Q&A

WANTED: MORE TV DRAMA

The CRTC’s new boss says broadcasters aren’t showing enough Canadian series

CHARLES DALFEN July 15 2002
Q&A

WANTED: MORE TV DRAMA

The CRTC’s new boss says broadcasters aren’t showing enough Canadian series

CHARLES DALFEN July 15 2002

WANTED: MORE TV DRAMA

The CRTC’s new boss says broadcasters aren’t showing enough Canadian series

Q&A

CHARLES DALFEN

CHARLES DALFEN is a valuable man, and that’s official. When the federal government wanted to recruit him as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, he successfully negotiated nearly double the normal salary for the post, raising the bar to a maximum of $370,000 from $196,300. Not surprising perhaps, since his last job was as a communications lawyer for the top-line Bay Street law firm Torys. There he advised many of the companies the CRTC regulates in radio, television, cable TV, satellite, and phone services. Again, not surprising: Dalfen was a CRTC vice-chairman from 1976 to 1980, before going private. Since becoming chairman in January, Dalfen, 59, has made few public appearances. In Toronto, he met with Maclean’s editors to talk about his ideas.

Can you give us an overview of what we can expect in the age of Dalfen?

My aim is to focus on certain values primarily, rather than certain policy areas. I boil them down to three, essentially: integrity, quality and civility. Integrity, in both our processes and our products. The people who appear before us should feel they’ve had a hearing, and the best way to do that is to show them, in as many decisions as possible, that their arguments have been heard. Quality means thoroughness, common sense and a high level of reasoning in our decisions and policies. And civility means not being disagreeable, even when we disagree, both internally and externally.

I guess I’m pretty comfortable with the mandates that are set out for us, and the two acts that we implement: the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act. If there are points of emphasis under those that I would like to see movement in, they are respectively: more Canadian drama in the broadcasting system, and sustainable competition in telecommunications, and indeed in all of the areas that we regulate.

Taking drama, how do you hope to accomplish that goal?

When you go over the 10 most popular television series in most developed countries, you’ll find that a good number of the top 10 are by and about the people who are watching TV, whether it’s Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, Quebec. When you come to English Canada, the number is zero. That strikes you. This is dramatic series, including sitcoms.

In Australia, five out of the top seven shows are homegrown. Like us, they speak English of a kind. What they don’t have is proximity to the United States, and the overwhelming Hollywood publicity machine we have that promotes stars, shows and attitudes. So we’re more tightly linked as English Canadians with the American sensibilities, while perhaps they are a little more remote. But it still doesn’t

explain why five out of seven should be Australian there, and zero out of 10 should be Canadian here.

Why is it important to you that there be indigenous drama production?

I think that drama, more than any other form of broadcasting—and series drama in particular—allows you to identify with and relate to an identity that you’re trying to forge. And as an identity creator, it’s not playing as strong a role right now.

CBC president Robert Rabinovitch recently noted to us that if it costs $3 million to produce an hour-long drama in the U.S., a Canadian broadcaster can buy it for about $150,000. Producing a Canadian program might cost you about $1 million for the same hour, and it will pull less ad revenue. So won’t you automatically find yourself at logger-

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heads with private broadcasters?

I don’t see it that way. I see it more as, those are some of the realities you have to deal with in getting to the goal. We have to get Canadian broadcasters to find ways of taking the business risks. And I’ve asked the industry for their ideas on how, through a combination of regulation, funding and other measures, the business case might be such that they will be prepared to take the admittedly high risks.

And what can you as the regulator do?

I suspect that they’re going to come back with precisely that: you can do XYZ, and what XYZ would address are the rules governing priority programming, governing special bonus credits for certain types of programming, possibly allowing broadcasters to do production or air dramas in a way that they can’t now. And so, it may well be that there needs to be some regulatory review.

Are you a TV watcher?

I watch a fair amount. I watch the Canadian series. I watched Seinfeld, and I even watch reruns of Seinfeld. I watch a lot on the stationary bike. But I’d have to say that other than some excellent series, my predilection is for news and public affairs.

What do you have at home? Digital cable? Satellite?

We don’t at this point have it, no. Originally we were thinking of satellite, but there’s a physical problem with reception. But we have the full analog offering.

So there are about 100 channels you regulate that you never get to watch?

You mean the digital diginets? Yes, I guess that’s fair to say. We do have MDS at the office, which gives us all channels.

The controversy over editorial policies at CanWest Global has led some to suggest there should be CRTC-style regulatory control for newspapers. If the CRTC were suggested as a venue, what would you think? Would you like to see the press regulated?

Not at all. Would you?

That’s my answer. My answer is that question.

Is it considered inappropriate for you to be found dining with people with whom you’ve

‘In most developed countries, you’ll find that a good number of the top 10 TV series are by and about the people who are watching. When you come to English Canada, the number is zero.’

done private legal business for yearsheads of broadcast companies, say?

There are two questions there. One is conflict of interest personally, and there are guidelines for that set out by the ethics counsellor. The more difficult one flows from our mandate, that we are required to regulate and supervise the Canadian broadcasting system. I understand regulate; supervise, nobody has ever really come forward in terms of specifics. We don’t give directions to the broadcasters. But it does mean you have to talk to people and get feedback on an informal basis. So how do you do that, and adhere to the proprieties? The typical way we do it is that when I’m meeting with the broadcaster, I will be accompanied by a staff member or two, just to make sure there are more people involved. We’re not allowed to discuss anything that’s currently before us.

At the Banff Television Festival, I had to pass up a hike with people from a number of companies that we regulate. It would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have been an appropriate thing to do.

What’s your personal position on foreign ownership of telecom companies, which is currently limited to one-third or less?

The usual argument in favour of foreign ownership is it would attract more capital into the sector. I’ve seen a lot of deals where foreign investment was involved and I can’t recall seeing very many at all where the rules became a bar to foreign investment. I’ve always understood that the government was seeing it as a trade issue, that in return for loosening foreign ownership rules in telecom, they might get a better break on softwood lumber, for example.

Do you regard, as Robert Rabinovitch does, the loosening of foreign ownership restrictions as an inevitability?

I would perhaps be less categorical than that. I’m not sure at all.

Are there advantages to foreign investment in television, say? What if the Disney organization were allowed to come in and set up a Canadian channel? Of course, they’d have to produce Canadian drama, while bringing in their virtually free Disney programming. Wouldn’t that support your original goal? Fair point. And I guess everything turns on the terms and conditions of entry. I wouldn’t reject it out of hand.

Do you expect Canadians to see a set of competitors emerging over the next couple of years in local phone service?

I do. I think that the heady visions of two or three years ago are probably not going to be the way it operates. Whether it was a combination of irrational exuberance of the stock market, or excessive capacity being installed, we’ve seen all too many local competitors not survive.

Can you foresee a day when the CRTC will disappear?

It could happen, certainly. But as long as Canadians feel they want to use the broadcasting system to achieve certain cultural goals, somebody is going to have to do that regulation, whether it’s the CRTC, or some body that replaces it. And most jurisdictions in the world have telecom regulatory authorities to preside over the transition to a competitive market.

The salary for your position was doubled. Do you think the government should be doing more of this to attract the best people?

You’re not going to choose a public service position if your goals are primarily monetary. What the federal government could probably benefit from more is a sense of how to tap into the senior levels of law firms and the private sector to attract them for public service reasons. I’ve had a lot of private sector people tell me, since I took the job, that they thought it was a good thing to be doing, and that they themselves would be interested were they approached in a way where there was a strategic vision, and where they might be able to add value. So, bottom line, I don’t think you’re ever going to match private sector compensation, but I’m thinking you can provide other psychic values. 171