Diversity for everyone? Mapping the evolution of broadcast diversity objectives in the CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV proceedings

Author: Sylvia Blake

Home university: School of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Education level: Doctoral candidate

1.1. Introduction

In his June 2013 introduction to the CRTC’s landmark Let’s Talk TV proceedings, chairman Jean-Pierre Blais asserted the need for television offering “a range of choice and a diversity of content” in our “borderless world” (Blais & CRTC, 2014). Blais’s comments highlight major emerging policy challenges: 1) New technologies and an increasingly global media system, termed ‘communicative abundance,’ provide consumer access to more content than ever before (Keane, 1999). However, there are continued concerns about the best ways to ensure diversity in media sources, content and exposure (Napoli, 1999). 2) While diversity remains a key priority for broadcasting, policymakers are unsure of how to define and support it in the new environment.

Diversity in broadcasting stems from a longer political history following the failure of assimilationist policies and beginning in the early days of basic accommodations for Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and the Québécois. Diversity has since become a crucial part of ‘brand Canada’, and has developed into a complex hierarchy of rights that the CRTC and other policymakers are tasked with organizing into concrete objectives. It is polysemous, contested, flexible, and usually defined in an institutional context.  And while a multitude of stakeholders seem to agree that diversity is a laudable objective, they rarely agree about what precisely it means or what the role for policy should be to best support it – leaving it vulnerable to mobilization in pursuit of a range of conflicting social and political objectives.

In light of this complex problem, this investigation is interested in how the CRTC understood diversity as a policy objective during its 2013-2016 Let’s Talk TV (LTTV) proceedings. It asks:

LTTVwas the first major investigation into broadcasting since the Savaugeau Caplan Task Force on Broadcasting Policy in the 1980s, making it the first major broadcasting review in the digital age. It was designed to maximize stakeholder participation, and garnered thousands of comments over its three phases. Following the public proceedings, the Commission unveiled at least 27 distinct policy decisions ranging from large, highly-publicized rulings (such as changes to cable packaging models), to minor tweaks to existing policies (such as Canadian content credits for dubbed programming).

My analysis is based in discursive institutional theory, which is a form of neo-institutionalism that calls attention to the role of ideas and interactive discursive processes in the policy sphere (Schmidt, 2015). It asserts that ideas and narratives impact and change institutional dynamics, which in turn become institutionalized in social practice and impact social outcomes (Arts & Buizer, 2009). I use documentary analysis to trace the LTTV process, stakeholder viewpoints, media coverage, and CRTC determinations. In total, I consulted 56 CRTC documents; 380 organizational intervention documents submitted by 127 organizational stakeholders; and 263 news articles drawn from a range of Canadian newspapers, representing all available news explicitly citing LTTV accessible through the database Canadian Newsstream. I used NVIVO to code source documents based on pertinent policy decisions and diversity topics, and subsequently ran a series of queries to help pinpoint patterns in diversity issues and regulatory decisions.

This paper begins with an introduction to the policy problem of diversity in Canadian broadcasting, followed by an explanation of the LTTV proceedings. I subsequently assess the results of LTTV in relation to expected and unanticipated impacts on three diversity topics: facilitating consumer sovereignty; representing and supporting equity-seeking groups; and facilitating private-sector ownership diversity. I find that LTTV’s tendency to prioritize objectives related to consumer sovereignty has a number unintended impacts for outcomes related to supporting equity-seeking groups and ownership diversity.

1.2. What is diversity in broadcasting?

Over the years, the Commission interpreted the complex policy space surrounding diversity across a few different broad themes: A) cultural variety and liberal equality, which encompasses policies designed to ensure national unity, security and social cohesion; B) consumer choice, which is reminiscent of U.S.-style broadcasting objectives, and focuses on putting the consumer in charge of making their own news and entertainment decisions; and C) sectoral diversity, which includes debates about the appropriate degree of ownership diversity in private broadcasting as well as the type and extent of appropriate supports for our public and community-based broadcasting sectors. Each of these themes can be further divided into several policy topics, as follows: Footnote 1

  1. Cultural variety and equality
    1. Supporting Canadian cultural expression
    2. Supporting Bilingualism / biculturalism in the broadcast system
    3. Creating space for Indigenous cultural expression
    4. Representing and supporting equity-seeking groups
  2. Consumer choice
    • v. Facilitating consumer sovereignty in selecting broadcast options
    • vi. Ensuring the system provides adequate genre and program diversity
  3. Sectoral diversity
    • vii. Supporting private-sector ownership diversity
    • vii. Supporting local and community broadcasting
    • ix. Determining the appropriate mandate and funding model for public broadcasting

This complex policy space juxtaposes the interests of a huge range of stakeholders, including private citizens as well as for-profit and not-for-profit domestic and foreign media firms, advocates of digital innovation, and a variety of organizations speaking on behalf of public, sectoral, or equity-seeking group interests. While most stakeholders seem to agree that supporting diversity is important, they do not agree on how diversity should be defined, or what the appropriate role for policy should be to achieve it. Stakeholders concerned with specific diversity topics often speak at cross-purposes with those interested in other areas,Footnote 2 and stakeholders interested in the same diversity topics frequently hold polar opposite views on how diversity should be achievedFootnote 3  (Blake, 2011).

To balance scope while also considering a range of diversity issues, I selected three specific policy topics for further investigation in relation to the LTTV proceedings: consumer sovereignty (a sub-topic of consumer choice), supporting equity-seeking groups (a sub-topic of cultural variety and equality), and ownership diversity (a sub-topic of sectoral diversity). I selected each topic as the most relevant to LTTV within its respective thematic area. I define them as follows:

  1. Consumer sovereignty: These policies and practices involve maximizing choice for consumers, with an implicit assumption that the free market is best equipped to meet consumer demand. Canada did not historically adopt purely market-based approaches to broadcasting because of the fear that commercialization would lead to Americanization of the whole system (Massey, 1951). However, broadcasting policy has been slowly shifting towards market-based objectives since the release of the Applebaum report in the early 1980s (Applebaum, 1982).
  2. Support for equity-seeking groups: Multiculturalism and tolerance are key building blocks for Canadian identity, and the rights of groups seeking representation (visible minorities, women, LGBTQ+ peoples, people with disabilities etc.) are imposed on broadcasting policy through Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the Multiculturalism Act (1988). Section 3 (d) (iii) of the Broadcasting Act sets out an expectation of fair representation by requiring that the broadcasting system reflect the “circumstances and aspirations” of Canadians, including the “multicultural and multiracial nature” of Canadian society. This is reflected in various CRTC policies on broadcasting, including the Ethnic Broadcasting Policy. Despite these provisions, equity-seeking peoples continue to be underrepresented in journalistic and broadcasting management positions (Cukier, Yap, Miller, & Bindhani, 2010), which can contribute to a Eurocentric bias in news and entertainment (Fleras, 2011).
  3. Ownership diversity: Horizontal and vertical integration of ownership in Canadian media industries has increased significantly since the early 1990s, and peaked around 2014 when Canada’s “big five” media firms (Bell, Shaw/Corus, Rogers, Quebecor, and Telus) accounted for 87 percent of all television revenue (CMCRP, 2017).Footnote 4 The magnitude of industry consolidation has fuelled considerable policy debate and was central to discussions in both the CRTC’s 2007 proceedings on diversity of voices (CRTC, 2008) and 2010 vertical integration proceedings (CRTC, 2011). Supporters of industry consolidation argue that it is crucial for Canadian companies to re-aggregate increasingly fragmented audiences (Bell, 2007), and point to an increasing number of narrowcast channels as evidence of strong, stable companies using their market power to meet consumer demand (Thierer & Eskelsen, 2008). Critics link media concentration with concerns about viewpoint diversity, express concern about the direct and indirect impact that media owners can have on news and editorial content (Skinner & Gasher, 2005), and point to the risks associated with an industry characterised by a small number of large, unstable companies that carry immense debt (Winseck, 2010).

1.3. Introduction to the Let’s Talk TV proceedings

CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais formally introduced LTTV during a speech at Université Laval in October 2013 (Blais & CRTC, 2013), and the Commission launched a public invitation to participate later that day (CRTC, 2013). Blais described the proceedings’ rationale as seeking guidance from Canadians on how to “reconcile the interests of citizens, creators and consumers as TV evolves, while respecting the objectives of the Broadcasting Act” (Blais & CRTC, 2013). In its formal consultation invitation, the Commission expanded its explanation to delineate broad objectives for television policy:

Canadians are entitled to an open, diverse and affordable television system that is responsive and forward-looking, a system that provides us with the best of what Canada has to offer alongside the very best international content. The CRTC will be holding a hearing in September 2014 to ensure that, moving forward, our television system achieves this objective (CRTC, 2013, p. 2).

The proceedings took place in three phases, each of which used different tools to elicit responses from industry stakeholders, civil society groups, and the general Canadian public. In brief, the timeline for the proceedings was as follows:

1.3.1. Policy decisions selected for analysis

The CRTC’s extensive LTTV response included over 27 distinct policy decisions. Of these, I selected seven to examine in relation to diversity objectives:

  1. Changes to simultaneous substitution allowances
  2. Changes to measures related to ethnic and third-language broadcasting
  3. Changes to supports for Canadian content
  4. Changes to cable packaging rules
  5. Elimination of genre exclusivity
  6. Introduction of a 1:1 linkage rule
  7. Extension of the regulatory exemption for programming services with fewer than 200,000 subscribers

These decisions all embodied a clear change to existing policy that could impact the broader broadcasting environment,Footnote 5 and each touched on several diversity issues in interesting ways. Most were also among the most publicized decisions, and some garnered significant public attention. The remainder of this section summarizes each of these policy areas.Footnote 6

I. Changes to simultaneous substitution allowances

CRTC document references: CRTC 2014-190, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-25, CRTC 2015-329, CRTC 2015-330, CRTC 2015-513, CRTC 2016-37, CRTC 2016-334, and CRTC 2016-335

Reason for query: Simultaneous substitution (simsub) refers to the practice of temporarily replacing a television signal from a distant (usually American) service with a local signal when the services are broadcasting the same program at the same time. This allows rights holders to maximize audiences for their own advertisements and is part of a quid-pro-quo in which broadcasters are then expected to reinvest a percentage of their revenues into Canadian programming.  Simsub is estimated to add $200m - $450m to the Canadian system (Bell Canada, 2014; CRTC, 2014a), and while the CRTC argues that the actual amount is not substantive, supporters of the practice counter that it provides crucial support in an increasingly fragmented advertising market (Bell Canada, 2014). It may also provide indirect benefits by allowing broadcasters to promote Canadian content during popular simulcasts and creating large lead-in audiences for Canadian shows that are aired directly after a simulcast (Bell Canada, 2014). Finally, simsub ensures the existence of a distinct Canadian rights market, because programming would otherwise be sold on a single Canada/US territorial basis.

While simsub benefits some Canadian broadcasters, the practice can be an irritant for consumers when BDUs replace signals imperfectly (cutting off part of the original broadcast), or when viewers miss out on high-budget American advertisements during the Super Bowl (CRTC, 2014c). Furthermore, the practise may stymie the development of Canadian content by encouraging broadcasters to see their role as distributors of foreign content rather than Canadian content developers (Berkowitz, 2016), and by tying Canadian broadcast schedules to those of U.S. broadcasters (restricting prime-time space for Canadian shows). For these reasons, the Commission asked if the practice should be altered or ended in the Canadian system.

Summary of policy decisions:

II. Changes to measures related to ethnic and third-language broadcasting

CRTC document references: CRTC 2014-190, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-86, CRTC 2015-96

Reason for query: The Commission sought to improve the accessibility and affordability of ethnic and third-language programming.

Summary of policy decisions:

III. Changes to supports for Canadian content

CRTC document references: Choicebook, CRTC 2014-190, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-86

Reason for query: Historically, the Commission supported Canadian content by:  imposing Canadian programming expenditures on certain types of programming services (CPE); imposing contribution requirements on most BDUs; setting Canadian exhibition requirements; and crafting time credit incentives and conditions of licence to promote high-cost, high-risk programming (drama, long-form documentary, music/ variety shows, and award shows). However, Canadians are expanding their viewing habits to include unregulated over-the-top (OTT) services that are exempt from these measures, and this shift to non-linear online viewing platforms will eventually impact the existing funding and support model. The Commission wished to delineate the best ways to finance and promote Canadian programming in the emerging environment.

Summary of policy decisions

Change in exhibition quotas:

Change in Canadian content spending (CPE) requirements:

Creation of two Canadian content pilot projects to promote popular Canadian works:

Launch of a Discoverability Summit:

IV. Changes to cable packing rules: unbundling multiplexed services, pick-and-pay, pick-a-pack, and skinny basic

CRTC document references: CRTC 2013-563, PCO Order-In-Council 2013-1167, CRTC 2014-190, Choicebook, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-96, CRTC 2015-97, CRTC 2015-304, and CRTC 2015-514

Reason for query: This issue has been on the table at the CRTC for several years, having been discussed at the 2010 proceedings on vertical integration (CRTC, 2011). Furthermore, the federal government issued a PCO order-in-council (2013-1167) requiring the Commission to examine unbundling in November 2013, shortly after the Commission launched its initial LTTV information-gathering activities. Later that month, Heritage Minister James Moore asked the CRTC to investigate a pick-and-pay distribution model, and the federal government throne speech proposed requiring cable package unbundling. The impetus for examining unbundling was presumed consumer frustration over cable packaging models and overall high household expenditures on communications.

Summary of policy decisions:

Unbundling of multiplexed services:

Pick-and-pay and pick-a-pack options / skinny basic cable packages

V. Elimination of genre exclusivity

CRTC document references: Comments on phase 1, CRTC 2014-190, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-86, CRTC 2015-96, CRTC 2015-304, and CRTC 2015-514

Reason for query: Historically, the Commission would only licence one specialty and pay Category A service per genre. It would licence Category B and Category C services that would compete with other Category B and Category C services, but not services that would compete with an existing Category A service. This policy was designed as a means of ensuring the viability of Category A services and supporting independent services or ‘deserving’ genres. However, the television industry has grown and matured since the imposition of genre exclusivity, and the Commission quested whether consumers would benefit from greater competition within genres historically held by Category A services.

Summary of policy decisions:

VI. 1:1 linkage rule

CRTC document references: CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-96, CRTC 2015-304, and CRTC 2015-514

Reason for query: The 1:1 linkage rule requires that vertically-integrated BDUs distribute at least one non-vertically-integrated service in the same language for each service of its own that it distributes. The purpose of this rule is to ensure fairness in negotiations between large vertically-integrated BDUs and independent broadcasters, particularly in the context of mandatory cable package unbundling.

Summary of policy decisions:

VII. Regulatory exemption for programming services with fewer than 200,000 subscribers

CRTC document references: CRTC 2012-689, CRTC 2014-190, CRTC 2014-190-3, CRTC 2015-86, CRTC 2015-88

Reason for query: This policy expands on an existing exemption for third-language services to include all discretionary services with fewer than 200,000 subscribers. The Commission’s goal was to ease the regulatory burden and facilitate the launch of new discretionary channels.

Summary of policy decisions:

1.4. Impacts of the CRTC’s LTTV policy decisions

This section considers how the sum of the CRTC’s LTTV decisions impacts consumer sovereignty, services and representation for equity-seeking groups, and ownership diversity. Each topic area includes a synopsis of the cumulative impacts of the LTTV decisions, with a granular analysis of specific decisions summarized in an accompanying table.

1.4.1. Consumer choice: Enhancing consumer sovereignty

LTTV focused heavily on enhancing consumer sovereignty, which was built into the proceedings’ agenda from the beginning. Blais’s speech introducing LTTV focused on public dissatisfaction with the current system, citing frustration concerning packaging models, contract conditions, and cable prices (Blais & CRTC, 2013). It is therefore not surprising that improving consumer choice and reducing costs are at the core of LTTV’s most significant decisions, as summarized in table 1:

Table 1  Consumer sovereignty

Policy topic Relevance for consumer sovereignty
I.  Changes to simsub allowances
  • Prohibiting simsub during the Super Bowl allows consumers to choose whether to watch it on a Canadian or American feed
  • The Commission was responding to 458 complaints related to simsub errors and an inability to watch American Super Bowl ads in 2013 (CRTC, 2014a)
II.  Changes to measures related to ethnic and third-language broadcasting
  • Eliminating buy-through means that consumers are no longer compelled to purchase a Canadian option before selecting foreign content
  • This could reduce costs for consumers by offering consumers and BDUs greater flexibility in selecting and packaging services
  • BDUs are required to offer a preponderance of Canadian options, including at least one Canadian option for every non-Canadian option provided in the same language. Consumers can choose which (if any) to purchase.
III.  Change in supports for Canadian content
  • The CRTC’s intention was to facilitate the development of fewer but higher-quality Canadian shows, which Canadians would then choose to watch.
  • Canadians’ ability to discover Canadian content may be bolstered by the CPE’s new 10 percent promotional allowance, although there is no guarantee that broadcasters will increase their promotional spending
  • Broadcasters argue that easing Canadian exhibition requirements allows them greater flexibility to respond to consumer demand
  • However, there is no guarantee that focusing on expenditures will lead to higher-quality television; this requires broadcasters to take risks and invest in research and development. Such a model is at odds with broadcasters’ tendency to profit primarily through the exhibition of foreign content.
IV.  Changes to cable packaging rules
  • Consumers can choose whether to continue purchasing large packages, or switch to a skinny basic and/or pick-and-pay model
  • Consumers will no longer be compelled to pay for channels they do not watch
  • Some commentators believe these options have the potential to reduce costs for subscribers; however, in 2016 the CRTC was compelled to launch a review into the new packages following consumer complaints about hidden fees and allegations that new options ended up being more expensive than old packages (Sagan, 2016).
V.  Elimination of genre exclusivity
  • Ending genre exclusivity allows services to evolve more naturally to serve consumer interests
  • In the absence of genre protection, services could change the nature of their programming in a manner that consumers find to be inconsistent with their expectations

In some instances, the Commission’s zeal for pleasing the public appeared to create populist mountains out of consumer-irritant molehills.Footnote 8 For example, the Commission in part justified its decision to eliminate simsub during the Super Bowl based on customer irritation; however, of the Super Bowl’s 7.38 million viewers that year (Bell Media, 2016), only 92 people complained about an inability to watch American advertisements (CRTC, 2014a) – amounting to approximately 0.001 percent of viewers. Furthermore, research commissioned by the CRTC indicated that a majority of Canadians support simsub as a means of funding the Canadian broadcast system (Hill+Knowlton Strategies, 2014). Yet this issue was high on the agenda throughout LTTV, and commanded considerable media attention.

Similarly, cable packaging options became a major and very high-profile aspect of the proceedings, even though research commissioned by the CRTC compared Canadian offerings favourably to the American system (Keeble, 2014) and there was scant evidence that imposing unbundling would result in cost savings for consumers. Ironically, the Commission was later deluged with complaints from consumers who were disappointed that the new options were not cheaper than their previous packages, prompting an inquiry into the implementation of pick-and-pay. Blais also fired back that the Commission had “never promised pick-and-pay would be cheaper” (Ansari & Mudhar, 2015, p. A.1), and suggested that consumers seeking lower prices might obtain a better deal by haggling with providers (Bradshaw, 2016).

Focusing heavily on meeting consumer demand is not problematic in-and-of itself, although it is worth noting that this policy objective is not codified in the Broadcasting Act. However, as the next two sections demonstrate, the Commission at times focused narrowly on pleasing a nebulous consumer strawman – perhaps partly in response to pressure from the federal government, and perhaps also in fear that failure to do so could cause exasperated consumers to opt out of the conventional broadcasting system altogether. Major decisions such as cable unbundling/pick-and-pay and the elimination of simsub during the Super Bowl were based on unclear consumer expectations and scant empirical evidence – a situation which is at odds with the Commission’s evidence-based approach to policymaking.

1.4.2. Liberalism and equality: Supporting equity-seeking groups

LTTV’s determinations explicitly targeting equity-seeking groups were limited to decisions impacting third-language broadcasters and television accessibility for people with certain kinds of disabilities. LTTV did not address issues surrounding representation in mainstream media, or supporting participation by women, LGBTQ+ communities, visible minorities, or people with disabilities. This is interesting given the Commission’s decision to delay its planned cultural diversity policy review so it could later be conducted “in the context of the outcome of Let’s Talk TV” (CRTC, 2014b, p. 4). The decision to delay the diversity review is important for two reasons: 1) it indicates that the Commission expected LTTV to impact cultural diversity policies and objectives, even though these issues were never explicitly addressed; and 2) it means that any future discussion on cultural diversity and rectifying issues related to inequality will take place within the framework of the LTTV decisions.  The rulings that impact third-language programming and concerns about representation are summarized in Table 2:

Table 2  Supporting equity-seeking groups

Policy topic Relevance for consumer sovereignty
II.  Changes to measures related to ethnic and third-language broadcasting Supports for third-language communities:
  • Consumer costs for foreign third-language programming could drop with the elimination of the buy-through requirement
  • Unbundling and the elimination of the buy-through requirement could lead to a reduction in Canadian third-language services (both number of offerings and amount invested in Canadian programming)
Support for other equity-seeking groups (visible minorities, women, members of LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities):
  • LTTV did not address concerns surrounding representation in broadcasting content or management
  • LTTV did include some provisions to improve service and access for people with disabilities (e.g., changes to described video requirements).
III. Changes to supports for Canadian content
  • Third-language and other services previously exempt from CPE requirements will be assigned one at licence renewal.
  • Other changes to Canadian content supports facilitate the development of universally popular works that can be sold internationally. They do not contain specific allowances for improving representation of equity-seeking groups, and may in fact make the environment more challenging for programming targeting minority identity communities.
IV.  Changes to cable packaging rules
  • Services with small audiences are concerned about the viability of their business models without the support of large packages. They could lose subscribers due to pick-and-pay, and fear that BDUs may refuse to offer third-language or other niche services in packages.
  • The Commission will rely on section 9(1)(h) of the Broadcasting Act to ensure certain equity-seeking groups have access to representative programming.
V.  Elimination of genre exclusivity Removing genre protection may cause a ‘rush to the middle’ as services seek the most lucrative programming. This could result in a dilution of genre-specific programming on services targeting minority identity communities
VII. Extension of the regulatory exemption for programming services with fewer than 200,000 subscribers Third-language channels already had the benefit of this regulatory exemption prior to the LTTV proceedings. However, this extension may make it easier for services targeting other equity-seeking communities to launch.

Likely impacts on third-language programming

The Commission’s approach to third-language broadcasting is focused heavily on consumer sovereignty. Mandatory cable unbundling and the elimination of the Category A third-language buy-through requirement mean that consumers have greater choice in selecting broadcasting options. This greater flexibility would ostensibly make it easier for consumers to access Canadian Category B and exempt third-language services, as well as foreign services. Given that third-language packages tend to be expensive, mandatory unbundling and the elimination of the Category A buy-through has the potential to help consumers manage costs by selecting only the services they want to receive. It also creates a fairer competitive environment for Category B and exempt services, which were previously only accessible to consumers who first purchased the mandatory Category A channel in the same language.

On the other hand, all Canadian services could experience a decrease in subscriber base as a result of cable unbundling. Markets for third-language programming are inherently smaller, and third-language services are less likely than other services targeting niche communities and/or equity-seeking groups to be included in large ‘value’ television packages.Footnote 9 Furthermore, while the Commission requires that BDUs offer at least one Canadian-based service for each foreign-based service it offers in the same language (when available), consumers will be under no obligation to purchase a preponderance of Canadian services, and some consumers may opt to only purchase foreign options.Footnote 10 Canadian third-language broadcasters thus face the problem of competing with foreign services that benefit from economies-of-scale obtained on their domestic markets, while also meeting their Canadian exhibition and/or CPE requirements.  Some services may experience budget shortfalls that impact programming quality, or may fail entirely.

 Likely impacts on programming serving other equity-based considerations

Category B and exempt services offering cultural and sub-cultural representation in English or French are likely to face similar challenges to third-language broadcasters in the face of unbundling: if a critical mass of consumers opts for à-la-carte options, some channels will experience a decrease in overall subscribership.

More interesting is the way in which the Commission’s new value system surrounding Canadian content (namely, the push to produce fewer high-budget, universally popular works) could impact the tenure of material produced – and perhaps also a broadcaster’s willingness to take a risk on sub-cultural content that targets or represents equity-seeking peoples. Broadcasters have historically commissioned low-budget Canadian content with the expectation that it would meet licensing requirements, but would not necessarily earn money (Shtern & Blake, 2014). While this defeatist attitude is problematic, it also leaves potential space for risk-taking in creative endeavors. At times, it has facilitated unique programming targeting cultural and regional niche communities, such as Global’s reimaging of trey anthony’s award-winning play, Da Kink in My Hair (centered around a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto). In an environment where broadcasters are pressed to sell their wares internationally, is there space for programming that unabashedly targets small cultural and regional Canadian markets? Examples of programming demonstrating both regional and cultural specificity are already rare beyond a handful of creations commissioned by the public broadcaster, which in recent years has invested in regionally and culturally specific shows such as Kim’s Convenience, Arctic Air, and Little Mosque on the Prairie. But an increased reliance on international co-production and pressure to sell Canadian productions internationally could contribute to an overall decrease in the production of similar works.

1.4.3. Sectoral diversity: Ownership diversity

Managing industry consolidation was not a significant theme throughout the LTTV proceedings, although the amalgam of policy decisions could impact the overall makeup of the industry. These potential impacts are summarized in Table 3:

Table 3 Ownership diversity

Policy topic Relevance for consumer sovereignty
I.  Changes to simultaneous substitution allowances Simultaneous substitution is only permitted for conventional broadcasters, which are owned by large vertically-integrated (VI) companies.
IV.  Changes to cable packaging rules
  • Companies that rely heavily on television assets will experience greater financial challenges if subscribership drops as a response to pick-and-pay, since they cannot recover costs across business units
  • VI distributors have considerable power over the discoverability of services, and have incentive to better promote their own holdings over independent services.
V.  Elimination of genre exclusivity
  • Smaller firms are concerned that VI companies will occupy the most lucrative genres and push independent services out of the market.
  • In practice, most Categories A channels are owned by large incumbent firms (the majority by Bell Media or Corus), while ineligible category B channels are more likely to be owned by smaller firms.
VI.  Introduction of a 1:1 linkage rule
  • This measure is meant to support independent services, which frequently offer narrowcast programming
  • This rule offsets the inherent conflict of interest in which a vertically integrated company is incentivized to favour its own services
VII. Extension of the regulatory exemption for programming services with fewer than 200,000 subscribers The reduced regulatory burden for smaller broadcasters may make it easier for independent services to launch and develop

The Commission acknowledged that mandatory unbundling would impact some services more than others, stating that “some will experience their share of growing pains. Success will not be universal. Some will thrive; others fail. New players will emerge” (Blais & CRTC, 2015). In particular, mandatory unbundling most heavily impacts non vertically-integrated (VI) services that cannot amortize losses across business units and that suffer from an inherent power imbalance wherein VI BDUs are strongly motivated to better promote their own affiliated services. The Independent Broadcast Group articulated the dire impacts that mandatory unbundling and changes to Canadian content requirements could have on the independent sector:

The potential scope of change to the broadcasting system that is now under contemplation presents unprecedented structural challenges to the independent sector.  The combination of regulatory intervention to require narrower packaging of programming services and to remove safeguards that have ensured the very presence of Canadian programming services and Canadian programming choices – such as access rights and rules that ensure priority distribution of Canadian programming services – threatens the continued survival of Canadian independent services (Independent Broadcast Group & Fortune, 2014, p. 1).

OUTtv CEO Brad Danks affirmed this argument, and added that mandatory unbundling tackles the wrong problems: it is a regulatory solution to a market-based problem that developed following long-standing permissive attitudes towards vertical integration (OUTtv & Danks, 2014). VI BDUs enjoy territorial monopolies or oligopolies, and thus have every incentive to extract unreasonably high rates from consumers. Mandating pick-and-pay may provide some price relief – or it may not – but it will not solve the problem of vertical integration. In fact, mandating certain kinds of packaging may inhibit independent BDUs that lack economies of scale and will face difficulties in differentiating their services if they are required to offer certain kinds of packages. Measures such as the 1:1 linkage rule and regulatory exemption for broadcasters with fewer than 200,000 subscribers provide some support to diverse players. But overall it is clear that the commission’s priority was supporting consumer sovereignty, even if it meant disproportionately impacting smaller players. The biggest losers in this system are likely to be small BDUs, and non-VI and independent broadcasting services.Footnote 11

1.5. Conclusion

Facilitating consumer sovereignty was arguably the most significant goal not just of LTTV, but of Jean Pierre Blais’s tenure as CRTC Chair. Heritage Minister James Moore set out this expectation for the Commission early in a mandate-like letter to Blais, which directed the Commission to “comprehensively address consumer affordability and service complaints,” as well as to ensure access “to more programming choices and affordable choices” while regulating broadcasting “only to the extent necessary” (Moore, 2012). The Commission’s heavy focus on pleasing consumers served several purposes: adhering to the government’s expectations; remedying the public’s exceptionally low level of trust in the CRTC;Footnote 12 and enticing Canadians to continue accessing the regulated broadcasting system and watching Canadian content in a changing media environment. It also represents a broadcasting-specific approach to diversity objectives, which vary across institutions servicing different fields (such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Museums of Canada).

The results of LTTV provide an interesting snapshot of how a policy body, operating in a specific political, technological, and industrial context, subtly reordered normative cultural policy objectives. None of the new provisions mitigate existing problems exacerbated by vertical integration, and new rules surrounding mandatory unbundling, the removal of genre exclusivity, and changes to the philosophy surrounding Canadian content supports may impede diversity objectives other than consumer sovereignty. Ironically, many provisions do not even represent an increased reliance on market forces: the implementation of pick-and-pay represents a new regulation designed to shape the marketplace; decisions that challenge regional or cultural niche services may lead to a greater reliance on 9(1)(h) orders and policies ensuring fairness in the relationship between independent services and BDUs; and changes to supports for Canadian content represent a reregulation in favour of big-budget, universally popular content that has every incentive to neglect sub-cultural and regional specificity.

The CRTC has been handed the daunting task of balancing broadcasting’s social goals with the reality of a digital, on-demand environment. Moving forward, we must take a hard look at how the emerging system impacts diversity objectives: is promoting consumer sovereignty our primary objective, above other normative goals such supporting equity-seeking peoples or diverse media ownership? Can increasing consumer choice and reliance on market forces have the unintended impact of decreasing programming diversity, and disproportionately challenging smaller market players? Is supporting great Canadian works a good use of the public purse if such works are stripped of cultural specificity in order to target international audiences?  As we usher in the era of communicative abundance, we must systematically consider how our new approach to broadcasting impacts the full range of diversity concerns.


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