On April 8, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission launched hearings to overhaul TV broadcasting rules for the first time in more than a decade. The discussion is long overdue: a significant part of what is up for consideration by the federal broadcast regulator is a loosening of specialty-channel restrictions and an opening of the Canadian market to foreign competition, which (applause, applause) could soon bring such top-rated U.S. cable networks as HBO, ESPN and Nickelodeon to a living room near you.
But not if some Canadian broadcasters have their way. Naturally, they’re perfectly content with the cozy status quo that includes “genre protection,” which prohibits more than one specialty channel in a specific area so that nobody can compete with, say, History Television or Food Network Canada. They say allowing U.S. giants across the 49th will kill our domestic TV industry. Meanwhile, some of them, including CanWest Global, are singing the blues over revenues that are allegedly falling as the TV advertising pie (a pie, by the way, the broadcasters themselves own) gets cut into more and more pieces; they want to levy a surcharge to cable companies to carry their fare. Talk about the twilight zone.
As we see it, it’s all about as zany and old-fashioned as reruns of Leave it to Beaver, Mister Ed or The Donna Reed Show — but, hey, at least those are entertaining. Today, with more and more material available on the Internet, anybody can watch just about anything any time she wants. Putting our TV universe under lock and having a regulator hold the key is about as ridiculous as thinking that your teenager doesn’t play around with YouTube. (You do know what your kids are watching, don’t you?)
Sure, there may have been a time when limits on specialty channels made some sense, way back in the 1980s, when the concept might have needed help getting off the ground. Back then, there was no such thing as reality TV. But in today’s 999-channel (and counting) universe — where specialty TV rakes in more than $2 billion in annual revenue, a figure growing by more than $100 million a year — we say throw the market open and let consumers decide what they watch and don’t watch.
The CRTC has stated that it increasingly wants to let market forces prevail in the TV industry — something we’ve long argued for. Guess what? If it’s good, people will tune in. If not, they’ll switch channels.