Cable / Telecom News

ANALYSIS: Five questions need answers before we set new policy for a digital Canada

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OUR FEDERAL GOVERNMENT promised a review of the Broadcasting and Telecommunication Acts in its 2017 budget and last week the CRTC took the first step down this path when it issued: Harnessing Change: The Future of Programming Distribution in Canada.

While it floated a number of interesting, innovative and controversial ideas, we’re all anxious to hear what Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly will have to say about it this weekend when she addresses the Banff International Media Fest. There, we hear she is likely to announce the appointment of a worthy and carefully chosen panel of experts to undertake a year-long project building on the CRTC’s report, and potentially drafting new legislation.

This sounds all very careful and methodical but given the timing, it’s near impossible to imagine anything substantive will be accomplished prior to the next federal election in October 2019. Frankly, the pace of change and the scope of economic development in the space requires a brisker pace. The apparent lack of urgency here is extremely unsettling.

However, since we’re potentially looking at another year of discussion and debate, I think the best course of action to solve such tricky and complex policy challenges is to ask (and answer) the right questions in the right order – and right now. With a couple of exceptions, it doesn’t seem we are doing that in a meaningful way. In fact, I would argue that much of the discussion around proposals such as combining the two Acts should come well down the road and after we address more fundamental issues. I would say there are five questions which must be answered if we are to move forward towards a new programming policy for Canadians.

1. Do we still have a system?

This seems to be a pretty arcane question, but is totally seminal.  The current Broadcasting Act (which it must be remembered is still the law of the land) declares that:

  • The Canadian broadcasting system is a single system
  • It operates in English and French with private, public and community elements
  • It provides a service essential to national identity and cultural sovereignty
  • Each element of the system must contribute to the creation and presentation of Canadian programming
  • The system has to deliver on the Broadcasting Policy for Canada which sets out lots of policy “shoulds” that require support
  • The best way to achieve all this is through the supervision of an independent regulator

Now, this is a fairly deep pile of stuff to think about.  It’s all quite structural: there’s a purpose (national identity and sovereignty); there’s a policy (Broadcasting Policy for Canada); there’s a corral (the elements); a contribution requirement (each element contributes); and an independent body to get it organized.  At a certain level, a thing of true beauty.

“If we are to have a Canadian system, what is it supposed to generally look like if not this?”

The current Act was passed in 1991, which I tell my MBA grad students is roughly when most of them were born and well before EVERYTHING in the digital age.  Given that, it’s surprising how well the Act holds up from a technology perspective.  For example, while we generally think of broadcasting in the context of the legacy providers in Canada, the Act defines it to include “any transmission of programs” delivered anyhow, anyway, to any device.  Excellent foresight.  Lest there be any doubt, this plainly includes all the streaming services.  I’ll have more on that later.

So we must ask ourselves, as we move relentlessly into a totally transformed digital future, which bits of the Act are disposable?  If we are to have a Canadian system, what is it supposed to generally look like if not this?  What objectives should it achieve if not the dozen or two “shoulds” in the current Act?  What tool is supposed to make it happen, if not an independent regulator?

Going the other way, if we do not wish to have a Canadian system (and many admittedly do not or do not care), or if we do not wish to have a system at all, how do we describe what we want?  If we strip away the link between the delivery of audio visual programming and any sort of national policy or purpose what would be left? The only thing that I can think of is that it would be an open market.

For half a century we have developed policies to address the fact that Canada is not nearly populous enough to ensure that an open market will deliver high quality programming that reflects its’ communities.  This dynamic remains just as true today as 50 years ago.  So if there is nothing to be done to tackle this challenge anymore – if there is no need for a system with the elements making their contributions – should we at least be honest with ourselves and think of Broadcasting Act repeal instead of reform.

Of course, I put this question because I personally think there should be a public policy driver in the delivery of programming to Canadians.  So, in answer to “Should we have a System” I say YES!  And I think it’s fair to say that the CRTC Report would agree on this point.

Question 2 on Thursday: What are the elements of this system of ours?

Doug Barrett is a veteran of over 30 years in the Canadian media and entertainment industries and since 2008 a professor in Media Management Schulich School of Business of York University. He is also the Principal of Barcode SDG, a strategic advisory firm. He was also president and CEO of PS Production Services from 2006 to 2013 and prior to that spent 20 years as one of Canada’s most successful entertainment lawyers, serving as senior partner at McMillan LLP. From 2004 to 2008, he served as chair of the board of directors of the Canadian Television Fund. He has also served on several additional industry boards, including the Banff Television Festival, the Feature Film Project of the Canadian Film Centre and the Canadian Film and Television Production Association.  He was also a key founder of the Alliance Atlantis Banff Television Executive Program.

(Ed note: Doug knows what he’s talking about and has spent a long time thinking about this industry. His next four questions are important and enlightening.)