The fight to rule the airwaves

MARY JANIGAN July 20 1987

The fight to rule the airwaves

MARY JANIGAN July 20 1987

The fight to rule the airwaves


Soft-spoken and tough-minded, Dr. Charles Allard has a history of making his own way—and getting his own way. A child of the Depression who put himself through medical school, he parlayed real estate investments into a multimillion-dollar empire. He sold most of his holdings in 1980, but retained an innovative Edmonton television station,

CITV—the co-producer of the comedy show SCTV, which lampooned a tiny television station with big ambitions. Fascinated by the small screen, Allard went on to create the pay TV network Superchannel in 1982. Now, the 67-year-old former surgeon with right-wing views and a handson style says that he wants to produce Canada’s first all-news television network. As he said from his Allarcom Ltd. headquarters: “We need to get to know one another. There is not a lot of news out of Quebec and the Maritimes shown here, and the reverse is true.”

Allard’s proposal is one of a flurry of licence applications—25 in all—that the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission will consider in public hearings next week. Among those applications are three hotly contested proposals from public and private broadcasters to create family channels featuring children’s programming. As well, there are three rival bids to produce an all-news network, one from the beleaguered CBC. To add to the confusion, two existing pay channels—The Sports Network (TSN) and MuchMusic Network—have asked permission to shift to the basic cable service.

Whatever applications the CRTC selects, its decisions affect the stability of the complex structure of Canadian broadcasting. Each new station competes for viewers and advertising dollars. Each fresh arrival on the basic cable service could increase the price of cable subscription.

And each newcomer could produce more Canadian programming—or add to the flood of U.S. imports. As Gerald Caplan, cochairman of last year’s task force report on broadcasting, put it, “Those decisions epitomize the classic dilemma of Canadian broadcasting: the CRTC must choose the balance between the public, not-for-

profit Canadian option and the private, lucrative, largely American option.”

To add to the controversy, the hearings have become the focus of an extraordinary political tug-of-war between the CRTC and the aggressive House of Commons communications committee. Last February that commit-

tee demanded that the CRTC slow the pace of its decisions until the federal cabinet produced a new broadcasting act. CRTC chairman André Bureau granted a six-week delay in the hearings so that the parliamentary committee could issue an interim report on specialty channels. But Bureau has not

surrendered the CRTC’s legal right to set broadcasting policy. Two weeks ago, in an unprecedented attempt to impose its will, the parliamentary committee served notice that it will intervene at the hearings to support the concept of a

nonprofit channel for family and minority-interest programming. As a government source said, “What is at stake is the fundamental question of who should set broadcasting policy for Canada—and the commission is trying to set policy as fast as it possibly can.” Most of the attention will focus on

the familyand news-channel applications because they carry the most profound implications for public policy. The three children’s selections include The Family Channel Inc., a proposal from First Choice-Superchannel that would cost pay TV subscribers an extra $10 a month and would pick up more than half of its programming from the upbeat U.S. Disney Channel. A rival proposal, for YTV Canada Inc., comes from three cable companies, including Rogers Broadcasting Ltd., and a consortium of television producers. YTV would go to any cable subscriber with a converter and would add 40 cents— whether cable subscribers wanted it or not—to the monthly cable bill. Finally, there is the Canadian Non-Commercial and Public Television Inc. channel, known as TV Canada, which would highlight children’s programming and regional productions. A proposal from 15 individuals, including National Film Board commissioner François Maceróla, the nonprofit service would go to anyone with a converter, adding $1 a month to the cable fee.

The three bids for an all-news channel are equally divergent. Free-enterpriser Allard has asked the CRTC to

make his proposed 24-hour Canadian Cable News (CCN) a “mandatory” service that must be available to all cable customers, whether or not they have a converter. And it would cost them 50 cents a month. The CBC is equally demanding: it also wants its planned 24hour news service, at 25 cents a month, to be mandatory. Finally, there is the proposed Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC), a basic cable service sponsored by the cable industry, costing 15 cents a month.

CRTC officials issued a public notice last May that consisted largely of a series of questions: should channels that appeal only to specialized interests be relegated to pay television? Or is it fair to add such channels to the basic cable service, forcing all viewers to pay higher cable bills? Will subscribers drop cable service if bills become too high? Will more competition for advertising revenues hurt the CBC?

Instead of answering those policy questions itself, the CRTC ordered licence applicants to address them in their applications. That unorthodox approach provoked outrage. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters described the move as “not in the public interest.” Moses Znaimer, the outspoken president of Toronto’s CITY TV and MuchMusic, added: “They have said, ‘Come before us and dance and we will make policy by picking the dancer that we like the most.’ They should have had a policy hearing first.”

By contrast, the parliamentary committee has made its views clear. In an interim report released last April it threw its weight behind the creation of a new, nonprofit channel to supply Canadian family programming for the basic cable service. Although the committee has not endorsed the specific TV Canada proposal, it clearly does not want more private stations with links to the United States unless priority is given to a Canadian nonprofit service. Said committee member and Liberal MP Sheila Finestone from Montreal: “We cannot only be a backyard dumping ground for U.S. programming.”

The committee asked Communications Minister Flora MacDonald to respond to its report on specialty stations by late August. Committee insiders are now pressing MacDonald to issue a policy statement before the CRTC makes its rulings. As one government insider said, “This is the first test of whether government will set broadcasting policy—or whether, once again, it will be left to the CRTC.” Meanwhile, next week’s hearings will proceed—with applicants such as Znaimer dancing in the dark.