VICTORIA -- Cable television is big business in Canada. The top five providers -- Shaw, Rogers, Bell, Videotron (through Quebecor Inc.) and Cogeco -- serve a combined 10 million households and generated $8.6 billion in revenue last year.
Paradoxically, in an age when bureaucratic regulation is giving way to market competition, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission maintains a tight hold on every aspect of the cable-TV business, including what channels are mandatory in basic cable packages.
The CRTC has scheduled a hearing for April 23 to consider mandatory carriage applications from more than a dozen channels. Among those is Quebecor's application for mandatory carriage of its Sun News Network (SNN), a status already enjoyed by CBC and CTV News.
On the surface, the addition of the third national news channel to the basic cable package would seem to be a simple decision in a country as large and diverse as Canada. But the SNN application is encountering unprecedented opposition, and that opposition is almost entirely ideological in nature. The channel has an unabashedly conservative leaning, earning it the moniker "Fox News North" from critics on the left.
SNN needs the higher fee per viewer that goes with mandatory carriage to survive, and critics are as determined to prevent that as anti-oilsands activists are to stop the Keystone pipeline. Some have even seized on the fact that SNN vice-president Kory Teneycke, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, puts the CRTC under political pressure to approve the application, a reverse-psychology manoeuvre they hope will cause the CRTC to demonstrate independence by doing the exact opposite.
Groups such as Public Response, whose clients include the Canadian Auto Workers Union and the David Suzuki Foundation, have launched an anti-Sun TV campaign, spurring the network to launch its own petition drive.
Turning their critics' argument around, SNN points out that mandatory carriage gives the left-leaning CBC extra revenue on top of its $1-billion-per-year taxpayer subsidy. The SNN argues that it provides a much-needed conservative viewpoint, which is currently marginalized in national media dialogue, and that almost 60 per cent of Canadian households don't have access to the channel despite widespread conservative support in the last federal election.
This debate raises the question of what principles the CRTC should be using to evaluate the SNN application.
To allow politics or ideology to play a part would be a clear violation of regulatory integrity. And to decide on the merit of the channels' opinion commentary would be tantamount to censorship.
Unfortunately, the "criteria for assessing applications for mandatory distribution" enunciated in the CRTC's notice of hearing doesn't give much comfort on either of these points.
The first criterion for approval requires that a channel "reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values." Is there a single set of Canadian attitudes or values? How could such a vague statement be administered without ideological bias or influence from activist pressure campaigns?
I'd wager that the full membership of the Supreme Court would be stymied if presented with the task of defining precisely what qualifies as Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas and values. And yet the very survival of several media enterprises, together with what millions of Canadians see when they turn on their televisions, depends on the how the CRTC bureaucrats choose to define and apply those words.
The Canadian Broadcasting Act was last amended more than 15 years ago, before the Internet became a media distribution highway. Little wonder that the CRTC finds itself charged with administrating regulations completely out of tune with today's world of real-time Internet streaming of news and entertainment. Yet a review of the CRTC's website reveals scant evidence that this regulatory anachronism has even noticed how much the communications world has changed.
So what should the CRTC decide about SNN's application? How about removing mandatory-carriage status altogether in favour of allowing consumers to choose their own channel packages la carte? This would mean no more costly hearings where bureaucrats make decisions affecting the life or death of commercial enterprises on the basis of impossible-to-define criteria.
It would also be a giant step forward in bringing television regulation into line with the rapidly advancing suite of Internet options. And a refreshing example of something bureaucrats almost never do: find ways to do less.
Gwyn Morgan is a Canadian business leader and director of two global corporations.