By Perry Hoffman
GATINEAU - A monthly per subscriber compensation regime proposed by CBC/Radio-Canada is being panned by its private sector opponents while the corporation’s foray into the digital arena is also being questioned by interveners to its licence renewal.
In its application, CBC said that it needs to be compensated for its signals because the broadcast distribution undertakings (cable, satellite and telco TV companies) are free riding and making money off the back of the corporation’s content. In essence, the public broadcaster is seeking a value for signal, or fee-for-carriage, regime. (The CRTC’s authority to implement such a model was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada in April, with a decision expected this fall.)
BDUs are, unsurprisingly, fervently opposed to any amendment to the CBC’s licence that allows it to implement a subscriber-based compensation regime.
Rogers Communications argues that CBC’s proposed regime has already been denied by the CRTC. Rogers acknowledges that value for signal is still before the Supreme Court, but says the commission excluded the national public broadcaster from participating in such a regime in its March 22, 2010 group-based licensing decision. (However, the Commission did so then while acknowledging it would be best to discuss the potential for a VFS regime for the CBC during its license renewal, which was delayed a number of times.)
Suggestions from the CBC that broadcast distribution undertakings (BDUs) are “free riding” and “reaping financial gain” at the expense of the corporation “mischaracterizes the financial relationship” between BDUs and the CBC, says Rogers in its submission. Distributors are required to distribute CBC signals on a priority basis and Canadians already pay for the distribution of CBC signals through their taxes, adds the company.
Shaw Communications Inc. notes that “there is no defensible rationale” to allow the CBC, which receives $1 billion each year in public funding, “benefits from the lion’s share of existing subsidies and other support mechanisms, and enjoys unparalleled regulatory protections,” to implement what it continues to call “a fee for carriage” regime.
The company is also opposed to requests by the CBC for mandatory carriage of CBC News Network, its French-language equivalent RDI and ARTV in minority language markets. Shaw says CBC has not met the burden of proof required to mandatory distribution as laid out in Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2010-629. “Moreover, these requests ignore the fact that the corporation’s specialty services operate on a commercial basis (i.e., not funded by Parliamentary Appropriations), and run counter to the Commission’s support for a more flexible regulatory regime to address competitive concerns and meet consumer expectations,” writes Shaw.
The Canadian Media Production Association (CMPA) worries that proposals from the CBC could weaken the independent production community. It says it’s time for the CRTC to impose a new condition of licence on the public broadcaster that would require it to buy at least 50% of its programming (other than sports, news and public affairs) from independent sources.
In the digital arena, Stingray Digital Group says CBC has provided little information about its plans for this space and it’s unclear how its plans will further Broadcasting Act objectives. While the company encourages CBC to explore digital media platforms for Canadian content, Stingray adds that this foray into digital should not unfairly compete with the private sector. The music company has complained strongly about the CBC’s online music portal CBC Music, but has been shot down.
Unfettered competition by CBC in the digital arena “undermines the ability of that sector to experiment and innovate on its own,” Stingray says, adding that investment in digital media is “profoundly discouraged” when the market is dominated by a publicly subsidized operator.
Stingray singles out CBC Music as being “harmful” to the online music business “because it is a ‘free’ subsidized service that is distorting an otherwise competitive marketplace” and “has discouraged investment by private enterprise to develop a sustainable business model for such services.”
Some interveners believe that the CBC should make a greater commitment to feature films, but there are a number of companies who are supportive of the Corp, too. English production companies Pier 21 Films and Entertainment One Television, as well as minority French-language producer Red Letter Films all support the renewal of CBC’s licences. They say the pubcaster has been a great partner for their productions and without it, their work may not have made it cinemas and TV screens.
The general public’s discourse on the CBC is understandably mixed with many suggesting the CBC should be abolished and just as many saying the public broadcaster is an important national institution that needs continued support.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and OpenMedia.ca argue that a strong public broadcaster is more than ever important as Canada is faced with increasing media consolidation and vertical integration. CBC serves as the “voice for all Canadians”, they write in their comments.
The two public advocacy groups acknowledge the difficult financial situation CBC finds itself in the wake of government cutbacks, but argue now is not the time to deliberate over how to sustain CBC services. Rather, the focus should be on “how CBC can best serve the public interest.”
This can be accomplished by attaching conditions of licence to the CBC that require it “to serve the public interest by meeting needs of the public that would not be otherwise served, focusing on the needs of regional, cultural, minority language communities in a way that [reflects] the diversity of the Canadian social fabric and contribute to an empowered citizenry that is well-equipped to participate in democracy.”
At the viewer and listener level, Canadians are divided on the CBC. There are almost 4,500 interveners on file (not to mention the morass of electronic back-and-forth the Commission tracked with its online consultation transcripts) and after going through many of these comments from regular Canadians, the two below perhaps best simplify the division among the population.
Dany Simard, from Lower Sackville NS writes: “The tax payer cannot afford this anymore. Make it private. If it’s good it will survive. Let the market decide if this is a good. In the days of Internet, cable TV, satellite TV, the old way doesn't work anymore.”
Michel Trottier-McDonald, from Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel QC, says (and we’ve translated it from French): Radio-Canada is simply the best media platform in Canada. The original content it makes is essential to Canadian culture, particularly the Quebecois culture. Radio-Canada’s competition tends to import ideas rather than develop homegrown creativity.”
The hearing starts November 19th and is expected to take up to three weeks. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais told MPs last week he will be running this hearing a little differently than past proceedings.