Helping Canada find a Canadian way to express itself
Both hands on the dials of Canadian culture
PROFILE: JOHN MEISEL
Helping Canada find a Canadian way to express itself
A shiny grey cycling helmet perches incongruously on the hulking wood cabinet of his government-issue 24-inch television set. The slight, white-haired elfin man in the office has been here since eight this morning, the winter’s first storm be damned. “I was certainly innocent enough then,” John Meisel muses, recalling his first tortuous month as czar of the nation’s television, a medium he seldom watched before, and when he did, with academic distaste. He talks now of those “mind-blowingly important issues” he faces as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. At 57, Meisel has forsaken the pastoral splendor and contemplative life of Queen’s University to take over the levers of the star-making machinery. The man who still talks irritably of “the disruption of television advertising” has given up bird-watching and tutoring the cream of Ontario’s political science students. To him has gone the task of beating and cajoling Canadian communication policies, not out of the 1970s,but out of the ’60s. Upon Meisel’s lean frame rest decisions that will determine how Canadians will communicate with each other in the future; whether satellites and ca-
bles will knit the nation together or deepen regional prejudices; whether a Canadian “culture” will take root or die in a torrent of American movies, sports and situation comedies. The latter prospect is particularly distasteful to Meisel, since he believes words and images can make a difference, that a nation’s ills can be healed if the regions can make themselves heard and understood at the centre. He interprets his job as helping Canada find a Canadian way to express itself, before Canadians forget what Canada ever meant.
It is hard to picture John Meisel as a modern-day J. Edgar Hoover presiding over prohibition, or a George III over the Boston Tea Party. By nature he is not a builder of walls. He views the CRTC as a “kind of sympathetic neighborhood cop,” patrolling the streets and controlling its scamps; the broadcasters and phone companies. But times don’t permit that role yet. Never has the CRTC been so hopelessly bogged down as when Meisel took over one year ago. Not the least of his problems was the resignation of a weary six of the nine commissioners over the past 24 months, all before their seven-year terms expired. While Meisel spent 14-hour days
learning the ropes, the commission languished, even as the technology of the business advanced at a frightening pace. There are now in Canada some 1,200 dish-receivers pirating pay-TV off U.S. satellites, but none have been prosecuted. In Ontario and Quebec, illicit “descrambler” kits are advertised in newspapers for pirating cross-border pay-TV signals from American UHF bands. One store in Windsor, Ont., estimates there are 1,000 descramblers in that city. In Ottawa, businessman John Ryan has sold five “dishes” in the past two months since he started Comstar Satellite Terminals Ltd. He advertises in the local TV guide.
John Meisel is passionately Canadian. After he took the CRTC job he explained he owed something to the country that adopted him and his Czech parents in 1942, that educated him and gave him work and prominence. For more than 20 years he probed the political psyche of his new home in English and in French, analysing its social and political differences. The nation, he concluded, is still searching for an identity. “We tend to ape American forms,” he explains. “We are too quick to adjust to what they have done and accept their standards as our standards, their styles as our styles.” In his more brazen days as an academic, he scorched the CBC as a “monument to our unquenchable commercialism.” And he concluded that “progressively and ultimately annihilating Americanization is in part a consequence of our milquetoastian nationality. Effective resistance to foreign domination is therefore unlikely without a clearer definition of ourselves.”
Few in the broadcasting industry would argue with his analysis. They do question what can be done so late in the game and without leadership from a passive federal government absorbed with other priorities.Ernest Steele,president of the 400-member Canadian Association of Broadcasters, an industry lobby group, estimates the CRTC has about five years of work on its plate now, with more to come. “We’re in an information revolution,” Steele says. “How are people going to cope with it? How is the slov/ and deliberate regulatory process going to deal with it? And how much time do you have?That’s John Meisel’s biggest problem.”
The CRTC’s crisis list is little changed in two years. Decisions are needed quickly on the extension of Canadian television channels to remote areas by satellite, definitions of Canadian content, a second CBC channel devoted to top-quality Canadian programming, pay-TV and the cost of telecommunications. On top of these are crucial but less pressing issues such as satellite regulations, two-way cable television and Bell Canada’s demand to rejig its rate structure so telephones can be billed according to usage. These are the major decisions. In addition, the CRTC faces its annual hearings on some 2,000 licence applications and renewals. And the regulatory rat’s nest gets even more tangled: will the provinces, tired of waiting, simply take Saskatchewan’s lead and seize control of pay-TV? Can the broadcasters and cable operators survive the flood of international program competition if every home gets a satellite dish? And if cable companies get into programming to protect themselves, will that fragment the advertising market too severely to support anyone?
Ryan’s satellite dishes, bought in the U.S.,sell for $7,000 to$10,000.The three -metre dishes grab a five-watt signal from the RCA Satcom 1 “bird” stationed 3,700 km above the equator. This satellite bounces 20 channels continentwide, from a New York transmitter to a host of American cable companies which redistribute them on their wires to subscribers who pay by the channel. There is scant danger here to cultural sovereignty. But Satcom 1 is just the beginning. Japan is now experimenting with a more powerful bird whose beam can be grabbed by a one-metre collapsible dish costing about $500 for a blackand-white television and $1,000 for a color picture. France, West Germany, Italy and the Scandinavian countries, among others, also have plans to launch these “direct broadcast satellites” within three years. What the dish owner gets are TV stations in Atlanta, New York, Chicago and San Francisco; a 24-hour sports channel; a 24-hour news channel; a 24-hour movie channel; a channel devoted to vocational training, such as carpentry; two channels that provide first-run movies, rock concerts and live Las Vegas shows; one channel that covers the U.S. Congress.
Also available is Canada’s Anik B
satellite, which carries the CBC schedule to legal government dishes in the farflung communities of the North. It can be less than fulfilling. Testing it one afternoon, a government minister tuned in Anik and got—not Canadian content but a U.S. soap opera, As the World Turns. In open defiance of Ottawa, illegal dishes dot northern and mountain towns cut off from cable television. Communications Minister Francis Fox has yet to close down a remote dish, perhaps agreeing with Ryan when he asks, “Does the government really believe that everyone who watches TV at two in the afternoon really wants to watch soap operas?”
John Meisel is one Canadian who doesn’t want to watch them. “I tend to watch everything, unfortunately,” he complains. “I have to keep up with what’s on. I certainly don’t enjoy it all, however.” Meisel’s solution is to improve the quality of Canadian programming “so they can compete with those from other countries.” For that achievement alone he would like to be remembered. But it’s not as simple as waving a wand. U.S. networks spent about $4 billion last year to buy or make television shows. As a CRTC committee studying pay-TV this year noted, that sum is “seven or eight times as much as the CBC has for the entire operations of national radio and television services in two languages.” The committee recommended that at least $350 million a year must go into Canadian programming if it is “ever to become effectively competitive.” One prime source of cash would be pay-TV, the legitimacy of which the CRTC will rule on next year—five years after it was termed “inevitable” by the then-communications minister, Jeanne Sauvé.
The argument now is more over who
will control pay-TV —and reap the enormous profits—than the wisdom of its introduction. The broadcasters are terrified that the cable companies, should they gain access to pay-TV, will move into direct competition as program creators rather than mere distributors. Lind chastizes as “Pavlovian” what he terms the broadcasters’ belief that “everything the cable operators do is wrong and harmful.” But the delay of pay-TV is getting absurd for the major cable operators. Earlier into the game than their American counterparts, Canadian cable companies are now servicing 1.5 million U.S. homes. Lind estimates his company offers its American subscribers between three and five times more channels and services than it offers Canadians. The difference is the pay-TV terminal. “That unlocks the green light for discretionary services,” Lind says. “Then you can have special children’s programs, special senior citizen programs, special anything. These can be sold through one terminal in the home. You can separate out what you want. But the CRTC has to approve it or we’re left with only the basic service programming, which isn’t very exciting. There’s no incentive to add more services. It would just knock you out to see what we offer in our new Portland [Ore.] system.”
The itchy cable operators recognize that Meisel inherited these problems. The broadcasters had done little to encourage independent producers. Canadian programs were treated, in the words of one former CRTC commissioner, as “the cost of doing business rather than a way to make money.” In the prime evening time slots, 70 per cent of the entertainment shows watched by Canadians are foreign. Meisel recognizes a danger here. He views Canada in the “community-of-communities”manner of the man who brought him to Ottawa during the Tory interregnum, Joe Clark. There is no reason, Meisel submits, why “all Ontario has to view the world in the way Toronto does.” Regional differences must be preserved to enrich the whole: “Alberta has something to teach Ontario....The world is a more interesting place if people retain their differences, if they don’t come from a particular mould.”
Meisel’s life as a teacher—and he was by all accounts an excellent one—instilled in him the belief that ideas matter because you can “give a chance for something to breathe and grow that’s already there.” Since broadcasters are human they, in Meisel’s view, are like most people and “prefer to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing.” Persuasion, for the moment, is how he will try to improve their Canadian programming. He has a lot of persuading to do. After all, this is a man whose favorite TV shows are dance (“There’s so little of it”), the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S. (“A lot of good stuff”) and current affairs. He is conversing with moguls who, like their American counterparts, have tended to program for “Billy and Mary Six-pack,” that mythical duo, favorites of the admen, who watch six hours of TV a day and are open to a good sales pitch. Asked how he might define “indigenous forms of Canadian shows,” Meisel suggested using television to promote public affairs “through the use of drama, dance. A mixed-media way of teaching political science.” So much for Billy and Mary.
The question still lingers after a year just how far Meisel will go. No one cares to hazard a guess. He is considered somewhat vain and thin-skinned by the business and, accordingly, is treated with kid gloves. For Meisel, knowledge is power. For the industry, power is everything—and Meisel has it. CRTC decisions are final; the courts may rule only on whether the commission exceeded its authority.Meiselcallshimself “a very gentle type of person but I think I’m very tough.” He will have to be in order to pursue his goals. He is, after all, the man who told us “the Americanization of Canada...is incompatible with the country maintaining a distinct value system” and must be stopped. To this end, the unfailingly polite professor has quickly discovered how to focus the industry’s attention on those matters dear to him: “It would surprise me no end,” he says, “if we didn’t reward with a licence those people who are prepared to do the most for Canadian production.” In broadcasting, that’s like the promise of a kiss from your godfather. Next year Canadians will find out whether he means it, and just how far he really will go to halt what he calls “the erosion” of Canadian culture. Everyone should be paying attention to the teacher, fp
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