Controversy flares over the CRTC’s choices in granting new TV licences
As the country’s cultural community quibbled over the merits of the various winners and losers, a small, independent British Columbian company rejoiced. On June 6, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) gave out new television licences to 10 of the 48 domestic applicants who had presented bids. The regulatory body’s choices provoked lively debate about the decision process, the choice of licencees and the overall impact on the country’s television industry. But for Susan Millar and her husband, Deepak Sahasrabudhe, owners of Soma:
Film & Video, the CRTC’s verdict meant at least a temporary respite from lean times in a tight Canadian market. In recent years, the Vancouver-area company reduced its full-time staff to three people, curtailed output to low-budget films and scoured the United States for business. But a day after the CRTC decision, Soma launched three Canadian lifestyle-oriented projects, on contracts worth $4.2 million, in joint deals with American broadcasters and one of the new specialty services, You: Your Channel. As a result of the commissions, the company will be hiring as many as 30 people. Said Sahasrabudhe. “This is as exciting as it gets.”
The creation of 10 new Canadian television slots is a long-awaited boon for the country’s production houses. Indeed, CRTC chairman Keith Spicer calculated that the new services would invest $518 million into the production and acquisition of Canadian programming over the next six years. But the specific choice of the six English-language and two French-language specialty channels, as well as two pay-television movie services, appeared to satisfy few others in the cultural and broadcast industries. Cultural organizations complained that too much non-Canadian content is allowed on the lifestyle, arts, music, science and drama programming to be offered by the new channels.
Cable company executives grumbled that without any new sports, humor or English-language programming to offer, they expect resistance from consumers who will have to pay as much as $3 more a month for basic service when the new channels come on stream in January. And for the cable industry, facing stiff competition from satellite delivery services, that is an important consideration. “Consumers know they have a choice, and they certainly want to know what they are paying for,” said Elizabeth Roscoe, a senior vice-president of the Canadian Cable Television Association.
Many of the 38 losing applicants are quietly rallying behind complaints that the CRTC’s choices will not achieve the commission’s expressed aim of strengthening the Canadian broadcast industry in tumultuous times. In the next few years, the domestic industry will have to compete in the 500channel universe that direct broadcast satellites will be offering to Canadian viewers. In fact, embittered cultural groups planned to ask the federal government to force the CRTC either to grant more licences immediately or to reassess last week’s licensing decisions. ‘This package has no predominant commitment to Canadian content,” said Keith Kelly, executive director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, an advocacy organization representing the country’s arts groups. “What it does is create more windows for American reruns and foreign programming.”
In particular, some critics—including the main industry union, the 10,000-member Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA)—targeted the performing-arts channel Bravo!, which will offer only 40-per-cent Canadian content in the first two years of a five-year licence. In choosing Bravo!— which will get about half its programming from its American namesake, a more populist counterpart to the Arts and Entertainment channel—the CRTC rejected Festival, an arts channel backed by the CBC that promised 65-per-cent Canadian content. In Quebec, there are similar complaints about a French-language channel, Arts et Divertissement, committed to only 30-per-cent Canadian programming during the peak hours of 6 p.m. to midnight. “The CRTC is walking a tightrope, trying to balance Canadian programming with high production value,” said ACTRA president Sandy Crawley.
“But some of us are concerned enough to want to force the issue of just what the CRTC is doing. Judging by this round, we don’t think it is enough.”
Meanwhile, senior members of the CTV Network, which spent $250,000 on an unsuccessful bid for a 24-hour news service, accused Spicer of protecting the CBC’s news monopoly while expanding the Crown corporation’s news hold on Quebec, where the CRTC granted it a licence for a French all-news channel,
Le Réseau de l’Information. CTV officials say that is of particular relevance in the face of a possible separatist referendum in Quebec: they suggest that the government hopes to better manipulate public opinion in the province through the CBC. Spicer also angered some news organizations with his contention
that Canadians are simply weary of television news.
Wrote Douglas Fisher, a columnist for the Sun newspaper chain: “Canada deserves stronger competition within the news and commentary field, not more enhancing of a government-owned and funded colossus.”
CRTC officials assured applicants from the outset that the key to a licence was the promise of a new and different type of programming. But proposals for a senior citizens’ channel and services dealing with finance and learning—aimed at carving out new ground or providing an alternative to existing, U.S. programs—were rejected. Some critics also note that the commission passed up a chance to license a made-in-Canada headline news service—there were four such proposals—to compete with Atlanta-based CNN’s headline channel. What did pass the CRTC’s scrutiny is an odd mix of lifestyle, honky-tonk and old movies. “The airwaves belong to Canadians and we wanted to give them what they say they want,” said Spicer as he an-
The 10 new cable channels
24 hours of dance, opera, theatre and music, arts documentaries, and reruns of classic TV shows such as All in the Family. 40 per cent Canadian content.
Owner: Toronto-based Chum Ltd., which has 21 radio and six TV stations across the countryincluding Toronto’s CITY TV—as well as MuchMusic.
THE COUNTRY NETWORK
24 hours of mainly country music videos. 30 per cent Canadian content. Owners: Toronto-based communications company Maclean Hunter Ltd., 60 per cent; Regina radio-station owner Rawlco Communications, 40 per cent.
THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL
24 hours of nature, environment, science and adventure. 55 per cent Canadian content. Owner: beer, sports and entertainment giant John Labatt Ltd. of Toronto.
20 hours of information and entertainment geared to women.
65 per cent Canadian content. Owners: Winnipeg-based television and cable enterprise Moffat Communications Ltd., 65 per cent; private investors, 35 per cent.
18 hours of movies, drama and comedy and mini-series. 60 per cent Canadian content; 100 per cent between 7 and 10 p.m.
Owners: Toronto-based production and distribution company Alliance Communications Corp., 55
per cent; CBC, 20 per cent; Montrealbased Productions La Fête Inc.,
17 per cent.
YOU: YOUR CHANNEL
24 hours of lifestyle shows on topics ranging from nutrition to relationships. 70 per cent Canadian content. Owners: Toronto production house Atlantis Communications Inc., 80.01 per cent; Interpublic Group of Companies, 19.99 per cent.
ARTS ET DIVERTISSEMENT
24 hours of French-language documentaries, feature films and series, plus programs on the arts, broadcast from Ontario east. 30 per cent Canadian content. Owner: Montreal-based Astral Communications Inc., which has interests in broadcasting, television (including the pay-per-view service Viewer’s Choice), TV and film production, and movie distribution.
LE RESEAU DE L’INFORMATION
24 hours of French-language news, analysis and interpretation, available nationally. 90 per cent Canadian content. Owner: CBC.
THE CLASSIC CHANNEL
24 hours of movies, available from Ontario east. 20 per cent Canadian content. Owner: Montrealbased Astral Communications Inc.
18 hours of movies, available from Manitoba west. 20 per cent Canadian content. Owner: Vancouver-based
wie Western International Communications Ltd., a communications, broadcast and entertainment company.
nounced the commission’s decisions at a news conference. He maintained that the CRTC was indeed “loading the dice” in favor of Canadian content, and that it had searched for “fresh, innovative” ideas.
Yet some of the 38 losers who, together with those who won licences, spent an estimated $12 million on their proposals, complained that the CRTC did not strictly adhere to the criteria of innovation and Canadian content. And even Spicer conceded last week that the subjectmatter overlap between You: Your Channel and Lifestyle Television will be as much as 20 per cent. Meanwhile, as a number of the losers expressed the intention of applying for licences in a year, when the CRTC will again accept bids for specialty channels, some worried that by then, cable companies will have devoted their remaining delivery potential to U.S. services.
E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa
Ironically, many industry experts predict that the CRTC’s role as a regulator of Canadian broadcasting will have diminished dramatically by the time of its next scheduled round of licence approvals in 1996. Spicer himself has promised “consumer sovereignty” by 1997, when— through so-called digital compression, which will allow cable operators to squeeze more services onto their existing lines— television viewers are expected to be offered a programming smorgasbord that would allow them to chose, and pay for, only what they want. By that point, direct broadcast satellites will make it easier for broadcasters to circumvent regulatory bodies. “In four, five or she years, [unsuccessful applicants] can completely thumb their noses at us,” said Spicer. Some of those applicants are apparently unwilling to wait. Officials at the CTV network, for one, say they are exploring the possibility of linking up with a direct broadcast satellite now proposed by a Canadian consortium to beam directly into homes with satellite dishes. As the television universe continues to expand, broadcasters with the means and the will to compete in the market will be able to reach consumers without the CRTC’s scrutiny or blessing.
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