National Press Club Breakfast, Ottawa
Remarks by Ian Morrison
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting
Thanks for joining us this morning. My name is Ian Morrison and I speak for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Friends is a Canada-wide non-profit group. Our mission is to defend and expand the quality and quantity of Canadian programming in our audio-visual system. We’ve been on the scene since the mid-1980s, when we placed a two-page ad in the national edition of The Globe and Mail – an open letter to Prime Minister Mulroney about the future of the CBC.
That ad was signed by 1,200 Canadians. Since then, Friends has grown to the point where 53,000 Canadian families now regularly support our work. That, as most English-speaking MPs can tell you, represents on average more than 225 households in each federal electoral district. Last year we raised $1.7 million, which means that our average supporter contributed between $30 and $40. The largest gift we received was $1,000.
You probably all know the story about how to tell the difference between lawyers and rats: “There are some things that rats just will not do!” One thing we won’t do is accept contributions from organizations which directly or indirectly hold licences from the CRTC.
We’re governed by a Board of Directors, which we call a Steering Committee. You may know some of the current members: Daryl Duke from Vancouver, who directed The Thornbirds; noted author Maggie Siggins from Regina; Walter Pitman from Toronto, former MP, MPP, university president and arts council director; my wife Pauline Couture, former journalist, broadcaster and strategic communications consultant; Teresa MacNeil, former Chair of the Cape Breton Development Corporation; and Friends’ Chair Noreen Golfman, noted by Macleans magazine as Memorial University’s most popular professor and a film critic.
I recall a few years back The Toronto Star’s media reporter Greg Quill, wrote a profile on us in which he said: “For a group that calls itself 'friends', it sure has a lot of enemies”. Let me count a few: some cable barons, broadcast lobbyists, a few people at the top of the current government, more than one CBC president, and a few big shots in private broadcasting. I must have left someone out. Oh yes, one of the junior Aspers acknowledged to a National Post reporter last summer that CanWest Global had hired a former journalist to investigate us. As Peggy Wente wrote in a recent Asper profile: “So far, no dirt”.
Next week the CRTC has scheduled a public hearing on the group licence renewals of CTV and CanWest Global, the most watched networks in the country This is an important occasion for a number of reasons:
- It’s the first major hearing on English-language television since the new television policy announced last year.
- These two broadcasters are the biggest in Canada. Last year Global’s Canadian television revenues were over $600 million; CTV’s almost $500 million.
- CanWest has 19 station licences up for renewal, CTV 31.
- If both group licences are renewed, as they have requested, for six years, it’s the last occasion to examine their records and their plans – until 2007.
- Since last year, their holding companies now control significant print media throughout the country.
The Commission has announced that it wants to examine several issues in next week’s public hearing, among them:
- Sharing of resources between conventional and specialty channels;
- High-quality Canadian programming in peak viewing periods;
- Reflection of Canada’s regions to the country as a whole;
- Meeting the demands of local audiences;
- Undue preference towards their owned-production companies; and
- Autonomy and editorial independence between broadcast and print media.
There’s a fashion in certain circles to bash the CRTC these days. We know from COMPAS Inc. polling research we’ve commissioned that the Canadian public does not share this fashion. The public expects the CRTC to represent viewers and listeners, the public strongly supports the Broadcasting Act’s mandate for the Commission and the public thinks the CRTC is doing a rather good job. In fact, the CRTC’s approval ratings have risen substantially over the past five years.
I think one reason for this is the CRTC’s move to include the public, by travelling to all parts of Canada to hear Canadians’ views, and also by making itself – and the audio-visual system – more transparent. A good example is the late-February release of data on the recent performance of TVA, CTV and CanWest Global. By the way, among the 289 responses to the CRTC’s proposal in January to release these data, only two groups opposed the release: CanWest Global and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters.
I’d like to give you a few highlights of what the CRTC’s data on TVA, CTV and Global revealed:
- In 1999 68% of the audience TVA, the French-language network, assembled during prime-time (7 to 11 p.m.) was watching Canadian shows.
- Only 12% of CTV’s prime-time audience watched Canadian shows.
- Only 5% of Global’s prime-time audience watched Canadian shows.
That means that 19 out of every 20 viewers Global attracted during prime-time in 1999 were watching American TV – with Canadian ads, of course.
By comparison, 86% of CBC Television’s prime-time audience watched Canadian shows.
And, as they say, money talks. The CRTC’s data reveal that Global consistently spent less than 20% of its revenues on Canadian programs – in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. By comparison, TVA spends 30% of its revenues on CanCon, and CTV 33%.
When the CRTC released its new television policy in 1999, FRIENDS called it a “Trust Us” policy. That’s because during the 1998 television hearings, Michael McCabe came before the Commission on behalf of the members of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, of whom CanWest/Global and CTV are the largest. Here’s what McCabe told the CRTC on that occasion:
"We want more Canadians watching Canadian television…”
"The government to date, along with previous Commissions, has focused solely on inputs – more hours, more dollars. We need to turn the lens around and not just look at inputs of dollars and hours, but at the results, audiences…” and,
"Viewing is what really counts. Not just how many hours we have, or how many dollars we spend. These are just proxies for what should be the real goal – more Canadians watching, being informed by and, most importantly, enjoying Canadian television. This is why we have said increased viewing to Canadian television is our key goal for the system."
McCabe asked the Commission to trust the industry because: “Increased viewing to Canadian television is our key goal for the system.”
CBC Television achieves McCabe’s goal. So do all the French-language networks. So do all the Canadian specialty channels. Only the private conventional television station groups – led by Global and CTV – fall short. And their results have been getting worse in recent years. Global’s 1997 audience share for Canadian programs in prime time was 7%, and CTV’s was 17%.
The Broadcasting Act says that: “each broadcasting undertaking shall make maximum use, and in no case less than predominant use, of Canadian creative and other resources in the creation and presentation of programming”. That’s the CRTC’s compass. And the new television policy will pressure CTV and Global to put more back into Canada. At least eight hours of priority Canadian programs are required in each week’s 28 hours of prime time.
Friends recently commissioned a broadcasting policy survey of English-speaking Canadians by COMPAS Inc. to provide the Commission with data on Canadians’ views on CTV and Global. Among the findings:
Comparing only [rotate] CTV and Global, which do you think [rotate]
Both the same
Is stronger when it comes to Canadian programming
Is stronger when it comes to American programming
Spends more on Canadian content
Delivers the more trusted news
Note: The percentages shown in this table are row percentages
The COMPAS survey makes clear that viewers are well aware of a performance gap between CTV and Global expressed in the Commission’s February 21st data.
We look to the CRTC to push Global and CTV to become more Canadian in prime time, and to hold their feet to the fire. Some say the CRTC is a toothless tiger. Tell that to the big cable companies, whom the CRTC has recently forbidden to increase their ownership of analog specialty channels, or to the private radio station groups, whom the CRTC recently forced to increase their presentation of Canadian music.
Some say that the CRTC is likely to roll over and play dead during next week’s hearings because the government is reviewing its mandate and the current Chair, David Colville has been appointed for a six-month period. I say – just the opposite might well happen.
I’d like to turn to a second issue: cross-media ownership. In its call for comments, referring to the CanWest takeover of most of Hollinger’s newspapers including a 50% interest in The National Post, and BCE’s acquisition of a majority interest in The Globe and Mail, the CRTC said : “Both situations raise similar issues regarding the diversity of voices and editorial plurality on a national market level. Global’s acquisition of a series of local newspapers raises similar cross-media issues on a more local level, particularly in the Vancouver/Victoria market.” The CRTC could equally have cited the anglophone Montreal market.
The Commission asked two questions of intervenors. I’m quoting here:
“Is it necessary for steps to be taken to address autonomy and editorial independence between the applicants’ broadcast and print media interests?” and
“If so, what safeguards can be put in place to keep the information gathering functions separate within the various newsrooms, on both the local and national levels?”
Anyone who follows CRTC public notices will tell you that this is a rather direct signal that the issue is on the Commission’s radar scope. So what we can look forward to is a clash between the business interests of the holding companies and the public interest, with the CRTC as a referee. The stakes are big – financial “synergies” for the cross-media owners – and diversity of sources of news and information for the citizen readers and viewers.
When these big players feel the pressure, they throw resources at the problem. They commission people like former employees who have chaired journalism schools to write papers that suggest that media cross-ownership isn’t any longer a problem because of the Internet, or benefit from interventions by journalism schools which have recently received public benefits from them, as a result of CRTC decisions, and so on. They even commission friendly public opinion polls from Liberal party pollsters, and other studies.
Let me take you to Vancouver. I’d like to quote one of the largest non-Asper print media in that city. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, The Vancouver Westender. In its March 15th edition, under the headline “Converge, schmonverge”, the Westender wrote:
When Global TV guru Izzy Asper took the podium last spring to declare his purchase of an online portal and Southam newspapers including The Vancouver Sun, the public oohed and aahed over the mysterious word, "convergence". The convergence promise: a content-partnership between Internet, print and broadcast news that lets the combined media integrate, grow and develop information for all newsjunkies out there.
“The convergence reality: The Sun prints a light feature series on men’s vanity, body image and marketing last week. And whaddaya know: BCTV, another Asper jewel, broadcasts a series of features on the exact same topic, with little new information. When print and broadcast outlets share stories, sources, and news angles, the so-called ideal of ‘convergence’ shapes up to be nothing more than imitation and heavy borrowing. The more things change.…
Neither CTV nor Global has addressed the problem of cross-media ownership by mega-media companies in any adequate fashion in their applications. And obviously, they have a conflict of interest. Global, for example, says it will “maintain policies of editorial integrity…by maintaining clear and distinct editorial management structures for each medium.” If only one journalist is sent to cover an event, or if a print and a broadcast journalist collaborate on a story, it will not matter to the public how many clear and distinct management structures there may be. Diversity of voices will dissipate in that community. Which communities are those? Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Charlottetown, and St. John’s, to name a few.
A good description of the problem has been supplied by one of the principals of CanWest/Global. Addressing the Canadian Club of Winnipeg on January 16th, 2001, Leonard Asper said – I’m quoting from CanWest’s web site here: “In the future, journalists will wake up, write a story for the web, write a column, take their camera, cover an event and do a report for TV and file a video clip for the web. What we have acquired is a quantum leap in the product we offer advertisers and a massive, creative, content generation machine.”
Happily, the Commission has before it an excellent model to apply. Friends commends Quebecor for its “Code of Ethics and Conduct on the Independence of the Newsrooms” between TVA and Quebecor’s newspapers. As soon as we read it, we translated it, and appended it to our CTV/Global CRTC submission. Quebecor’s proposed approach addresses the key problem squarely. I quote: “Information professionals working in the newsrooms of all TVA, LCN, and LCN Affaires stations shall at no time transmit, receive, exchange or discuss information by phone, fax, Internet or other technology with information professionals working in the newsrooms of Quebecor Media newspapers.”
When she opened the recent public hearing in Montreal to consider Quebecor’s application to control Vidéotron and TVA, CRTC Vice-Chair Andrée Wylie said: “The CRTC does not regulate print media.” Then she posed a question: “Are there grounds, however, for the CRTC to establish safeguards, in the form of conditions of licence or other means related to its broadcasting jurisdiction, to help promote the diversity of voices in Quebec?” These words were not said casually. They were in Ms. Wylie’s prepared opening remarks for the Montreal hearing.
Behind these words lies the Broadcasting Act mandate to the Commission, which Friends quoted in our Monday Hill Times ad: “The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should be varied and comprehensive” and “provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.…”
Friends recommends that the Commission require Bell GlobeMedia and CanWest/Global to adopt no less strict separations between their respective newspaper and television newsrooms than that proposed by Quebec, and that this requirement should be a condition of licence.
I get the sense that this view may be encountering some resistance from the applicants. Here’s what Trina McQueen, CTV’s President, wrote to the Commission in response to our proposal: “The combination of Quebecor’s very successful newspapers, with TVA as the market leader in television, creates a more dominant journalistic organization than anything operating in English Canada”.
Take that, Vancouver!
Trina McQueen added: “We believe that our principles of combining news-gathering, while separating news presentation, will provide Canadian viewers and readers with both diversity and quality in news reporting. Accordingly, we submit that further regulation of the journalistic reporting within Bell Globemedia’s news platforms is unnecessary.”
Well, that might be fine for CTV’s and The Globe and Mail’s Beijing bureaus, but it’s quite another thing on Parliament Hill.
So, those are the two key issues squarely before the CRTC next week: audiences for CanCon and media cross-ownership.
Canadian viewers and taxpayers have every reason to urge the CRTC on to debate the implications of globalization, media concentration, new technologies, vertical, horizontal and any other kind of integration.
But let’s not forget that our two private national broadcasters arrive at these hearings boasting a 5% and 12% viewership of Canadian programs during prime time.
If you keep in mind the various subsidies provided to fund Canadian content, and keep in mind the protection we provide through simultaneous substitution laws – it makes you realize why the essential message to the Canwest Global and CTV must be: you can and must do better.
The CRTC has some decisions to make. We wish them well.