Cable television is big business in Canada. The top five providers – Shaw Communications Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada unit, Quebecor Inc.'s Vidéotron Ltée and Cogeco Cable Inc. – serve a combined 10 million households and generated $8.6-billion in revenue last year.
Paradoxically, in an age when bureaucratic regulation is giving way to market competition, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission maintains a tight hold on many aspects of the cable TV business, including what channels are mandatory in basic cable packages. The CRTC has scheduled a hearing for April 23 to consider mandatory carriage applications from more than a dozen channels. Among those is Quebecor's application for mandatory carriage of its Sun News Network (SNN), a status enjoyed by the news networks of CBC and CTV when they launched.
On the surface, the addition of the third national news channel to the basic cable package would seem to be a simple decision in a country as large and diverse as Canada. But the SNN application is encountering unprecedented opposition, and that opposition is almost entirely ideological in nature.
The channel has an unabashedly conservative lean, earning it the moniker "Fox News North" from critics on the left. SNN needs the higher fee per viewer that goes with mandatory carriage to survive, and critics are as determined to prevent that as anti-oil sands activists are to stop the Keystone Pipeline. Some have even seized on the fact that since SNN vice-president Kory Teneycke was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, there is political pressure on the CRTC to approve the application, a reverse psychology manoeuvre that they hope will cause the CRTC to demonstrate independence by doing the exact opposite.
Groups such as Public Response, whose clients include the Canadian Auto Workers union and the David Suzuki Foundation, have launched a "Tell the CRTC not to force you to pay for Sun TV" campaign, spurring the network to launch its own petition drive. Turning their critics' argument around, SNN points out that mandatory carriage gives the left-leaning CBC extra revenue on top of their billion-dollar-a-year taxpayer subsidy. The SNN argues that it provides a much-needed conservative viewpoint that is currently marginalized in national media dialogue. And that almost 60 per cent of households don't have access to the channel, despite widespread conservative support in the last federal election.
This debate begs the question of what principles the CRTC should be using to evaluate the SNN application. To allow politics or ideology to play a part would be a clear violation of regulatory integrity. And to decide on the merit of the channels' opinion and commentary would be tantamount to censorship.
Unfortunately, the "Criteria for assessing applications for mandatory distribution" enunciated in the CRTC's notice of hearing doesn't give much comfort on either of these points. The first criteria for approval requires that a channel "reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values."
Is there a single set of "Canadian attitudes" or "values"? How could such a vague statement be administered without ideological bias or influence from activist pressure campaigns? I'd wager that the full membership of the Supreme Court would be stymied if presented with the task of defining precisely what qualifies as Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas and values. And yet the very survival of several media enterprises together with what millions of Canadians see when they turn on their televisions depends on the how the CRTC bureaucrats choose to define and apply those words.
The Canadian Broadcasting Act was last amended over three decades ago, well before the Internet became a media distribution highway. Little wonder that the CRTC finds itself charged with administrating regulations completely out of tune with today's world of Internet streaming of news and entertainment. Yet a review of the CRTC's website reveals scant evidence that this regulatory anachronism has even noticed how much the communications world has changed.
So what should the CRTC decide about SNN's application? How about removing mandatory carriage status altogether, in favour of allowing consumers to choose their own channel packages a la carte? This would mean no more costly hearings where bureaucrats make decisions affecting the life or death of commercial enterprises on the basis of an impossible-to-define criteria. It would also be a giant step forward in bringing television regulation into line with the rapidly advancing suite of Internet options available to viewers. And a refreshing example of something bureaucrats almost never do. Find ways to do less.
Gwyn Morgan is a Canadian business leader and a director of two global corporations.