The CRTC's release of its much-anticipated broadcasting regulatory policy decision set off a flurry of comments yesterday with broadcasters welcoming the prospect of negotiating fees for their local signals, broadcast distributors warning of increased costs, and the CBC arguing that the decision was a "dark day" for public broadcasters after it was excluded from the negotiating process. While there is understandably considerable discussion in the decision on programming requirements, the media focus centered on the fee-for-carriage issue. On that front, the CRTC has opened the door to negotiations, subject to a court ruling confirming the Commission's jurisdiction to implement such an approach.
It seems appropriate that on the day the CRTC released its decision, a new study was published that found Canadians now spend more time online than watching television. While the world is increasingly moving online, the CRTC decision acts as if the Internet scarcely exists. The broadcasting policy decision mentions the Internet once (acknowledging that it is a platform for content distribution) and does not including any reference to streaming, Youtube, podcast, BitTorrent, or peer-to-peer (used by the CBC to distribute its content). The word "consumer" is mentioned five times, though the consumer perspective will be addressed in a second report due later today to Cabinet.
Why is this relevant in a broadcast policy decision? The reality of how consumers access broadcast content is surely worth considering in the context of a broadcast policy that envisions the possibility of blacking out U.S. broadcasts of television shows where a Canadian broadcaster has purchased local rights to the program and failed to negotiate a fee with a cable or satellite company. In other words, if the broadcaster chooses to negotiate and fails to reach a deal, it will have the right to mandate blocking broadcast of programs from both local and foreign sources. I wrote about the possibility of blocked signals last fall, noting:
The proposal, which would lead to millions of Canadians regularly encountering blank screens instead of expected programs, would perversely increase the attractiveness of U.S. programming. Moreover, given the increasing expectation of on-demand program viewing, it seemingly would send more Canadians away from broadcast television to the Internet where there are no blackout messages and most programs are readily available in both legal and illegal forms.
Of course, this may be precisely what the CRTC is counting on as it hopes the blackout option is so unpalatable both to broadcasters and broadcast distributors that it will force the parties to reach a deal. Consumers may not be inclined to wait around for this particular fight to be resolved, however. Given that they now spend more time online than watching television, the programs are readily available online, and U.S. over-the-air digital signals are freely accessible to sizable percentage of the Canadian population, basing a broadcast policy on forced scarcity in a world of abundance hardly seems like an optimal approach.