CANADA

TV and the freedom of choice

DOUG CLARK,CATHERINE RODD May 24 1982
CANADA

TV and the freedom of choice

DOUG CLARK,CATHERINE RODD May 24 1982

TV and the freedom of choice

ONTARIO

When Communications Minister Francis Fox squares off with his provincial counterparts in Calgary this week for their annual battle over cable TV, there will be more than theories on the agenda. The politicians must cope with two mavericks in Ontario who have hurled physical challenges at federal communications laws. Jake Milligan’s Fergus-Elora cable-TV station has been feeding first-run American movies to 150 subscribers since Feb. 5 at $18 a month. And last week, to Ottawa’s dismay, David Brough, head of Satellite Earth Station Technology, planted a satellite receiver on top of a 100-unit condominium in Toronto—the second of three planned to provide 14,000 customers with what Fox says is illegal access to a wide variety of American programming. Both moves defy the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Com-

mission (CRTC) ban, until 1983, on pay-TV licences, and the national implications are clear.

From British Columbia to Quebec, cable operators are becoming more blatant in their activities. Brough estimates that there are hundreds of illegal dishes and systems across the land, and federal officials reluctantly raised his estimate to more than 4,000.

What upsets Ottawa even more is that provincial governments support the immediate installation of payTV and satellite dishes, arguing that closed-circuit systems such as Milligan’s and Brough’s fall under their domain.

The Quebec government supported its own chosen cable licensee, Rimouski’s Câblodistribution de l’Est Inc., over the CRTC-approved company, Câblovision Bas-St. Laurent, for five years until the Supreme Court ruled in the CRTC’s favor in 1978. At the time, the Liberal government even supplied Câblodistribution with mobile equipment, enabling the pirate station to elude the RCMP. One evening, Câblodistribution gleefully presented its viewers with film coverage of the Mounties storming a building they had thought was the broadcast centre, while the real operation was safely housed kilometres away. In B.C.,Bill Bennett’s minister of universities, science and communications, Dr. Pat McGeer,

flaunted a dish on the lawn of the legislature two years ago and dared Fox to take it away (Fox did not). The Ontario ministry of transportation and communications says it will likely support Milligan if the CRTC takes him to court. The CRTC issued a cease-and-desist order last Feb. 9, bolstered by threats of RCMP intervention. Milligan promptly filed in Federal Court for “declaratory relief,” naming the CRTC and Justice Minister Jean Chrétien as codefendants.

At the heart of the confrontations is the widely held view that the federal government’s determined efforts to protect Canadian culture and give Ca-

nadian performances a chance at the home-screen audience, by controlling all forms of broadcasting and “cablecasting,” are anachronistic in the face of galloping technology. It was ever thus, says Brough, pointing out that Canadian TV did not start up until 1952, three years after border cities had sprouted antennae to bring in U.S. signals. Conservative communications critic Perrin Beatty accuses the government of squandering opportunities to lead the world in communications technology. “The lack of national direction and ongoing bureaucratic bungling have cost this country dearly,” he maintains. The United States launched its first domestic communications satellite in 1975. With one of the satellites of

SATCOM, the lucrative U.S. pay-TV system, American systems have cornered the market. Ironically, as Canadians wait impatiently for pay-TV next year, Canada’s latest satellite, ANIK D, to be launched this summer, has already leased six channels to U.S. interests.

As the Canadian government slowly continues to formulate policies, citizens who will eventually consume the products have already cast their sometimesviolent votes for the contraband services. In 1976, RCMP and federal communications officials tried to dismantle Brough’s equipment serving Pickle Lake, Ont., and were routed by a group of angry miners brandishing axes. Two years later, when authorities seized his equipment in Longlac, Ont., town council took over the department of communications offices as enraged viewers threatened to dynamite the local CBC transmitter. Brough remembers his triumphant homecoming as “my most emotional experience in the North.” Other reported incidents have taken on epic proportions in their retelling. Yukon loggers are said to have used a chainsaw to open the trunk of a federal car rumored to be taking away their booster amplifier. It was the wrong car, but the message was clear, and the amplifier was reinstated. Another federal vehicle was allegedly fire-bombed as its occupant attempted to remove equipment.

While Brough’s battles are recent, Milligan boasts of his lifelong fight against federal interference. In 1944, when he was 17 years old, Milligan watched as federal department of transport officers pulled down his home-made AM transmitter in Fergus because it was interfering with authorized signals. Reacting quickly, he rebuilt his transmitter, tuning it to an unmonitored FM frequency. In 1977 the CRTC renewed Milligan’s cable licence but ordered him to suspend his 10-year policy of carrying local ads. He argued that his policy predated the CRTC, formed in 1968, and continues to show the occasional promotion without CRTC censure.

Brough has escaped direct CRTC action but says Revenue Canada has been auditing his income tax returns every year sincel977 and he also feelsharassed by customs officers during his frequent crossings from several states where he buys equipment. He sees his latest challenge to Ottawa as his way of telling the government to grow up and realize what is going on in the world. “Why is it we have to fight Ottawa for everything?” he asks. “It’s time for them to put up or shut up.” Adds Irene Broadfoot1,'1 a Pickle Lake resident and a customer of Brough’s: “Good God, why can’t they just leave us alone?”

DOUG CLARK

CATHERINE RODD