There is only one way for the CRTC to paddle out of the cable-versus-networks quagmire: put the Canadian TV consumer first.
However, as two weeks of hearings unfold in Ottawa over the viability of the current television delivery model and its future, very little clarity of vision can be filtered out of the conflicting positions. Certainly the consumer’s perspective seems nowhere near the top of the agenda.
After weeks of an expensive advertising lobby effort — and three years before of posturing, threats and hearings — the issue is back before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
The national broadcast regulator is being asked by conventional television networks to force cable providers to pay them for their content. Two previous attempts to win payment have failed, in great part because cable companies are rightfully protective of their revenues and in part because consumers would no doubt end up paying the freight. Cable operators, in fact, argue that moving as much as $350 million from their books to the networks could cost individual consumers up to $10 more a month.
And that should draw the attention of most Canadians. As the quality and breadth of Canadian television diminishes, the cost of enjoying that television may well take a significant hike.
And there’s no evidence, nor assurance, that we’ll get any more for the additional money spent. In fact, based on the gradual descent of Canadian television, and growing network reliance on retread, expensive American programming, we’re likely to get less quality for our dollar in the future.
There are a few fundamental questions that come quickly into focus:
• Should cable companies, after more than 30 years of selling a commodity they didn’t create and didn’t pay for, be obliged at long last to pay the networks that deliver that content? At some level, the answer seems obvious, however much it might hurt consumers.
• Should networks bear any cost for the delivery of their programming to viewers? As it stands, cable companies and, to a lesser extent, satellite providers, have spent millions establishing a delivery infrastructure. Fairness demands some compensation.
• Why has the historic television business model — based solely on advertising revenue — failed so miserably in recent years after decades of success? Why didn’t television networks see the evolution of their industry coming and adapt or abandon ship? And are they ready for the next step in the evolution, where ad-free television, via the Internet, supplants the traditional delivery system? Probably not.
• Why are the networks threatening to do what they have already done: gut the airwaves of local content? In Red Deer, it is most obvious since the demise of CHCA earlier this year, but it is apparent everywhere. The hours of local programming in any market are precious few and still diminishing. Empty threats hardly seem likely to win the war.
• Why do Canadian networks waste $700 million a year buying the rights to broadcast American programs that cable subscribers already have access to? The answer is part lack of inertia, part lack of inspiration and part lack of audience support for Canadian programs. But that doesn’t excuse a system that panders to the easy dollar over the creative one. And if they are losing ad revenue based on this programming, maybe it’s time to consider other material.
• Why were Canadians denied a choice in cable providers for decades? Perhaps cable competition could have given networks a bargaining position they now lack. It certainly would have given consumers some real choice; nothing improves a marketplace like genuine competition.
• Why can’t Canadians choose the networks they wish to have come into their homes? A real marketplace should include a choice of goods at the most basic level: if a consumer doesn’t want children’s programming, multiple sports channels, multiple French-language networks or an excess of news channels, why must he pay for them? Cable packaging prevents any real choice.
The CRTC is trying solve a simple economic dispute between two well-muscled industries.
But this is not an economic issue so much as a cultural one. The focus should be on providing better television service for all Canadians.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.