asking the federal government for the power to mete out tougher punishments.

At the end of a licence renewal decision released last week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission complained about its "sub-optimal regulatory tools," and asked for the right to fine companies that don't follow regulations.

The request for a change to the law governing how it regulates cable providers, radio broadcasters and others marks the first time the CRTC has included a petition for stronger disciplinary measures in a regulatory decision.

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In order to give the CRTC the power to impose monetary penalties, Parliament would have to pass an amendment to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Act.

The statements were issued on Friday in a decision renewing the licences of cable providers owned by Shaw Communications Inc. across Western Canada. In 2008, the CRTC gave Shaw a regulatory slap on the wrist, renewing its cable licences for only two years instead of the usual seven because the cable company had failed to comply with some of the rules, such as giving channels 60 days notice before moving them around on the TV dial, and the prohibition against running advertising on community channels.

These types of short-term renewals "have become the punitive solution du jour," the regulator wrote in the decision, and are not always effective to force companies to obey the rules.

"It's an interesting situation, the regulator appealing to the legislators," said Ken Stein, head of regulatory affairs at Shaw. "…We don't think fines are appropriate. I think the way to deal with things is for the chairman or the vice-chairman to pick up the phone. That's the way it's been done for 50 years."

Still, the company has had a prickly relationship with the regulator at times, including Shaw's public disdain for the Canadian Media Fund, to which cable companies are required to contribute. Although the CRTC renewed Shaw's licence on Friday, this time for a five-year term, it noted that the company had been late on fund payments, and reminded Shaw of its obligations.

The regulator's issue is not only with cable companies. Since the beginning of this year, the CRTC has renewed 127 radio broadcast licences, and over half of those were given only short-term renewals because they had not complied with regulations - such as the requirement to keep program logs to show their stations were broadcasting at least 35 per cent Canadian content, for example.

Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein has also been vocal about the issue. Last April, in his presentation to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in Ottawa, along with his comments on foreign ownership, Mr. von Finckenstein said the regulator should be able to fine companies, the same way it can telemarketers that violate the National Do Not Call List.

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"If we had fining abilities, we could tackle the issue more efficiently and with greater speed," said Rita Cugini, the CRTC's acting vice-chair of broadcasting and regional commissioner for Ontario, in an interview on Monday.

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