When expert witnesses appeared before a Senate committee in October to discuss changes to communications legislation, they did not expect to field a series of angry attacks on public broadcasting.
That, however, is what happened.
It is a sign that two parallel processes aimed at a long overdue modernization of laws governing the entire spectrum of communications from over-the-air television to the internet could face a rocky road.
Both processes are reviewing the Broadcasting Act and other key pieces of legislation governing communications, but only the Senate transport and communications committee hearings are public.
The other process is behind closed doors.
Last June, the Trudeau government named a seven-member panel of experts to look at how communications legislation could be updated. The group incudes five lawyers and a former Telus corporation vice-president, Janet Yule, who is the chair. Monique Simard, who was a labour leader in Quebec and once headed the National Film Board’s French language division, is the only member of the panel with hands-on creative experience.
The expert panel and the Senate committee are both looking at such fundamental and vital issues as net neutrality, consumer rights, support for Canadian content, and the role of news media in supporting democracy and fostering citizenship.
The government recognizes that while new technologies are changing "the way Canadians connect with each other," the regulatory framework has not kept pace. The Broadcasting Act, for instance, is almost three decades old. Parliament passed it in 1991, when cell phones were in their infancy and the web referred to something spiders create.
Public service mission; need for CBC; Netflix tax
The Senate committee has been hearing witnesses since September. In October, it heard from Marc Raboy, a professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, and professor Gregory Taylor of the University of Calgary.
In his opening remarks, Raboy emphasized elements of the current Broadcasting Act that, in his view, the government must not only maintain, but also enhance.
The current act states that broadcasting is essential to Canada’s national identity and sovereignty. That is a principle worth preserving, he said.
The act stipulates that the Canadian broadcasting system constitutes a single system that must be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians. That principle is more valid today then ever.
The most important feature of the existing legislation, in Raboy's view, is the affirmation that all of Canadian broadcasting is "a public service."
"Think about communication the way you think about health care or education," he told the senators. "Those sectors … are made up of a wide range of specific services, some of them entirely publicly funded, some of them profit centres … but they are fundamentally conceived, operated and overseen as public systems."
In other words, all broadcasters, be they public or private, like all providers of medical services or education, serve the public’s need for information and cultural enlightenment. And, Raboy added, the government should now "explicitly extend" that public service mandate to the rest of the communication sector.
When it was his turn to speak, Taylor burst what he sees as a widespread myth:
"Be wary of any of the 'end of broadcasting' rhetoric that can permeate debates such as this. The data simply does not support this position. In fact, I argue the exact opposite: it is the surprising resiliency of broadcasting that is one of the great media stories of the Netflix era."
To that Taylor added, ominously: "There are concerning ramifications for democracy if the end of broadcasting is made a self-fulfilling prophecy via legislation."
In support of this view, he cited the leaders’ debate in the 2015 election campaign, which was only carried by small broadcasters, and attracted a meagre audience of 1.5 million.
"They thought the online audience might pick that up, but YouTube audiences were around 440,000 people,” Taylor added. “To put this into perspective, in the previous election, when Global, CTV and CBC carried the full debates, viewership was around 10 million people."
The conclusion? "Simply put, the online world has not caught up to the mass viewership of traditional broadcasting."
Taylor also talked about the availability of the internet in remote and rural areas.
"Despite the repeated announcements by the federal government about rural connectivity, there has been a digital divide that remains persistent in Canada," he said, adding that market-based solutions, alone, have not worked.
The Calgary professor recommended the federal government revive the department of communications, which it abolished 25 years ago, just as communications technologies were exploding.
Like his McGill colleague, he underscored the need for a vigorous and well-funded public sector in broadcasting.
"The CBC remains key to any future of Canadian media," he told the committee. "We may incessantly argue about the content, but the centrality of the CBC to the system has not diminished. In fact, it may have intensified in the digital era."
And finally, to create an even playing field, Taylor advocated that new media should not be given special treatment.
Cable and over-the-air private broadcasters must contribute financially to Canadian content production. Online media, he said, should be subject to the same requirement. His proposal is that the government impose a tax of roughly five per cent on new media distributors, which would be equal to what cable and other traditional distributors pay.
"That would add roughly 50 cents a month to a Netflix bill," Taylor pointed out, adding, “I do not see this as a major obstacle and it seems fair if legacy media, such as cable, are asked to contribute the same.”
‘CBC is irrelevant to me’
When the time came for questions, a number of the senators -- mostly, but not exclusively Conservatives -- used the two witnesses as punching bags to attack the very notion of public broadcasting.
Committee chair, Saskatchewan Senator David Tkachuk, did not think Canadian ownership of broadcasting outlets was necessary. His exchange with Raboy went like this:
Tkachuk: What would be the difference if some guy from Boston owned the station rather than some guy from Saskatoon?
Raboy: If some guy from Boston owned the station in Saskatoon, and the CRTC made some kind of ruling that that guy from Boston didn't like, he might shut down the station.
Tkachuk: Not if he is making money he's not.
Raboy: He might find that his rate of return would be better to have another station in Indianapolis. In my view, it's a basic element of sovereignty.
Tkachuk was visibly not convinced.
Nor did the chair agree with Taylor's emphasis on the need for a strong and well-funded CBC. When the Calgary professor pointed out that CBC, unlike private broadcasters, devotes the majority of its prime time television schedule to Canadian content, Tkachuk suggested nobody he knows watches that content.
"So eyeballs aren't important?" Tkachuk asked.
Taylor tried to reply, saying, "They're important. They're not everything. For example, on the CBC --" at which point the chair interrupted to say, "Really?"
Taylor’s reply was "Yes, really. I do believe that." But Tkachuk persisted: "So if no one is watching, that's good?"
Taylor insisted that even if, on a Sunday night, a private network's dating show might attract bigger audiences than CBC's broadcast of The Nature of Things it is still in the public interest to support the science show.
A few senators agreed with Taylor; a number quite emphatically did not. Nova Scotia Senator Michael MacDonald picked up the chair's point about the supposed "irrelevance" of the CBC.
"I hardly watch CBC any more," he said. "Most of the television I watch is stuff I choose to watch … not necessarily the station, but you say CBC is central to the Canadian communication system. I'm not convinced of that. It's increasingly irrelevant to me, and my children don’t watch it."
And so it went.
Many senators were hostile to taxing foreign online providers such as Netflix. In fact, some went even further and did not even want the CRTC to have access to such information as how many Netflix subscribers there are in Canada.
When that subject came up, Tkachuk asked, "Why do we care? I have Netflix. Why would you care?”
Taylor’s answer: "Because it matters to know about how the overall system operates."
The reply elicited another scoff from the chair: "They just show old movies and TV shows."
The professor from Calgary tried to set the record straight by pointing out that Netflix is "now a major producer," adding, “if they are taking away from Canadian producers, then perhaps they should be paying into Canadian production just as other Canadian providers have to do.”
He did not convince Tkachuk or his allies on the committee.
And, if anyone is under the misapprehension that only Conservatives are hostile to public service broadcasting, they should know that many Liberal politicians privately express unveiled hostility to the notion of public investment in -- or even regulation of -- broadcasting, despite their public support for it. In the case of broadcasting and communications in general, the mantra of "let the market" rule is not exclusive to one party.
The government's experts panel will deliberate until well into 2019. There is no deadline for the Senate committee to issue a report.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
Image: Roland Tanglao/Flickr
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