Let’s Talk TV: mapping the future of Canadian television with 80 questions

News programs, documentaries and Canadian programming are very important to the Canadians who chose to Talk TV with the CRTC last fall, while reality shows and religious programs aren’t so much.

At least that’s what most Canadian adults told the Harris/Decima pollsters who interviewed 801 of them in December 2013 as part of the extensive Let’s Talk TV consultation launched by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications last October.

The phone survey is one of the communications tools (along with an online forum and interactive Choicebook questionnaire) used by the CRTC to better understand what Canadians want from their television system, a system that is now seriously being threatened with deregulation.

In addition to the anecdotal evidence confirming that everyone supports informative television – as they all support what is just and good – the phone survey also provided details on the transformation the system is currently undergoing. Some 39% of those surveyed said they use internet on-demand TV services such as Netflix and Tou.tv. A large proportion of these video viewers (half of them) don’t pay for a subscription to a television service, but others do, with four out of 10 cable service subscribers saying they also watch on-demand television online.

These results are in line with the comments gathered by the Commission. For many of the participants, “the television of the future will mainly be internet/on-demand/personalized TV, and […] broadcasters will have to offer better quality programming or risk losing subscribers to the internet.” (source)

The internet is where consumers can find the over-the-top (OTT) services that give them access to the TV content they want (or close to it) whenever they want it. They also get to watch shows on whatever device they prefer with incredible ease and flexibility despite the rather complex technology the process relies on.

Mapping the future of Canadian television with 80 questions

The third phase of the consultation – the most traditional of the three phases where system stakeholders file in-depth, well-documented arguments to be discussed at a hearing set to begin on September 8, 2014 – was launched by the CRTC on April 28 with a public notice designed to map the future of Canadian television through 14 themes and 80 questions. Despite the broad scope of the consultation, the announcement wasn’t mentioned much in the mainstream media, but that may be due to the fact that the issue of television unbundling by cable providers (a first in English-language television in North America), seen as pivotal in this case, had already been discussed when the first phases of Let’s Talk TV were launched in the fall of 2013.

But there is much more to our television system than a mere collection of TV networks. The issue does carry serious challenges for the sustainability of the system – which Renee Robinson discussed in an analysis on Trendscape at the beginning of the year – but many of the 13 other themes mentioned in the CRTC notice could lead to a fairly radical transformation. As David Ellis, a professor at York University specialising in the disruptive effects of the internet on media, posted on his blog, “The CRTC tries to drag our TV ‘system’ into the 21st century.”

According to two telecommunications analysts at RBC Dominion Securities who say they’re surprised by the scale of the proceedings launched by the CRTC, the risks are high that the outcome of the review will result in lower television revenues for distributors, broadcasters and content producers.

Unbundling and other protectionist measures

Among the issues addressed by the CRTC, unbundling TV-channel packages is not the only initiative that could have a major impact on how television is financed.

Other issues at play include the relevance of maintaining regulatory measures aimed at protecting markets covered by Canadian broadcasting companies.

Consider the impact that simultaneous substitution had on cable television when it first became available. The 1971 practice, which occurs primarily in English-language programming, required distributors to temporarily replace the signal of one TV channel with the signal of another channel broadcasting the same program at the same time at the request of the latter. Usually, an American signal is replaced with a Canadian signal.

The purpose of the practice was to allow Canadian broadcasters to earn what the Commission considers a “reasonable return on their investment in acquiring non-Canadian programming,” a portion of which they are required to invest in Canadian programs (among other legislation affecting programming expenditures and the proportion of Canadian content in their lineup).

According to certain observers, this policy should become obsolete in the new television reality where the practice of watching a TV program in its designated time slot is on the verge of extinction. Simultaneous substitution accounts for approximately $200 million in revenues each year for English-language channels, which may not seem that significant in a market that generates revenues of $1 billion.But because advertising revenues for general interest networks keep falling (by a little over 5% for both language markets in 2013), they are probably not ready to forego the policy without putting up a real fight. It’s a debate the CRTC is now ready for thanks to the 80 questions listed in its public notice, all of them designed to open the discussion on topics that seemed untouchable just a few short years ago, like abolishing regulations that mandate channels to broadcast specific types of programming, changing rules pertaining to financing arrangements for Canadian programming, or eliminating certain requirements such as those having to do with the distribution of Canadian programs.

A number of individuals who took part in the first two phases of the process agreed that, “Canadian content should be permitted to succeed or fail on its own, and that a system that does not establish quotas would lead to more compelling Canadian content. Such programming would have to survive financially and be broadcast because it is actively wanted by Canadians rather than broadcast to simply fill a quota.” (source)

It will be very interesting to read the submissions of stakeholders who support this point of view, and to see how they manage to demonstrate that this approach will enable the broadcasting system to comply with the objectives set forth in the Broadcasting Act, especially in terms of “safeguarding the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada,” as well as contributing to the expression of “Canadian artistic creativity by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming and by offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view.”

Danielle Desjardins
Danielle Desjardins offers analysis, research and writing services for media and cultural enterprises through her company, La Fabrique de sens. Before that, she was director of planning for Radio-Canada, where she was responsible for strategic, corporate and regulatory matters for more than 20 years.
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