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The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) today kicked off its two-week long “Let’s Talk TV” public hearing. The hearing is the culmination of one of the most comprehensive public consultations about how well the Canadian television system, which the CRTC oversees, is serving Canadians.
CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais kicked off the hearing by noting that “[broadcasting regulation] has grown into a complex and at times unwieldy framework. How Canadians interact with television has changed. Broadcasting has changed. It’s time the regulatory model also changed.” On the table in this public hearing is a broad package of reforms to the way broadcasting services are regulated in Canada, including how much flexibility Canadians have to pick and pay for only those channels they want to watch.
In his opening remarks, the Chairman identified some themes that would dominate much of the first day’s exchanges between the CRTC panel and appearing interveners: maintaining the status quo isn’t sufficient; Canadians must be the primary consideration in regulatory changes; Canadians are consuming ever-increasing amounts of content, and thus there is a need for more flexibility and choice. Chairman Blais also mentioned the other two hearings taking place in the fall (regarding the mobile wholesale and telecommunications wholesale industries), signaling that the CRTC is ready to make substantive changes these industries, in the best interests of Canadians.
Interveners appearing today included a management consultant hired by Google and Netflix, creative industry support funds; and the Government of Ontario, and the Competition Bureau. One private citizen representing his own views also spoke, highlighting the importance the CRTC places on the views of everyday Canadians.
The management consulting firm. Lemay-Yates (commissioned by Google and Netflix), spoke about their report on the changing nature of the broadcasting industry and how content creation and consumption are moving online, representing a fundamental shift in the broadcasting industry. In response, the Commission questioned whether new online services fill a complementary role and simply provide more choice to consumers, rather than cannibalizing the traditional, regulated sector..
Lemay-Yates and Google both highlighted, as other speakers did, that content is of fundamental importance, prompting the Commission to ask whether the CRTC should focus its efforts on ensuring funds are available to Canadian content producers (both professional and amateur). However, responses to this line of questioning seemed to leave the Commission wanting for more details.
The Competition Bureau provided some recommendations, by emphasizing the concern with growing vertical integration (massive companies owning both programming and distribution assets) in the broadcasting industry, and the reduction in choice consumers face as a result of growing bundles of channels. However they avoided choosing from the commission’s suggested alternatives, repeatedly stating it is unclear how sweeping regulatory changes would affect the market (either positively or negatively).
The interveners that can be grouped under the banner of ‘the content support groups’ include: Éléphant, mémoire du cinéma québécois; the National Film Board of Canada; Telefilm Canada; the Canada Media Fund and the Shaw Rocket Fund. These groups work with content creators to make content available, provide funding or in the case of Éléphant, restore classic films to be enjoyed with modern high-definition technology. The resounding issue that these groups highlighted is discoverability of content.
With the shift of content consumption from traditional television to multiple devices focused around online services has come an explosion in the amount of content available to consumers. While some interveners in the hearing have cited research showing Canadians are consuming increasing amounts of Canadian content, some groups have found it difficult to provide Canadians with the content on the devices they choose. Whether it is difficulty negotiating with rights holders, domestic promotion of content or online advertising (such as social media campaigns), these groups have faced significant challenges in helping Canadians “discover” the content in the first place..
The CRTC showed an increasing interest in this issue as the day went on, asking more questions about the “discoverability” of content in an increasingly fragmented, on-demand world is likely be a focus of more questioning in the coming days.
Finally, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (Ministry), representing the Government of Ontario spoke at the hearing, focused on the issue of jobs in the creative industry. The Ministry emphasized their request for the CRTC to begin regulating “Over-The-Top” broadcasting services (services that deliver broadcasting content over the Internet) such as Netflix, to specifically to impose some form of Canadian content requirement that the traditional broadcasters are subject to. The Ministry also opposed the CRTC’s proposals to empower Canadians with more choice by mandating a “skinny basic” package and then allowing Canadians to “pick-and-pay” for individual channels. The Ministry argued that those proposals would have a major impact on the content producers in Ontario. The CRTC questioned how well such a proposal, which Chairman Blais described as a “tax on Google and Netflix”, would be received.