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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Canadian Regulator Leaves Out Pubcaster in Cable-B'caster Spat

In a remarkable decision handed down yesterday, the Canadian Radio Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that cable companies must pay broadcasters for distributing their programs. They also said that the cable companies may not pass along any increased costs to consumers.

As well, in what might considered a typical Canadian compromise, the CRTC said they would check in with the courts first to see if its decision was "ultra vires" or went beyond their jurisdiction. So what might prove to be a potentially major decision is now further delayed while all of this winds its way through the courts.

The cable companies (who make millions) are predictably outraged and promised to take this all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The broadcasters (who are losing millions) say they are vindicated and now promise to use the money they will eventually receive to put back into local programming and information. No doubt they will also use this windfall to purchase more American shows of which the Canadian viewing public can't seem to get enough.

Deliberately left out of the decision is the public broadcaster - the CBC. In an angry press release, the CBC denounced the decision saying that the denial of access to commercial revenues will have a serious impact on the ability of the CBC to produce shows. According to CBC president Hubert Lacroix, this will mean program reductions and job losses.

But the public broadcaster already gets more than $1 billion in revenues from a combination of parliamentary appropriations plus advertising. What the CBC doesn't understand is that they aren't playing on a level field - they are trying to be simultaneously a commercial broadcaster and a public broadcaster; both come with different obligations and expectations. What the CRTC has said is they have to choose, something the CBC board has tried to avoid doing for the past twenty years.

Readers of this blog will  know that I have believed that the CBC is hastening its own demise by refusing to make that choice. If it is a publicly funded commercial broadcaster (as its spokesman Jeff Keay admitted more than a year ago),  then it needs to drop the veil of public service. It needs to properly fund a radio and television news service which should be run as a separate entity from the CBC. The CBC could then devote itself to sports and entertainment programs and play in the marketplace with its competitors without a federal subsidy.

I've wondered what it would take to force the CBC to make these undoubtedly hard choices. The CRTC decision may have finally helped.


  1. There's also that gray area of revenue from News Channel [formerly Newsworld]. Being a cable channel CBCNN gets money from the carriers. The last figure I heard in the late 1990s, was $1.25 per subscriber per month. A tidy sum. I'm aware the CRTC believed it put in place some firewalls so that revenue didn't leak back to the "public broadcaster" CBC. But there were and have been enough statements that without CBCNN to help fund CBC News, many stories wouldn't have been covered.
    You are right: the choice... the decision has to be made: public or private. Until that call is made, the CBC will stagger along the tarnished road to closure.

  2. Of course, CBC was angry about the CRTC decision to exclude CBC. CBC managers thought that by taking out membership in the CTV/Canwest club and helping to fund the Local TV Matters campaign, it was a fait accompli. Being naive about how the the system works, they overlooked the fact that the Commission can readily ignore clubhouse rules. Expensive lesson-paying for CTV/Canwest's access to subscriber fees.