Everyone Wants to Regulate the Regulator

Ken Whyte Blog

It’s beginning to look like some sort of end is nigh for the Canadian Radio-televison and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), a development that promises to fundamentally remake the only cultural environment most Canadians have ever known.

The CRTC regulates broadcasting and telecommunications. It has been around in one form or another since 1968, enforcing Canadian content rules on Radio and Television, upholding the policy regime that permits simultaneous substitution of Canadian commercials on U.S. network programming, and limiting foreign ownership of Canadian of media and communications companies, among other activities. The CRTC is why every Canadian knows the lyrics of at least one April Wine or Tragically Hip song (there’s your citizenship test, Kelly Leitch). The Commission also regulates telecommunications companies (your cable, phone, and internet providers), which are the pipes through which most cultural content moves.

Through the Harper Conservative years, there was almost nothing in the way of cultural conversation in Ottawa. Now there’s a small flood of it. Let’s review.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced in February that she is undertaking a sweeping reconsideration of Canada’s cultural policy and that everything, including the CRTC and its mandate, is on the table. She has not said much else about the CRTC but she did mention in recent weeks that she envisions future policy being less protectionist (a core mission of the Commission) and more open to global content markets.

To the extent that there has been political opposition to this line of thinking, it suggests that the Liberal government might not be reaching far enough. Maxime Bernier, a Conservative leadership front-runner, has gone at the telecommunications part of the CRTC mandate: he wants to yank the commission out of the sector entirely and let the federal Department of Innovation (ISED) and the Competition Bureau take over what he sees as its few essential functions.

Policy minds seem to agree that big change is needed. Scholars at the C.D. Howe Institute, noting that the CRTC’s last major overhaul occurred before the birth of the internet, recently wondered why the CRTC was meddling with how cable companies package and market their channels while ignoring the fact that Netflix had happened. The authors called for fewer Canadian content regulations and more legal and economic rigor in regulatory decisions. Like Bernier, they want the Competition Bureau and not the CRTC regulating competition in telecommunications.

Several months ago, Stephen Globerman of the Fraser Institute called on the CRTC to recognize that digital technology had fundamentally changed the broadcasting industries, increasing distributing channels for content, expanding consumer choice, bringing down the costs of creating and consuming content, and rendering the CRTC’s “protect and subsidize” approach to regulation something of a relic.

This week the Macdonald-Laurier Institute has come out with a paper arguing that the CRTC is “outdated,” not to mention “inconsistent, heavy-handed, and counterproductive.” It, too, calls for a right-sizing (i.e., down-sizing) of the CRTC’s mandate in the digital age. It echoes calls for less Canadian Content regulation and asks that the Competition Bureau, rather than the Commission, make decisions about competitive intensity in telecommunications. It would limit the CRTC to overseeing transfers of spectrum, wholesale rules, broadcasting licenses and pricing transparency, and a few other things.

None of these reports is perfect (the MLI’s suggestion that the CBC be given an effective monopoly over Canadian content is particularly egregious) but they all point in one direction, and it’s the same direction that the politicians are pointing: towards fundamental change at what has been perhaps the most important Canadian cultural institution of the last half century, aggressively shaping what we have seen and heard on radio and television, creating (and protecting) whole Canadian content industries that employ thousands of people, and that have created generations worth of hits (“Orphan Black”) and misses (“The Trouble with Tracy”).

The interesting thing is how uncontroversial this conversation has been. Joly has been back and forth across the country several times now and, so far as I can tell, not a single “Save the CRTC” protester has disrupted her travels. There are still a million details to be argued, and a thousand special interests to be heard from, but the 'informed public' (the ‘general public’ could not tell you what the CRTC is) seems to be ahead of the decision-makers on this file.