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CRTC’s new sheriff faces challenges of digital age

Feb 4, 2012

Source: Toronto Star

OTTAWA—Pay TV and pirate satellite dishes.

Those were the challenges that confronted John Meisel when he took the helm of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission three decades ago.

The problems then seem almost quaint compared to what is on the CRTC’s plate these days as it tries to exert control over a very different universe, where programming is available on hundreds of TV channels and can be delivered via the web to smartphones and computers.

Today’s issue is more like whether you can view Sunday’s Super Bowl on your smartphone.

But the themes for the CRTC remain much the same: how to effectively regulate amidst technological change and ensure that Canadian content remains vibrant in a tidal wave of foreign content.

As CRTC chair between 1980 and 1983, Meisel recalls grappling with the issue of pirate satellite dishes tuning in foreign TV signals that paid no need to Canadian content rules.

“We were very anxious to make sure that Canadians had a lot of Canadian content available. There was nothing on these dishes. They were all foreign signals,” Meisel said. “They were beginning to spread.”

Now as then, the issue remains the “tremendous changes in technology,” he said in an interview.

“On the broadcasting side, the whole rationale for regulation is the airwaves . . . are owned by the public,” he said.

“I think the question really arises. What sort of means are available to ensure that the public interest is predominant?” said Meisel, a political studies professor emeritus at Queen’s University.

“In my view . . . the powers of the CRTC are not adequate to confront the problem.”

As the watchdog over what we view on TV, what we tune on the radio, even how big Internet providers deal with smaller providers, the CRTC has remarkable influence over the day-to-day lives of Canadians.

But today, it is grappling with questions about its own future.

As it did when it faced pirate satellite dishes 30 years ago, it is struggling to ensure Canadian content gets on air; to remain relevant in the face of technological change and to exert control over media conglomerates that deliver programming over a multitude of platforms.

And with the departure of Konrad von Finckenstein after a five-year term as chair, it is a regulator in search of a new sheriff. Leonard Katz, who was the vice-chairman of telecommunications, has been named as interim chair.

Von Finckenstein wasn’t shy about taking on tough topics, a tack that sometimes led to conflicts with cabinet ministers.

“It was quite a controversial and sometimes tumultuous period, but in some ways that reflects what’s taking place more broadly in the telecom and communication space,” said University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist.

For his part, von Finckenstein says the pace of change has left the CRTC — and the legislation that provides it authority — badly behind. He left making the case for legislative and institutional reforms, starting with the outdated separation of telecom and broadcasting.

“Whether you talk, where you send video, where you send a fax, an email . . . it’s just bits that are being sent over the same wire,” he told The Canadian Press earlier this month. “That has completely changed our traditional definition of broadcasting and telecom. It’s now essentially the same thing.”

He urges Canada to look to the examples of the European Union, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, which all have a minister with special responsibility for the digital economy.

Carleton University journalism professor Dwayne Winseck has his own prescription for the CRTC’s future. For starters, he says, drop the rules around Canadian content, which he calls anachronistic.

“Let a thousand flowers bloom. There are enough platforms out there now and I think significant demand internationally for Canadian content to allow it to flourish,” Winseck said.

Next, he says, the CRTC has to better confront the industry’s players that are seeking to “maximize their dominance in the marketplace and their dominance of new opportunities.

“The underlying factor in my view is market concentration. We’ve got to deal with market concentration. We’ve got to be realistic and eyes wide open about the realities of this marketplace. The marketplace is not competitive. It’s Goliaths vs. Goliaths.”

Like von Finckenstein, Geist sees the solution in new laws that recognize the convergence of telecom and broadcast, but he has little faith the government will bring in new legislation, a job that promises to not only be complex but controversial, too.

“It’s foreign investment, it’s cultural policy, It’s everything thrown into a document . . . that will guide the commission for decades,” Geist said.

Ian Morrison, of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said it will be a challenging year for the CRTC, with a lot riding on the one the Conservatives pick to head the commission.

Ideally, that person would know the industry but also have the independence to withstand the deep-pocketed muscle of the broadcasting conglomerates.

“They have so much resources to manipulate the commission, they outgun the commission, they can afford very expensive lawyers,” Morrison said.

But the longtime watcher of Canada’s broadcast industry has his doubts whether the Conservatives will pick a strong leader for the CRTC.

“There’s a real danger that a bad appointment or a reduction in the authority of the CRTC could cause a thing that has served Canadians well for decades to unravel,” he said.

© Toronto Star