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The CRTC’s Future of Television Consultation: The Missing Provocative Questions

Last month, I blogged about the CRTC’s Talk TV consultation and concerns that the questions were framed in a lopsided manner.  CRTC Chair Jean Pierre Blais was asked about those concerns in Twitter chat and he responded that the questions and answers “were intended to be provocative.” I address that response in my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) highlighting both the concerns with the survey and offering some additional provocative questions that the Commission excluded.

The column begins by noting that regulation of Internet video services and the prospect of pick-and-pay television channels headline the second phase of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s future of television consultation which launched late last month. The “TalkTV” initiative is designed to make it easy for Canadians to participate, featuring six short scenarios followed by a limited number of choices for respondents.

While the consultation quickly attracted considerable participation – the commission said thousands of Canadians responded in the first week alone – its content raises serious concerns about future plans for CRTC regulation. Indeed, if the consultation is a signal of where the commission is headed, not only is the notion of true pick-and-pay channels dead and the much-disliked simultaneous substitution alive, but regulation of Internet video services may be just around the corner.

The Internet video discussion in the survey focuses almost exclusively on new regulatory fees for services such as Netflix. After asking respondents whether online services should be required to contribute to funding for Canadian content, provide closed-captioning, and adhere to regulated programming standards, the CRTC poses a series of follow-up questions that all involve additional costs.

Respondents are asked whether they would pay an extra 50 cents per month for Canadian-made programming (presumably the additional cost for a Canadian content contribution fund) or a few cents each month for closed captioning. The commission also inquires whether Canadians would be willing to pay $5 more each month for increased Internet usage costs. The CRTC floats the possibility that such usage would not count against monthly data caps, suggesting that it may be willing to violate net neutrality principles as part of a new Internet regulatory regime.

The consultation delves into other controversial issues, but often offers a lopsided perspective. Signal substitution, the longstanding practice that swaps a U.S. feed with the Canadian equivalent (with Canadian commercials) when the same program is being aired at the same time, was raised during an earlier part of the consultation as a policy ripe for reform. Once the issue is explained in the survey, respondents are offered just three choices: keep the policy unchanged, black out U.S. signals, or require Canadians to pay extra fees to compensate stations for lost revenues. 

Similarly, the consultation asks whether Canadians would like access to more U.S. and international programming. The Commission seemingly pre-judges the issue by framing the ramifications of new programming as increasing cable and satellite fees, creating lost Canadian jobs, or developing new channel packages with additional Canadian content to offset the foreign programming.

When asked about the apparently skewed approach during a recent Twitter chat, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais responded that the consultation was meant to be provocative. Few would object to a provocative approach that generates interest in broadcast policy, however, these provocations are entirely one-sided.

For government regulators, it is seemingly provocative to ask about Internet regulation and the implementation of new fees that could almost double the effective cost of services such as Netflix. It is also provocative to equate more consumer choice with lost Canadian jobs or to propose compensation for Canadian television stations if simultaneous substitution is removed.

Yet the commission does not offer up similarly provocative options such as the elimination of many broadcast regulations in order to create a level playing field with Internet services or removing the requirement that Canadians purchase basic television services with all cable and satellite packages. It also does not provoke respondents with the possibility of new rules to eliminate simultaneous substitution by forcing Canadian broadcasters to adjust to a more competitive marketplace or to re-imagine the role of public broadcasting in Canada.

Given that the CRTC rightly or wrongly often attracts the ire of Canadians, the survey also avoids the biggest provocation of all – does Canada still need the CRTC to regulate broadcasting?  The answer to that question might depend upon the final results of its future of television consultation.

5 Comments

  1. CRTC Responded to my open letter to Chairmen Jean-Pierre Blais. I’ve posted that response as well as a link to the open letter:

    http://jkoblovsky.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/crtc-responds-to-my-open-letter-to-crtc-chair-blais/

  2. A New Consultation
    The CRTC – structured largely to defend the rights of Canada’s media conglomerates to monopolize the sale and distribution of entertainment (news, sports, drama, etc) content in Canada – is asking the wrong questions.
    What is ‘television’?
    That’s the first question, but the second, more relevant question should be ‘what should we start calling content consumption?’, given that television is as relevant to Canadians today and the horse and buggy industry was relevant to car owners in the 1950s.
    The CRTC is clearly showing that it’s ‘dated’. It no longer has the ability to structure rules and regulations for a new economy and new ways of content consumption.
    The final question we should ask is ‘do we need the CRTC?’.

  3. living in the past
    i went and filled out their “choicebook”.

    the questions the CRTC is asking makes it plain that they are ill prepared for and poorly understand the current generation of internet services, let alone what will exist in 5 to 10 years.

    i think the CRTC could still have a roll in encouraging and promoting canadian content, but i fail to see how they will be able to effectively regulate any of the internet based services – unless it is to artificially create a two tiered system where the technically literate are able to access services (with easy workarounds) that the technically illiterate are not.

  4. Bill’s questions are good: “What is ‘television’ and ‘what should we start calling content consumption?’”

    The problem is that the public don’t get to answer those questions, and the conglomerates do. In fact they already have very clear answers to those. To them ‘television’ is what they (and only they) do, and ‘content consumption’ is us buying into that.

    I honestly don’t think we should be having any conversation with the conglomerates at this point. We need to sever all ties and undo the laws that they have put in place.

  5. When will this all start
    How much longer will the talk continue, just get the cable companies moving already. I’m tiered of the talk, let’s go the cable companies have already taken more than they deserve.