Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Regulating Rules In A Rigged Game

The race for the private Canadian networks' license renewal Cup is underway and heading for a finish in the form of mid-April hearings in front of our regulatory body, the CRTC.

Some thoughts on regulation, prompted by this Canadian Press article. (yeah I know the feds have backpedaled from those statements but let's not pretend the sentiment has gone away)

The Harper government is considering help for Canada's troubled private TV broadcasters, including the possibility of looser regulations and tax changes.

Heritage Minister James Moore said Wednesday that the federal cabinet is aware of the threat to local news content should more local stations close.

And he confirmed that the government is looking specifically at how to assist CanWest Global Communications, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

"We're mindful of that and we're thinking about whether or not there's anything the government can do, but I can't be any more specific than that right now," Moore said. He hinted the help could come in the form of looser regulations and changes to the tax system, which would also help other private networks.

"The role of the government is to make sure the regulatory regime, the tax regime is more flexible, more forgiving and more open in the future," Moore said.

"We're a low-taxation government that does not believe in over-regulating industries that are struggling."

I'll repeat that last part again, "We are a low-taxation government that does not believe in over-regulating industries that are struggling."

It's weird how regulation up here in Canadian TV has become such a dirty word lately, especially for the major networks and the cable companies. This after we've witnessed how a lack of regulation in other areas and industries has contributed to such a global financial crisis/mess.

But let's get real...

The private Canadian broadcasters have played on a protected field for a long time now, a field created by CRTC regulation. That regulation has permitted the simulcast situation which not only increased their ad revenue tenfold but prevented American networks from competing with them directly. Further to that, our broadcasters have also had the benefit of government subsidies -- tax credits, Telefilm, CTF envelopes, etc. -- also created by regulation, so they can generate their 'required' indigenous product while not having to pay market prices in terms of license fees.

And now that that very generous business model appears to be broken (or ain't working as well as it has), the private networks are howling foul and no fair and crying poor (although this piece by Kelly Toughill about CTV's healthy operating profits last year seems to say otherwise). And they've been lobbying the CRTC for a bailout, not necessarily in the form of a cash handout per say, but in the form of looser regulations...less local/regional programming, less Canadian content, less taxation, and perhaps even a carriage fee per cable company subscriber.

It's so bizarre because not only have these organizations already gotten relief in the past but they now want more relief from the very criteria they were assigned when their licences were granted to operate in the first place....to provide Canadian programming – prime-time dramas, documentaries, variety programs, local and national news, and so on.

Further to that, the CBC is being told to live within its means...no relief, no bailout, no loosening. This while the private broadcasters, who have already made big gains recently with the revamp of the Canadian Media Fund, appear to be on the verge of getting cut even more slack - while still being able to ad substitute and simulcast U.S. network programming.

And the irony of all this is how the U.S. networks are now financing many of their own programs under the banner of 'co-productions' using Canadian tax credits and cable subscribers money via the various television funds, etc. ...not to mention the internet is completely changing the way the game has been played...c'mon people, it's FUCKED!

McGrath is back with a vengeance and says it all but better HERE, plus offers up some things we can do as regular people if we want to object. He also posts a wicked assessment of the Fox news debacle and why we shouldn't be surprised HERE. Henshaw's been saying the same thing at his digs for a while now, like HERE. And this week the Globe & Mail's John Doyle makes a nice case for saving local stations and their services HERE. Against the odds a few of us are still trying to present the perspective of the other side or at least paint the 'big' picture.

But you've probably already zoned out. We've ALL been saying the same thing over and over for the past couple years and I'm sure it just becomes white noise after a while. But if you can take away something, take away this: we aren't writing about this issue just to whine sour grapes or to crazytalk call down the big nasty networks and the corporations that own them...we write about it because we still have hope for a small but entertaining, vibrant yet homegrown Canadian television industry...subsidized or not.

Ten years ago, regulatory changes loosened 'the rules' and gave the networks 'relief'...relief that not only drastically reduced drama production in Canada but led to recent bidding wars between said networks for more and more U.S. programming. And the proposed 'relief' that's being put forward today will just prop up this broken model for a little longer while continuing to decimate the homegrown indigenous industry.

Canadian TV doesn't suck....it's just never had a fighting chance.

So, what's my point. I dunno..I guess I'd like the CRTC to 'regulate' broadcasting to the production community's advantage for a change, or get out of the regulation business. But that will never happen, not on our private broadcasters watch. Because for all their clamouring for deregulation, its the 'regulating' that's actually been a sweet deal for them so far.

And I just hate sitting around and saying nothing. So if just one reader stopping by has their perspective challenged and maybe even writes their MP a letter of objection regarding the CBC getting slammed and the private networks getting more breaks, then I'll take that as a little victory...a small win is better than nothing.

Especially when the game is more or less rigged.


deborah Nathan said...

That game has always been rigged. Ever since I can remember - and that goes back to the 80s. Same arguments. Same results. Ever thus - as long as the "industry" relies on the government.

Perhaps a new financing model is in order? Like getting the financing from abroad and returning to Canada for a small license fee and the tax credits. Gee, sounds very like the old industrials to me.

Everything that has happened will happen again. So say we all.

wpascoe said...

In mid-2007, I was following the proposed CTF/CRTC changes to the Canadian points system. Some bloggers had done a great job of articulating the issues and I found myself further engaged. So I went out and actually met my MP to talk to her about what was happening. We had never met before and we met for coffee at our local coffee joint. She was already informed on a lot of the issues affecting Canadian culture and even on the film and TV issues. I was pleasantly surprised. We had a nice chat and she went back to Ottawa and brought the issue up. It was also a noticeable part of her quarterly newsletter. Unfortunately she lost out to the Liberal candidate in the election shortly after that, but I hope she comes back. It was nice to see a MP so up to speed on something I assumed was a back burner issue.

My point is to back-up what Will was saying... that sometimes you just have to take the argument to your elected officials and let your voice be heard. It's their job to listen to everyday people so we might as well put them to work and make them somewhat accountable.

But sadly, in my cynical moments, I suspect that everything that has happened will happen again.