The Struggle for the Soul of Canadian Media

By Skinner, David | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Struggle for the Soul of Canadian Media

Skinner, David, Canadian Dimension

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is in the middle of a series of decisions that could fundamentally change the shape of Canada's media system. But given the nature of the regulatory process and the current federal government's predisposition toward market forces over direct regulation, there is cause for concern whether the broad public interest will be represented in these decisions, or if the general public will even know they are taking place.

In September, 2007, a public hearing on the diversity of voices within the broadcast system set the stage for review of a range of issues related to ownership--including concentration of ownership, license trafficking, benefits policy and a self-regulated code designed to keep the newsrooms of converged newspaper and broadcast companies operating independently. In the wake of this hearing, the CRTC set out to review a series of issues in late 2007 and early 2008. These range from the mega-merger of CanWest Global Communications and Alliance Atlantis, to the regulatory framework underlying television program distribution by cable, satellite and traditional telephone companies, to the future of the Canadian Television Fund (the main organization responsible for funding Canadian television programming) to the future of new media in Canada. A change in any one of these areas could significantly impact the way people in Canada see and understand the world.

Politics of Media Ownership

Ownership is perhaps the most high-profile issue in this mix. Given the ways in which recent media mergers have slashed the number of journalists working in newsrooms and narrowed the number of editorial voices, and the way new owners have sometimes manipulated the political slant of news in their properties, limits on the number of media properties any one company can hold are long overdue, particularly when they are located in any one city or region. But given the CRTC's track record of buying into the corporate logic that larger Canadian media companies are necessary to offset fragmenting markets and impending competition from large, international media companies, there is some question whether such limits will be forthcoming.

The issue of foreign ownership of the Canadian media is also under scrutiny. CanWest Global Communications has enlisted the aid of New York-based investment firm Goldman Sachs in their takeover of film distributor and rival broadcaster Alliance Atlantis Communications. Under the terms of the deal, Goldman Sachs will hold majority ownership of Alliance Atlantis. The deal flaunts Canadian ownership regulations and, by transferring control of one of the largest libraries of Canadian films and television programs to a foreign company, it also makes a mockery of taxpayer support and government regulation, which have underwritten both the production of these products and the development of the company itself. It's no secret that the Asper family--controlling shareholders of CanWest Global--would like to see the end of Canadian ownership regulations, which depress the value of Canadian media companies to international media companies. How the CRTC responds to this blatant challenge to Canadian sovereignty will shape the structure of the Canadian media well into the next decade.

The Perils of Unleashed Markets

On another front, the review of regulations for Broadcast Distribution Undertakings (BDUS)--the cable, satellite and telephone companies that control television distribution--has the potential to radically alter the character of Canadian television. In the Notice of Public Hearing announcing this review, the CRTC notes that it "aims at reducing regulation to a minimum," relying instead on market forces. Through setting fees for carriage, in many cases deciding which channels will be carried and creating tiers or packages of channels, BDUS have a great deal of power in deciding which services will survive in the market and which will not. …

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