On June 12th, 2013, the Chairperson of the CRTC - Jean-Pierre Blais - addressed a gathered group of context creators and advertisers at the Banff World Media Festival in Alberta. In his speech, Blais laid out the current role of the organization and how he sees it evolving in the future.
There were three messages intertwined throughout Blais' presentation. He first discussed the CRTC having the courage to both step up and step back in regulating. He elaborated that it was the role of the Commission to intervene when market forces were insufficient to accomplish objectives in the public interest. With respect to telecommunications, he highlighted the recent release of the Wireless Code as a need to interject in what he sees as a largely unregulated wireless market. He also discussed the need to impose conditions on the CBC's broadcasting license renewal to ensure it meets the needs of Canadians, and why rejecting Bell's proposed acquisition of Astral Media's assets was in the public interest. Blais then spoke of recent times when the CRTC relaxed regulation, presenting only one example - when minor specialty channels were exempted from regulation until reaching 200,000 subscribers. He did acknowledge, however, that regulation can sometimes become an end unto itself, and an ineffective instrument only creating needless complexity.
Along with his message of stepping up and stepping back, Blais next discussed the role of public consultation. He cited robust public consultation as an important contributing factor to the successes of both the Wireless Code and CBC's license renewal, while continually being able to balance the opinion of the majority with the needs of the minority. Blais ended his presentation outlining the next public consultation, which will begin this fall, concerning the future of television. He described this as an unprecedented opportunity for the Canadian industry and public, particularly to question the assumptions underlying the CRTC's regulatory policies. This led to his third key message - a recognition that broadcasting has changed and will never be the same. He stated further that the actions of the Commission need to evolve as technology has, in order to ensure the objectives of the Broadcasting Act remain fulfilled.
It is refreshing to see Blais commenting on the new world the CRTC lives in, and that the one in which the Telecommunication Act and Broadcasting Act were born in no longer exists. As YouTube channels proliferate and broadband access is as ubiquitous as cable TV, Blais also understands the focus must shift from protection to promotion. Quotas for Canadian content and cable channel bundling are ineffective policies in an on-demand internet access world. This is underlined by Blais' suggestion of a shift from rules to outcomes, and an overall sentiment that protecting Canadian interests requires a new perspective. It is good to see the chief regulator understand the need to change tactics in the new world to ensure the objectives of these two acts remain relevant. This also highlights Blais' understanding that the new issues challenging the mandate of the CRTC cannot be addressed by an outdated paradigm of thinking.
Blais' presentation leaves two major areas of concern. While stating the need to sometimes step back, he was hard pressed to find substantial examples of reducing regulation. Also, he focused heavily on the role of the CBC, particularly in creating creative content to serve the needs of Canadians. Given that the presentation was made to content creators, it was natural for him to focus on the role of regulating the CBC.
There was little discussion, however, that the needs of Canadians could be better served through other mechanisms. While publicly funded content through the CBC and Canada Media Fund may have been needed in the old world of media production and distribution, there are a myriad of alternatives now available, which seemed to be noticeably lacking in Blais' speech. Barriers to entry have fallen with the rise of the internet and high-quality, low-cost recording hardware and editing software. Producers can now create content at a vastly lower cost, and easily distribute them through avenues such as YouTube and Twitter, which feature built-in monetization systems. While Blais did stress the role of public consultation, he failed to explain why the free market is failing in creating the content Canadians need. He also referred to a statistic of higher conventional television consumption than internet television, but overlooked many other forms of time spent online.
While it was refreshing to see Blais express sentiments about the evolving world of media, it seemed there are still further opportunities for the CRTC to embrace the new world of media. More encouraging was his commitment to public consultation and an input from ordinary Canadians, whom Blais describes as often having extraordinary insights into the industry. We can only hope that this extraordinary insight will come through, and the CRTC can pave a path for Canadian media well beyond the model that has pervaded until now.
Alex Buonassisi is an IPilogue Editor and a JD Candidate at Thompson Rivers University.