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Saving TV in spite of itself

It’s fashionable to say TV is dead. Futurists everywhere have been eulogizing the mass medium for years. But it’s downright weird when one of the guys in charge of implementing Canada’s broadcasting act does it, as CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein did after the Guild’s presentation to him a few weeks ago:

“You say quite eloquently that we need OTA [over-the-air television] and that it is vital. But just for argument’s sake, couldn’t one say that it’s really yesterday’s news? Today everybody is hooked up or just about everybody is hooked up. Surely there is an alternative, which is the internet, et cetera. And so, therefore, the need to have OTA is considerably diminished if not abolished?”

We were admirably polite and restrained in our response to him at the time, giving him the benefit of the niggling doubt that he had already stopped listening to us because our message is so different from that of the companies that dominate the industry. But, really, WTF?

Let’s be real. TV is a content-delivery medium that once relied on a very efficient technology– yes, the over-the-air transmitter– to reach a mass audience in a particular geographic area. Because of its cultural and commercial effectiveness, TV has harnessed massive resources over more than a half-century to produce programming that is seen, at one time or another, by virtually everyone. TV is so successful that cable and satellite companies make a killing on its back.

North of the 49th parallel, we’ve long recognized that we need more than the market to make sure that programming made by, for and about Canadians is available on our small screens. So it’s also troubling the way Mr. von Finckenstein later responded to a presentation from our friends at the Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA), who had the temerity to suggest that the CRTC’s role was to make sure that Canadian content survives the current skirmish over who gets stuck picking the pockets of viewers to pay the handsome profits in the TV industry.

“Rather than going the route you suggest of re-regulating cable rates and mandating output, what we have been trying to do for the last 10 years is exactly the opposite,” Mr. von Finckenstein rebuked the CCA’s Alain Pineau. “We’re trying to make sure to regulate the competitive market so it produces that outcome [Canadian programming] by taking away as much of the regulation as possible in order to allow the system to generate as many resources as it can.”

The statement is quaint, in a 1995 kind of way. But not very honest. The broadcasting industry is regulated to the hilt, mainly to protect the businesses that are already in it. Ironically, what’s not well regulated is what the system’s players do with the fabulous resources they generate. After making a king’s ransom from the various benefits they derive, essentially from recycling Hollywood programming, they do the bare minimum of local and Canadian programming. Meanwhile, 90% of Canadian TV viewers spend more and more each month for the privilege of accessing content they can mostly find somewhere else

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