BUSINESS

Last gasps of the CRTC

STEVE MAICH December 5 2005
BUSINESS

Last gasps of the CRTC

STEVE MAICH December 5 2005

Last gasps of the CRTC

STEVE MAICH

It’s not too often Ottawa bureaucrats serve up a real good belly laugh, but the folks exercising their increasingly tenuous control over Canada’s airwaves are not your typical mandarins.

Last week, an official with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission told the Globe and Mail that the agency has noticed more and more embedded advertisements being woven into prime time television shows. This was very reassuring, since embedded ads have been around for, oh, about a decade now. You’d hate to think the CRTC had missed them entirely. These ads are of concern to Ottawa because the Canadian TV rule book says there can’t be any more than 12 minutes of commercials every hour. If those sneaky ads keep getting around the government’s sacred regulatory scheme, well, the scheme may have to be changed. But for now, the commission is just “keeping an eye on it.” If any changes become necessary, the official assured, the commission would consult the public on what to do.

And thank goodness for that. It’s comforting to know that, before government does anything hasty, people will have the opportunity to pack into school auditoriums to relate heartbreaking tales of how Canadian culture was threatened, and their viewing experience marred, by a can of Pepsi and a bag of Doritos in the latest episode of Survivor. Why, if this keeps up, nobody’ll know when to go to the bathroom. All hail the mighty CRTC, in hot pursuit of imaginary problems to solve.

Just one little hitch: there isn’t a thing the CRTC can realistically do to control embedded advertising. Will the commission block the show 24 from Canadian airwaves? Will it make producers blur out conspicuous corporate logos or dub over favourable mentions of sponsors’ products? Start thinking about the practical realities of this new ad model and it’s clear the CRTC has fallen hopelessly behind the times. But it should be getting used to these humbling displays of its irrelevance.

Last spring, the regulator was preoccupied with the question of subscription-based satellite radio services in Canada. The CRTC knew there was no way to stop satellite radio— already five million Americans were signed up to receive the broadcasts for a monthly fee, and it was estimated that about 100,000 Canadians were illegally receiving the crossborder signals. If the CRTC demanded the industry set up entirely Canadian services, they’d simply walk away and the grey market would flourish. It was finally decided the

services could launch in Canada if at least 10 per cent of their channels were produced in Canada, and those channels broadcast 85 per cent Canadian content.

Immediately, traditional radio broadcasters howled about double standards, since they all have to offer at least 35 per cent CanCon. This kicked off a comic hand-wringing exercise on Parliament Hill as the Martin Liberals mused about overturning the CRTC decision, and slowly awoke to the fact that the world had changed. In the end, the satellite companies bought peace by agreeing to nudge up the amount of French programming, and the issue blew over. But yet another of Ottawa’s precious cultural barriers had fallen.

Thankfully, there aren’t many left. There is almost nothing in the world of entertainment, news and information that can’t be found on the Net. News from the U.K., sitcoms

‘From embedded ads to satellite radio, it should be getting accustomed to displays of its irrelevance’

from Europe, documentaries from South America, radio broadcasts of Korean soccer matches—you name it, you can download it, usually for free. Canadians who want to watch ESPN, or HBO, or Showtime, or Nickelodeon, can go to dozens of grey market dealers in any major city to buy illicit access to U.S. satellite signals. Podcasts, digital music sites, online news services—all exist beyond the reach of Canada’s attempts to restrict cultural choice.

And yet, the CRTC clings to its imaginary world of media protectionism, wilfully blind to the reality that in a world where choice is unlimited, quality is the only protection for Canadian art. Our artists are proving they can thrive without the help of bureaucrats. To take just one example, the Arcade Fire from Montreal became one of this year’s biggest North American bands with virtually no support from this country’s system of CanCon quotas. And several independent musicians spoke in favour of the satellite radio companies this year, pointing out that U.S. services already play more Canadians, in a wider range of genres, than government-regulated commercial radio in Canada.

For now, the bureaucrats can go on counting Pepsi cans on network broadcasts. But one of these days the CRTC will emerge from its bunker to discover that the cultural trade war is over, and technology won. M