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Will the CRTC surprise us again in 2013?

By Karen Wirsig, CMG

It is no mean feat for a broadcast regulator to surprise jaded watchers. The CRTC – Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission – did just that last October when it hit the headlines by turning down the sale of Astral Media to Bell. The deal did not serve the public interest, announced new CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais.

Public interest? Did we hear right? Is that even a consideration any more in weighing media transactions?

Bell certainly didn’t seem to think so, shooting off an angry application to the federal cabinet to review the CRTC decision, basically arguing that there was nothing in recent CRTC policy to suggest turning down the deal on this ground was legitimate. After the government sent the message that it wouldn’t touch the popular CRTC decision with a long stick, Bell quickly changed tack and reportedly filed a new application to take over Astral. The Commission is expected to hold a new hearing on the new deal in the first part of this year.

Has Bell changed the deal enough to convince the CRTC and Canadians that it’s good for us?

In the meantime, we await the CRTC decision on new broadcast licences for CBC/Radio-Canada following a two-week hearing at the end of November at which dozens of Canadians, media companies and other organizations spoke in favour of public broadcasting. The rub? Almost no one, with the significant exception of those speaking on the CBC/Radio-Canada panel, seems to fully support the idea of ads on Radio 2 and Espace Musique – a key feature of CBC’s application and its main strategy to stanch the flow of  budget cuts.

The Guild didn’t outright oppose ads at the hearing. We pointed out that ads on public radio are not good long-term public policy, citing passages from previous CRTC documents that make the same point. We said we would prefer to solve the budget problem a different way, with a fund paid for by cable and satellite companies dedicated to local programming by public and community broadcasters. The idea may sound familiar … our proposal is based on an improved Local Program Improvement Fund, implemented by the CRTC in 2010 and then cancelled in mid-2012 for reasons that remain unclear from a public interest perspective. The only ones that didn’t seem to like it were the cable and satellite companies.

The fund we’re proposing would generate approximately $65 million per year, the vast majority of which we anticipate would go to CBC and Radio-Canada for local programming. It would net the CBC more than ads on radio and be dedicated to providing programming that the public values and for which the private sector holds diminishing interest.

Will the CRTC surprise us again in 2013 and make the choice that best serves the public interest?

Follow Karen on Twitter: karenatcmg

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