New CRTC diversity policy gets a failing grade

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The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has once again failed to protect key aspects of the Canadian broadcast system from ever tightening control by a few major players. In a recent policy notice (Diversity of voices, CRTC 2008-4), the CRTC has decided that the status quo allows for adequate representation of Canada's diverse population and is representative of Canada's diversity. Not surprisingly, the decision has met with criticism.

The Diversity of Voices hearings, which took place last fall, asked Canadians to comment on concerns over consolidation of ownership in the broadcasting industry with a special eye toward issues related to diversity of voices in Canada. The Commission received 1,962 written submissions âe" 1,800 of which were prompted through the efforts of the Campaign for Democratic Media.

What was of central concern for the Commission was the impact of media ownership on diversity âe" is there an impact, and if there is, how best to regulate it? The hearing also included questions about cross-ownership and whether or not the owner of a newspaper, say, should be allowed to also own a TV station and radio station in the same market.

In a nutshell, the Commission decided three basic things: (i) to cap television ownership at 45 percent of the total national television audience share; (ii) to prohibit one âeoepersonâe from controlling all of the broadcast distribution undertakings (cable. satellite, etc.) in any given market; and (iii) laudably, the Commission has prohibited cross media ownership âe" in other words, one âeoepersonâe cannot own a local radio station, TV station or newspaper serving the same market.

On their face, these provisions are not odious in and of themselves. But if we look a little closer, according to a document released by the Campaign for Democratic Media, some of the problematic aspects emerge.

Canada's media system is already one of the most highly concentrated in the Western world. For example, five companies own nearly 75 percent of all private television stations, and three companies own over 60 percent of newspapers in Canada. The new policy will require no divestiture on the part of big media players âe" they get to keep what they have, and levels of ownership concentration will remain the same.

Nor do the provisions adequately address two critical components of diversity identified by the Commission itself. In their decision, the CRTC commissioners describe diversity as having three aspects: (i) diversity of voices, which has to do with ownership (ii) diversity of elements, which has to do with whether the media in question is privately owned, publicly owned or community owned, and (iii) diversity of programming. The Commission in effect only addresses diversity of voices with any substance.

The new policy virtually ignores the diversity of programming question. Given that this is where the âeoerubber hits the road,âe so to speak, in the world of broadcast media, the Commission's unwillingness to offer guidance or stipulate conditions suggests that, once again, the status quo is fine. Much needed provisions include regulations concerning the separation of newsroom editorial decision-making within companies holding multiple media properties, conditions of license requiring local coverage and local news programming, and limits on re-purposing across media platforms.

The Commission's expressed concern for diversity of elements in the broadcasting system also lacks regulatory substance. Under s.3(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act, the Canadian broadcasting system is made up of three elements âe" private (commercial media), public (CBC) and community (campus and community radio and television). The system is in fact dominated by the private element.

The public element is made anaemic through funding cuts, and the community element has been, for all intents and purposes, abandoned, with the more than $80 million that is collected annually from cable subscribers for the purpose of community television going into the pockets of the cable companies with little or no accountability. The new policy continues to favour the private element over public and community broadcasting.

And finally, restricting ownership of television undertakings through national audience share presents its own problems and limitations. On the one hand, at least there is a cap and we need not face as yet a complete media monopoly in Canada. But under these regulations, whether or not you experience a media monopoly will depend more on where you live within Canada than the fact that you make up part of a "national television audience."

A 45 percent share of a national television audience might easily include local or regional monopolies. A broadcaster, for example, might control 100 percent of Ottawa's television audience, but only 15 percent of Ontario's total television audience and much less of a national audience. The new rules enshrine local monopolies, so long as the 45 percent mark isn't tipped at the national scale.

The new Diversity rules appear to serve the industry while abandoning "diversity" in any real sense as a tool for ensuring that Canadian broadcasting better reflects the complex make-up of Canadian society.

But the fight is not over. Groups like the Campaign for Democratic Media continue to work towards greater diversity in Canadian broadcasting and greater democratic representation in Canadian media.

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