After several months of interminable, fact free and boring ads, the CRTC has spent the last week and a few days trying to get Canada’s broadcasters and cable and satellite companies to come to some agreement on fee-for-carriage, in other words, allowing the broadcasters to get paid for what has always been a free service. As all Canadians know by now the public face of the battle is between the cable and satellite operators who claim they want to save us from the dreaded new “TV tax” and the country’s broadcasters who want to save local television.
Anyone who has paid even peripheral attention to the debate knows that both sides are, forgive the colloquialism, full of crap. The broadcasters have never shown any interest in local TV. The last time CTV cared was when it was a consortium of private owners like the Bassetts in Toronto and the Peters in B.C. who actually controlled the network. The shoe was on the other foot in those days. There was little interest in the network. Since Bell and the Globe Media bought out all the individual owners and centralized the running of the network local has been a bad word at CTV.
It’s even worse at Canwest/Global. Here, there has never been any interest in local TV. Before Izzy Asper got control, Global TV served all of Ontario from Toronto. There was never any coverage of Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Windsor, London etc. In Winnipeg the Asper station was a joke. When I was news director at Global and there were massive forest fires in Manitoba Izzy’s Winnipeg station refused to cover the fires. “Too expensive” they said. “We don’t have the manpower” they argued. We had to send a crew from Toronto.
In truth, and we all know this to be true, all CTV and Canwest/Global care about is the money. They have gone about making this abundantly clear in the past week. When Ivan Fecan, head of CTV, was asked if he would guarantee the fee-for-carriage money would go to local TV and local programming he said no. Canwest/Global said the same. So what was the point of all the advertising produced and aired by CTV and Global? Was it a false advertising? The only conclusion I can come to is yes, it was all a lie.
Further, to prove that money is the only motive, the networks level of greed showed no boundaries, they took their chutzpa to new levels demanding that on top of being paid for their free signals they want to expand simultaneous substitution. According to Michael Geist in The Globe and Mail:
“The broadcasters now wish to expand simultaneous substitution policy with program deletion…when a Canadian broadcaster purchases the rights to a U.S. program, they would have the right to air it whenever they choose within a seven day window. The hook is cable and satellite companies would be required to block the U.S. broadcast of the same program if it did not air simultaneously.
“The proposal, which would lead to millions of Canadians regularly encountering blank screens instead of expected programs, would perversely increase the attractiveness of U.S. programming…it would (also) send more Canadians away from broadcast television to the Internet…”
The broadcasters confirmed as well, they are not willing to invest in digital transmitters for all the local communities leaving residents in small cities like Kingston without any over the air signals, another slap at local TV. To add insult to injury the broadcasters are asking for an extra two years to make the switch to digital. In the U.S. that job was completed earlier this year. CTV and Global want us to wait another four years. You may wonder what difference that makes to you. Well, it means the new spectrum , 700 MHz, that was supposed to come available will not. That means Canada will lose billions of dollars in revenues from selling that spectrum and that new wireless and open internet innovation and competition will not be available to Canadian consumers.
In the face of all this, it should be a slam dunk for the cable and satellite operators. The broadcasters want everything and are willing to give back nothing.
Well that sounds like the real world. The CRTC has seldom, if ever, had close ties to the real world. The consumer is always at the bottom of the CRTC’s list of cares. The CRTC’s job, as they see it, is to protect Canadian TV. Not TV production as in new dramas and comedies, but TV distributors and stations. The reason: without a bunch of TV stations operating in Canada there is no need for the CRTC to oversee television. So they protect the millionaire owners. More important to the CRTC is cable. Every decision they make is to fortify cable. As long as most Canadians get their TV through cable the CRTC is powerful. You see, you cannot block over the air signals at the border, you cannot stop satellite feeds from entering Canadian air space, but you can control Canadian companies who distribute these signals over cable to millions of Canadian homes. Thus, over the years the CRTC has become the political arm of Rogers Cable. I have appeared before the CRTC five or six times and on each occasion at least half the commissioners were former Rogers employees. In many cases they went back to work at Rogers after their term was up at the CRTC. The connection is too obvious and has been going on for too long to call this a coincidence. CRTC decisions inevitably favour the cable companies first, the broadcasters second, the satellite companies third and I have to say it, the consumer never.
So where does this leave the entire debate? It’s impossible. The CRTC can’t hurt either side. It explains why Konrad von Finckenstein says he’s sick of the whole thing. He finds himself on the horns of a major dilemma: how to help the greedy broadcasters without harming the greedy cable companies or vice versa. To make it worse, signals from the government suggest they don’t want the consumer to pay. Tough luck Konny, you lose no matter what you decide. Here’s hoping you don’t take the rest of us with you.