BUSINESS

More than a talking head

Keith Spicer is shaking up the CRTC

PATRICIA CHISHOLM October 29 1990
BUSINESS

More than a talking head

Keith Spicer is shaking up the CRTC

PATRICIA CHISHOLM October 29 1990

More than a talking head

Keith Spicer is shaking up the CRTC

For Keith Spicer, the outspoken chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the powerful federal agency bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an isolated and elitist ivory tower. Lounging on a couch in his elegantly appointed office in Hull, Que., last week, the lanky, grey-haired chairman spoke passionately of dusting away cobwebs and letting in new ideas. Said Spicer: “In the past, this place was totally unknown and mysterious, even to the broadcast and telecommunications industries it regulates.” Just 14 months into his seven-year term, Spicer has pledged to tear down what he views as the impenetrable walls of formality that surround the commission. Already, he has unnerved some colleagues with unprecedented measures, such as regular public meetings with consumers. But Spicer says that such steps are vital to keeping the CRTC abreast of the cultural and technological changes that are already threatening to race ahead of the commission’s convoluted, and sometimes outdated, regulations. Declared the 56-year-old chairman: “If you want to make something of the CRTC, now is the time to do it.” In fact, Spicer may be presiding over a period of upheaval unprecedented in the commission’s 22-year history.

Next spring, it is scheduled to begin hearings that could revolutionize the country’s long-

distance telephone system. In another set of hearings, also scheduled for next year, the CRTC will decide whether television watchers will be allowed greater ability to choose the channels they wish to receive. And both telephone companies and cable operators are anxiously awaiting the commission’s approach to fibre optics, a new technology that will vastly increase the number of signals and types of services carried over cable and telephone wires.

With so much riding on the future, broadcasters and telecommunications executives are watching the CRTC with renewed attention. Some industry insiders have privately questioned the expertise that a former political science professor, newspaper editor and Canada’s first official languages commissioner will bring to decisions that could fundamentally change the character of Canada’s communications network. Already, his habit of speculating widely on cultural, political and financial issues has set off alarms in some executive offices. Said David McKendry, national director of consumer affairs consulting for the management consulting firm of Price Waterhouse in Ottawa: “Industries regulated by the CRTC are tipping and toeing around on hot regulatory coals, because he is different and they are uncertain of his direction.” However, the customarily independent CRTC chairman may have

to contend with competing objectives from the federal government that appointed him, if Ottawa exercises its authority to set CRTC policies under the proposed new Broadcast Act.

Spicer, described by those who know him as a quick study, has little time to master the full range of his complex new field. Next April, he will hold public hearings to determine whether Toronto-based Unitel Communications Inc. will be permitted to compete head-to-head with Bell Canada and other telephone companies for Canada’s $6-billion long-distance market. The decision could have farreaching effects on the financial stability of Canadian telephone companies, as well as on the rates that consumers will pay for telephone service. Unitel claims that it can substantially reduce long-distance charges, but Bell argues that such a reduction would increase the cost of basic service to most sub35 scribers. Indeed, the issue is so sensig tive that the normally loquacious S Spicer will say only that Unitel is 5 “potentially one of the two or three biggest decisions we will make during my seven years here.”

Those proceedings will be followed in July by a request from the cable television industry for permission to break up their cable services into smaller packages. Currently, most cable operators are required to sell a full package of channel choices, including channels such as MuchMusic and TSN, The Sports Network, that some consumers may not want, but for which they must pay about $2 a month extra in order to receive other services. The resulting guaranteed revenues for those specialty channels help pay for Canadian content on cable, but they also keep rates high. The cable operators say that they would prefer to offer less comprehensive channel packages at lower costs, a system known as tiering.

The cable industry is already smarting from a recent CRTC decision made during the Spicer regime. In May, the commission imposed sharp limits on the monthly rate increases cable companies could pass on to their subscribers. Spicer said that the commission’s 24-per-cent profit guideline for the cable operators was too high, and he has commissioned a still-to-becompleted study on appropriate profit levels. Shortly after the decision, cable company stocks fell sharply, and although Spicer has repeatedly tried to reassure the industry that he is vitally concerned about its health, some cable company executives remain wary. Said Ted Rogers, chairman of Canada’s largest cable company, Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc., who is interested in rebuilding his company’s cable systems with fibre optics technology: “Spicer is a bit of a dreamer and a rebel, as I am.” He added, “Dreamers and rebels can accomplish great things, but they’re not always neat and orderly.”

Indeed, Spicer is unafraid of tough decisions. Last week, the CRTC denied an application by Kenwal Communications, a proposed partnership between Maclean Hunter Ltd.—which also owns Maclean ’s—and the London, Ont.based Blackburn Group Inc., to join their respective television operations into one Ontariowide, three-station mini-network. The service would have included CHCH TV in Hamilton, which Maclean Hunter already owns, and Blackburn-owned CFPL TV in London and CKNX TV in Wingham. Said Spicer: “After careful consideration, we concluded that the application did not represent the best possible proposal under the circumstances.” Ronald Osborne, president of Maclean Hunter, said that he was disappointed with the ruling. Added Osborne: “We will now reflect on our options, which could include selling CHCH TV to an interested third party.”

Spicer acknowledges that, under his chairmanship, there have been internal upheavals at the commission.

He has been openly critical of some previous commission practices, such as announcing public hearings by publishing newspaper advertisements in small print and complex language. Declared Spicer: “For all the sense these ads make to the average Canadian, they might as well have been written in Icelandic.” Some commission staff have been thrown off guard by his free-spoken style, Spicer says, and others have been critical of his efforts to open the commission’s processes to wider public scrutiny. But he claims that one of his principal tasks is to “open up a new and relaxed dialogue with ordinary Canadians.”

Commission staff and communications industry executives have also privately criticized Spicer for lacking the necessary technical and business expertise to lead the CRTC. By comparison, many analysts point to the financial and technical expertise of his predecessor, lawyer André Bureau, who joined the Montreal law firm Heenan Blaikie. Previously, however, Pierre Juneau, chairman from 1968 until 1975, was, like Spicer, a generalist. But industry analyst Frank Koelsch, senior vice-president of the Toronto-based information and management consultants Transition Group Inc., believes that it is virtually impossible to understand telecommunications without an extensive background in the area. Said Koelsch: “The sad part is that Spicer’s appointment reinforces the CRTC’s traditional role as the cultural police. It is a physical impossibility for one person to understand both broadcast and telecommunications policy properly.”

But Spicer, who has leapfrogged from positions as diverse as Canada’s first official languages commissioner under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1970 to 1977, to editor of The Ottawa Citizen from 1985 to 1989, maintains that his eclectic background is well suited to the CRTC’s needs. He added, “If we had an expert in either telephones or heavymetal rock, that person would have tunnel

vision—I don’t think there is any classic preparation for being chairman of the CRTC.” Indeed, others defend Spicer as a visionary with an acute sensitivity to Canada’s shifting cultural patterns. They acknowledge that Spicer is also impatient with hierarchies and administrative detail, but they note that there are other commissioners who are capable of filling in the technical gaps. Said Michael McCabe, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters: “Spicer has a different view

than any previous chairman. He sees the CRTC as an instrument of change in society, not just the regulation of broadcasters.”

Spicer says that if the CRTC is to succeed in protecting cultural interests in Canada, he will need a free and independent hand at the commission. And one practice he has followed is staunchly defending the commission’s traditional independence from the federal cabinet. Indeed, when he agreed to take the job, Spicer said that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave him his assurance that he will respect the autonomy of the commission. That undertaking may soon be tested. The proposed new Broadcast Act—which has yet to receive third and final reading by the House of Commons— gives the federal government broad new powers to issue policy directives to the CRTC, powers Spicer says that he strongly opposes.

So far, Spicer says that he is satisfied with the progress that he has made at “scooping out the cobwebs and barnacles” at the CRTC. The personal philosophy that has fuelled that campaign, Spicer says, was forged by his university studies in France, which were a stark contrast to his modest, middle-class upbringing in Toronto during the 1930s and 1940s. After spending two years at the University of Toron-

to, he decided to finish his undergraduate studies in France—he said that his parents viewed his venture as tantamount to “going to the moon”—where he received a BA in French civilization. Spicer continued his studies in France and received an MA in international relations. His three years studying at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, Spicer says, forced him to look outwards and to admire nations confident enough to “take a chance and look at new ideas.” Later, he earned a PhD in

political science at the University of Toronto in 1962.

That attitude may help to explain the obvious delight that Spicer takes in his strikingly varied career. In addition to his time at the Citizen and as commissioner of official languages, he has taught political science at six Canadian and U.S. universities, worked as a radio and television broadcaster for 21 years, and ran his own Vancouver-based communications consulting firm for five years.

He still maintains a wide range of interests, including travel to Japan as often as possible and four hours of Japanese lessons a week. When there is time, he reads essays by Seneca, Lord Chesterfield and Voltaire in his rambling Sandy Hill home, where he lives alone. Spicer is divorced, but has maintained a close relationship with his three children, who range in age from 21 to 28. Now, only nine years away from retirement, Spicer says that the CRTC is likely to be the final—and perhaps the most important—task of his life. He added, “I hope when the dust settles, I will have done some useful things and got people thinking.”

PATRICIA CHISHOLM with ANTHONY WILSONSMITH in Ottawa

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH