On February 17, hearings that could well decide the future of Internet broadcasting in Canada will begin in a small room across the river from the Parliament buildings in Gatineau, Quebec. There the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will decide whether to roll back their 1999 decision to exempt Internet content from regulation.
Some of the questions the CRTC will be considering are: What is "new media" (read Internet) broadcasting? What might its impact be on the Canadian broadcasting system? What regulatory measures and/or incentives are needed to boost Canadian broadcast programming on the Internet? The answers to these questions could well shape the future of Canadian broadcasting both on and offline.
A definition for the future of media
Defining what exactly comprises "new media broadcasting" will be tricky. The new media broadcasting definition could have huge implications for online independent media in Canada. For example, many of the independent outlets that publish this column could have access to an independent "Internet Broadcast Fund" if the CRTC provides a relatively flexible definition.
The definition of new media broadcasting will also have implications for Canadian content production more broadly. The definition should prevent conventional broadcasters from bypassing their current obligations when using the Internet to distribute videos. However, licensing new media producers and mandating Canadian content rules upon them is a step too far. Such a heavy-handed approach would stifle online innovation and user-generated content production.
Canadian production under threat
Canadians generally watch American programs on television and Canadian programs are to a large part financed through the advertising revenue and subscription fees they pay to watch those programs. If people gain direct access to those American programs outside of the regulatory systems designed to put some of that revenue back in the production of Canadian programs, the result could be a disaster for Canadian program production.
It’s not that Canadian producers make programs nobody wants to watch. On the contrary, audiences for Canadian programs are at all time highs and growing. It’s simply that American programs generally pay for themselves in their home markets and, thereby, are sold at huge discounts to Canadian broadcasters. As heavily advertised and marketed American programs flood Canadian markets, it becomes increasingly difficult for Canadian programs to attract audiences and generate revenue.
Because American programs enjoy such an economic advantage in Canadian markets, broadcast regulation is designed to ensure that Canadian programs have space in the schedule and that there is money to pay for them. But as more and more foreign, mainly American broadcast programs are available over the Internet, this delicate balance could be lost. Big broadcasters have the privilege of using the public airwaves and enjoy access to public support mechanisms. Requiring a limit on repurposed American content is the least of which we should be requiring of them.
Can we maintain professional cultural production?
Because American programs enjoy the same economic advantages on the Internet as they do in cable and satellite markets, production funds like those available for these traditional markets will be necessary. But exactly where will the money come from?
One likely source of funding is the windfall profits from telecommunications carriers. Just as the companies that distribute broadcast programs now pay into a production fund, the telecommunications carriers that provide access to the Internet might also be expected to contribute to a fund through a telecom levy.
To be clear the telecom levy would be applied exclusively to the large carriers (Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, Videotron). Independent ISPs that purchase wholesale bandwidth from the major carriers should be exempt so as to avoid eroding their market share, and to further encourage competition and investment in the Internet service market.
Ensuring that regulation will encourage both innovation and a Canadian presence on the Internet should be the priorities for the CRTC in these hearings. To that end the Internet Broadcast Fund should be used as a mechanism to support independent and community media which are in need of sustainable revenue streams, and vital to supporting a democratic culture in Canada.
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He is a contributing author of Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media and has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times, Common Ground, Rabble.ca and Adbusters.
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Media Links is a syndicated column supported by CommonGround, TheTyee, Rabble.ca, The Vancouver Observer, and VUE Weekly