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CRTC 2014 proposals for Canadian television: more choice, more Canadian content, more empowerment and more recourse – or less?

Less than a month remains for people to tell the CRTC what they think of its radical suggestions for the future of Canadian television.

How radical?  The CRTC is asking if it should terminate free over-the-air broadcast transmission by TV stations, minimum levels of Canadian content on Canadian TV channels, as well as Canadian TV services’ numeric predominance in Canada’s television system.

Oh, yes – the CRTC also wants to know if it should make cable and satellite companies replace their engorged ‘basic’ service (needed to access other channels), with a small, all-Canadian package:  it would consist solely of TV stations in subscribers’ vicinity, provincial legislatures and CPaC, local community and provincial educational channels if available, and a few mandatory national-interest services like the Weather Channel and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Subscribers’ complaints about cable/satellite billing issues might be handled by a new body, much as the Commissioner of Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) now does for mobile and landline telephones.

The CRTC hopes these changes will foster choice, encourage the creation of compelling and diverse Canadian programming, empower Canadians to make informed choices, and offer recourse to subscribers who disagree with their cable/satellite companies over billing issues.  Wow – these outcomes are so attractive, they’re almost sexy!

In fact, the pro-choice razzle-dazzle of the CRTC’s goals makes it easy to overlook the problems that some of the CRTC’s idea’s will create for the people in our country.

For example, if TV stations turn off their broadcast transmitters, there will be less choice in accessing TV – not more.  People will lose their current ability to watch local Canadian TV stations over the air, free of charge.  Instead, they will have to subscribe to cable or satellite to watch local TV, or watch those stations’ programs online (if they’re available).

Meanwhile, those wanting other Canadian services, familiar American TV stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS), or any other foreign services will now have to buy them one or a few at a time, or as part of a discretionary cable/satellite company package.  Does moving services now available as part of the basic service to pay-only discretionary tiers, increase subscribers’ choice?

Of course, the CRTC might cushion the impact of forcing people to buy cable, satellite or internet access by requiring the all-Canadian basic service it is proposing to be free or very inexpensive – but what will happen to the prices of all the other services that subscribers would then have to buy one at a time or in packages?  How long will it take before the lobbying to charge or charge more, for basic service, begins?

And then there’s this – a major concern of internet users is the imposition of a walled garden to the online world.  In the walled garden internet service providers control and restrict not just the hardware and software of accessing the internet, but also access to its content.  If the CRTC gives cable and satellite companies control over your access to Canadian television, will the CRTC be imposing the online walled garden model onto Canadian broadcasting?

The CRTC’s notice commented in passing, incidentally, on the fact that cable and satellite subscription levels fell for the first time last year (after several years of slowing growth).  Who benefits, then, if the only way to watch TV is by subscribing to cable or satellite?

Instead of reducing Canadians’ choice of accessing Canada’s television system by turning off TV transmitters, the CRTC should ensure that everyone in Canada is covered by over-the-air transmitters, and that control over these transmitters is based at individual TV stations.

Of course, even if you still have access to your local TV stations, what you see in the future will probably be foreign.  The CRTC is proposing to drop all requirements to air a minimum level of Canadian programming – currently set at 55% of TV stations’ schedules, from 6 am to midnight – except that local TV stations will have to provide an unspecified amount of local programming.  Since many TV stations are just clinging to the 5-10 hours of local programming they now produce, how will they fill up the remaining hours of the week?

Yes, yes, yes – the free-market argument is that the goods the public wants will always be produced.  Is Canadian television a  ‘free market’, though, when five companies took in 82% of all broadcasting and telecommunications revenues in 2012, leaving a few hundred others to divvy up the other 18%?  Adam Smith would be rolling in his grave at the idea that oligopolies put consumers’ interests above their own.

Just as it’s cheaper to buy a car than to build your own, it’s cheaper to buy foreign TV programs than to produce equally good Canadian content.  So why does the CRTC believe that if they have to choose between their owners’ legitimate interests in higher profits, and maintaining or raising  Canadian program expenditures, private broadcasters’ altruistic feelings about the importance of cultural sovereignty will win the day?  Perhaps, instead of dropping Canadian content requirements, the CRTC should raise them.  Wouldn’t that offer Canadians even more programming choices?  Not to mention more job opportunities?

As for empowering television audiences, cable/satellite companies ought to inform their subscribers when prices and packages change, as the CRTC has proposed.  In fact, that’s exactly what the CRTC thought cable/satellite companies would be doing, nine years ago,when it asked them to do just that. Cable/satellite companies ignored the CRTC’s polite request.  But instead of just requiring notifications, the CRTC is proposing to create a whole new administrative body to handle complaints from subscribers.  That approach has worked so well for wireless subscribers, after all.  But seriously – how would creating a brand new administrative organization be more efficient or effective than a simple notification requirement set in place by the CRTC – the body specifically created and empowered by Parliament to actually regulate cable and satellite services?

Finally, how will the results from this TV consultation actually affect the prices that consumers pay now, and in the future, just to access Canada’s television system?  Will a new complaints body ensure that cable/satellite companies offer their services “at affordable rates”?   After all, that’s what Canada’s broadcasting legislation has required since 1991.  What if the new body works like the CCTS:  investigations of almost 42 thousand complaints since 2007 – but are telephone rates more affordable than before?  Perhaps some cable/satellite and other rates actually should be regulated – in the public interest, and to ensure meaningful choice.

What do you think of these ideas?  Do the CRTC’s proposals address your concerns about the costs and content of Canada’s television system?  Will they deal with the problems caused when so few companies control so much of our communications system?  Will they create – or even maintain – jobs in Canada?

Let the CRTC know:  click on the ‘submit’ button at the end of the CRTC’s consultation noticeon or before Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 (if you submit on the 25th, though, you must do it before 8 pm eastern standard time).   The notice has many questions, but no worries:  the CRTC’s system will also let you just share your views about what matters to you.

Tell the CRTC where you want Canada’s television system to be in 2025:  more choice for audiences, more jobs for Canadians, ande more access to Canadian programs?  Or less?

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