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Major shifts expected in Canadian broadcast industry

Private radio and TV broadcasters are pushing for less regulation in order to protect their profits, pointing to new technologies for producing and consuming entertainment that are reducing their audiences and ad revenues. And it appears they can expect a warm reception in Ottawa from both the minority Conservative government and the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Will private sector interests rewrite public policy and override the needs of public service broadcasting?

The plan by federal Heritage Minister Bev Oda to review the mandate of the CBC appears to be on hold. Instead, Oda has asked the CRTC to examine the impacts of technology on broadcasters and report back in December. The CRTC will also undertake a review of its TV policy, beginning in November. It’s likely there will be no move on the CBC– either a CRTC licence renewal or a government mandate review– until after the next federal election. And that has many in Canada’s cultural sector worried.

“The Conservative government has said too little about where it is headed on cultural policy, including its real intentions for the CBC,” says Lise Lareau, national president of the Canadian Media Guild Lise Lareau. “The uncertainty is bad for the CBC and it makes everyone wonder whether the government believes there is a role for public institutions in Canada’s cultural scene.”

The concern comes from significant pushes to deregulate key industries, such as telecommunications. For example, big telephone companies, including Bell and Telus are looking to be able to push smaller players out of the market. One result of that would be to free up money to move more agressively into the cultural sector with services such as internet TV, according to Queen’s University professor Vincent Mosco.

As well, a report in March from a federal panel reviewing telecommunications policy recommended that regulations restricting ownership in the broadcast sector be opened up at the same time as those in the telecom sector, given industry convergence. The Coalition of Canadian Audio-visual Unions has opposed that recommendation, arguing that the telecomm panel had no mandate, or expertise, to review broadcasting and cultural policy.

Even if over-the-air broadcasting isn’t likely to be replaced by new technologies such as internet and cell-phone TV, conventional broadcasters argue for less regulation to allow them to survive the competitive onslaught.

So when you hear the Heritage Minister say she wants a strong Canadian broadcasting system and a review by the CRTC about how technology is affecting broadcasters, it’s not a big leap to assume that she’s taken their concerns to heart.

CRTC chair Charles Dalfen also appears to be listening. He told the crowd assembled for the Banff World Television Festival earlier this month that “in view of the financial results and the mixed picture for Canadian programming– especially English drama– on conventional television, we’re asking ourselves whether we have the entirely right regulatory environment to usher conventional broadcasters through the opening decade of the 21st century.”

Media industry consultant Nordicity Group laid out the options for increasing Canadian TV production in a paper delivered at the Banff festival. The sector needs either more federal money or more aggressive international sales of Canadian programs. And, if the latter is the case, then regulations such as Canadian content rules need to be eased to help make Canadian shows more marketable overseas. And why wouldn’t a market-addicted Conservative government looking to cut spending favour the second option?

Public broadcasters in Canada and around the world have seen at least two decades of erosion of public financing and support at the same time as new ways of delivering media content have exploded onto the scene. Most, including CBC/Radio-Canada and TVOntario, have not backed away from the challenges of new technology, despite their financial crunch.

And while public broadcasting has been a popular political football, and a lightning rod for those who argue for less government intervention in the market, signs are there that Canadians depend on public broadcasting more than ever to access news and cultural programming that reflects their interests and their need for information. It’s time that everyone– and especially those on Parliament Hill– knows it.

Conservatives have not done anything to contradict negative statements about the CBC by Prime Minister Harper, MP Jim Abbott and Senator Marjorie LeBreton prior to the last election campaign. Oda has made some generally positive comments lately, but the Conservative government and caucus have said nothing substantive about their intentions for the CBC since taking office. The opposition parties have united around cultural issues in the House of Commons, suggesting it would be very difficult for the minority Conservatives to make any big moves away from funding for public broadcasting or regulation of cultural policy. But it would be helpful to know, before the next election, where the Conservative government really stands on these issues.

Karen Wirsig is the communications co-ordinator for the Canadian Media Guild.

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