The future of radio regulation takes centre stage in Ottawa today as the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission kicks off five days of hearings as part of its Commercial Radio Review. The Commission can expect to hear considerable doom and gloom from many panelists, yet the most depressing aspect of the hearings is not the state of the industry – which is as profitable as ever – but rather the absence of innovative, forward-looking proposals from the so-called industry leaders.
The hearings mark the culmination of a lengthy review process that began last year with a request from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), the lead commercial radio association, that the CRTC postpone the review altogether in light of the rapid pace technological change. The Commission rejected the request, presumably concluding that the changes made a regulatory review more relevant, not less.
By March of this year, 183 associations, companies, and individuals had submitted comments to the CRTC, with many asking to appear in person before the Commission this week. While summarizing all the submissions is difficult, many of the comments fall into one of three groups.
The first group, led by the CAB and the Canadian Recording Industry Association, warns of the financial challenges facing their industries and focuses on a lighter regulatory touch including reduced Canadian content requirements and changes to the funding mechanisms that support Canadian artists.
The CAB downplays the industry’ s profitability, arguing that it has "not progressed much beyond 20 percent and thus may not attract future major investment." Those claims were undermined by the CRTC itself, which earlier this month reported record revenues and profits within the commercial radio sector.
Both the CAB and CRIA argue that the Commission should establish more flexible Cancon requirements, a change that could lead to some stations playing less than the current 35 percent minimum requirement. They also both seek to shift financial support away from the Factor program, widely credited as the most crucial source of funding for emerging Canadian artists (CRIA’s position on these issues led to the departure of six leading Canadian independent labels from the association last month).
The second group, led by SOCAN, the leading songwriter collective, and the Canadian Independent Record Producers Association (CIRPA), advocates an increase in Cancon requirements. SOCAN argues that the minimum requirement should be raised to 51 percent, pointing to dictionary definitions of the wording in the Broadcasting Act to buttress its claim that a majority Cancon requirement is consistent with the wishes of Parliament.
The third group, led by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and the Canadian Conference of the Arts, focuses on the emergence of the Internet and new technologies. Rather than encouraging greater use of these technologies to promote Canadian content, these organizations believe that they may spell the end of Canadian content and thus require ever-more regulation.
In reference to the new media platforms, ACTRA warns that "an exemption from regulation poses the potential for devastating the future of Canadian content." The Canadian Conference of the Arts goes even further, arguing that "the CRTC can and must regulate the Internet and other computer networks. It must regulate Canada’s Internet service providers as gatekeepers, in a manner analogous to broadcast distribution undertakings."
Sadly missing from the debate is any real vision about how public policy goals to promote Canadian artists and encourage a diverse, financially successful commercial radio market can be adapted to an environment that faces increasing competition from a plethora of new options including webcasts, podcasts, and self-programming iPod users.
Claims that "smart" Cancon requirements that lead to a reduction of Canadian artist airtime clearly does not provide a solution, yet neither do arguments that simply ratchet up Cancon requirements given that Canadians will be listening to less and less music on commercial radio regardless of how much Cancon fills the airwaves.
While the third group may come closest to addressing future challenges, it seems determined to adopt a back to the future approach, by placing its faith in more regulation of the Internet.
It may be that there are no obvious solutions at the present time – the Internet is indeed changing at an incredible pace – however, it would help if the industry at least started to ask some of the right questions.
Why is there so little Canadian content on online music services such as iTunes? Why is French music from Quebec almost entirely absent from most Canadian online music services? What policies could be adopted to encourage Canadian content on webcasts and podcasts? What are the implications of the growing importance of peer-to-peer technologies as a critical method of music promotion and discovery for emerging artists?
While these are difficult questions, they must be asked and answered. Unfortunately, it appears that this week’s hearings will not provide many solutions since the participants are stuck on an entirely different frequency.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.