Barring a last minute extension, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais’ term will come to an end this week. For those new to the CRTC, it is difficult to overstate just how much changed both procedurally and substantively during his five years as chair. For some context, consider a 2006 invitation I received to participate on a panel at the Telecommunications Invitational Summit, a by-invitation-only event that brought together many in the industry for off-the-record, Chatham House Rules discussions on issues of the day. I was grateful for the invitation – I was there to defend the then-emerging issue of net neutrality – but recall being shocked walking into the venue to see senior telecom executives shooting billiards and having a drink with CRTC commissioners.
It is fair to say that those off-the-record bonding-style events between the regulator and the regulated became a thing of the past under Blais. In fact, weeks after he was named chair of the CRTC, I was called into his office in one of several meetings he had with consumer and public interest voices as his first order of business. I had a mixed history with Blais to that point (he was the lead on copyright policy at Canadian Heritage for many years), but he left no doubt that bringing a public interest voice and perspective to the CRTC was his top priority.
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My post this week on the recent CRTC’s television licensing decision elicited a strongly worded response yesterday from the Writers Guild of Canada. My original post made two key points. First, responding to Kate Taylor’s assertion that CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais has offered no consistent strategy to the challenges facing the Canadian television production industry, I noted that over the course of the past five years, Blais has charted a very clear path toward making Canadian policy and regulation relevant in the digital age by promoting a competitive marketplace for Canadian creators, consumers, broadcasters, and broadcast distributors.
Second, I defended the recent CRTC decision on several grounds, including the need to address the gap between regulated and unregulated services (such as Netflix), the already-significant public support for Canadian content creation, the incentives for Canadian broadcasters to invest in original content, and the fact that Canadian broadcasters contribute a very small slice of the overall financing of domestic fictional programming which suggests that the harm to the sector from a further reduction is overstated.
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Last week’s CRTC decision on group licensing for the major Canadian broadcasters has the creative community in a panic, claiming that it could “mean the devastation of Canadian domestic [television] production.” The decision, which set a uniform spending requirement of 5 percent on programs of national interest (PNI, which includes dramas, documentaries, some children’s programming, and some award shows), means a reduction in spending requirements for some broadcasters. The Writers Guild of Canada fears that the decision could lead to a reduction in spending on PNI of $200 million over five years.
Groups have heaped criticism on CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais, whose term ends next month. The WGC labels him a “Harper appointee”, while Kate Taylor says “he doesn’t leave much of a legacy for himself” and that “his piecemeal approach offers no consistent strategy to address the challenges facing Canadian television production in the Netflix age.”
Blais may have his faults, but claiming that he has not had a strategic vision for the digital age is not one of them. He recognized that the advent of the digital networks, an abundance of consumer choice, and the effective removal of longstanding analog protections for Canadian creators would gradually reduce the relevance of the regulator and leave it with two choices. The first – favoured by the creator groups – was to temporarily prolong the protections by extending Cancon regulations to Internet services and increasing regulatory costs on broadcasters. The second was to jump on the digital bandwagon, gradually removing the safeguards and creating a regulatory environment premised on competition at all levels – creators, broadcasters, and broadcast distributors. Anyone following the CRTC broadcast and telecom decisions in recent years knows that he chose the latter.
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CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais participated in a fascinating question-and-answer session at MIT this week in which he bluntly spoke out on a wide range of topics including cultural issues, copyright, and Internet policy. I’ll have a future post on his culture comments (his copyright remarks noted that the zero rating decision may help solidify ISPs’ status as common carriers), but his frank response on Internet investment was particularly noteworthy.
Readers of this blog may recall one of my posts from June 2016 in which I noted that Bell told the CRTC and the government that requirements to share fibre networks could reduce their investment in the sector, but that a top executive told investors that it was going to continue to build fibre networks since they were critical to the company’s future, offering significant cost savings and higher revenues. It would appear that the CRTC took note of the same contradictions. When asked about the CRTC fibre decision at roughly the 34 minute mark, Blais responded:
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The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s hearing on basic telecommunications services launched earlier this week with the Commission continuing its effort to engage the public with an open discussion forum that will allow for comments to placed on the record (comments outside of the CRTC universe – op-eds, blog posts or social media comments do not count). While CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais has emphasized his interest in hearing from Canadians, the recent experience of Concordia University professor Fenwick McKelvey highlights how more work is needed to remove barriers that may inhibit independent experts from participating in the process.
McKelvey told me he was very happy to participate, yet consider the barriers faced by academics or other independent experts seeking to contribute to the CRTC process. First, McKelvey (along with other academic intervenors) faced questions from Telus about their background, expertise, and funding. Telus demanded that each answer the following questions:
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