Time for CRTC chair to resign

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(Editor's note: This is a longer version of an op-ed that has appeared in <i>The Globe and Mail</i>.)

The CRTC decision on May 17 to no longer regulate network advertising limits, and recent comments by its Chairman, Konrad Von Finckenstein, make it painfully obvious that this CRTC head is unfit for the job of regulating Canada's broadcasting system.

While some media watchers were wary when the current Conservative government appointed Von Finckenstein to be the new CRTC Chairman, others were willing to “wait and see” if this new CRTC head would take his new legal and public interest responsibilities seriously. This initial wariness stemmed from Von Finckenstein's past positions and comments during his tenure as the head of Canada's Competition Bureau.

Among many of his deregulatory positions, he advocated for the removal of all foreign ownership restrictions from our airline industry to our telecommunications industries (telephone, cable, satellite, internet). The recent decision to allow networks, not the CRTC, determine how much advertising Canadian viewers can stomach per program hour (the current limit is 12 minutes), proves that these concerns were indeed justified.

It now seems that Von Finckenstein has been put in as the proverbial fox to “guard” the CRTC (public interest) henhouse. In a Playback Magazine interview he states, “We [CRTC] are getting out of the business of regulating advertising. We don't think it's necessary for us to restrict something Canadians can do themselves with their remote control.”

Anyone with any foresight can see that this false “what the public will bear” argument holds no serious weight, as it will be a foregone conclusion that advertising time on all networks will start increasing per programming hour, each month and each year, leaving less and less time for vital public affairs, news and other uplifting programming (e.g., Canadian drama) at a time when our democracy and society have never been so impacted by media. As for the viewer-choice point he makes, I ask the following: if all networks do the same (as they will all likely be doing as extra ad-time = extra ad-dollars) then where is a person with a remote control to switch to?

Equally troubling are Von Finckenstein's comments in early May at the Annual Conference of the British Columbia Association of Broadcasters. During this conference, the CRTC head stated, “I am of the firm view that in order to do one's job properly as a regulator, one needs to understand the industry's point of view and know their day-to-day challenges.” While this one side of the equation makes sense, it doesn't seem that our CRTC boss gives that same weight to the public interest side of the equation. Is the public interest no longer a key “point of view”?

By attempting to get our CRTC “out of the business” of regulating advertising time, not only has Von Finckenstein gone against 75 years of broadcasting precedent and well-developed and proven public policy, but it seems as though he hasn't even read our existing Broadcasting Act. Section 5.1 of our act states that the “Commission shall regulate and supervise all aspects of the Canadian broadcasting system.” Section 10.1 of our act states that the CRTC shall “make regulationsâe¦respecting the character of advertising and the amount of broadcasting time that may be devoted to advertisingâe¦respecting the proportion of time that may be devoted to the broadcasting of programs, including advertisements or announcements.”

Now, each time a new techno-gadget plays or podcasts some media content we hear the whine of our wealthy broadcasters stating how they are at a regulatory disadvantage when compared to their newer media counterparts. To these whines I respond, “then run all the cheap American programming and advertising you want via your corporate websites, and give us back your publicly owned broadcast frequencies and designated spots on the cable and satellite dial.”

Canada's private networks have forgotten that the public owns the channels their content is distributed on, and we only allow them to use these channels if they meet their conditions of license. If they, and the CRTC, are no longer interested in meeting these basic conditions (e.g., Canadian content quotas, limited advertising) then return these channels to the public who will then re-allocate them to any number of conscientious media providers who will be more than proud to meet the goals of the broadcasting act — that “the Canadian broadcasting system shall be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians,” supply a “public service,” while “providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativityâe¦” — while earning a healthy profit.

While in B.C., our current, and we can hope, temporary, CRTC head also stated that, “We have a [Conservative] government that is very keen on less regulation, and that has directed us to accept market forces as the default and regulation as the exception.” When one hears such talk from a so-called “public servant” we must remind him that our broadcast system belongs to the public, not just the whims of industry, and that this is not simply de-regulation but re-regulation (re-regulation by private interests with no concern or possible input from the public interest).

The central organizing principle and highest priority of any for profit corporation is to, well, make a profit. Serving the public interest is an expendable “priority” which will inevitably fall to second or third fiddle in the pursuit of profit maximization. Governments, and government agencies and regulators like the CRTC, are supposed to have serving the public interest as their central organizing principle.

With his comments, and the CRTC's recent network advertising decision, Konrad Von Finckenstein has abdicated the responsibilities of his office, betrayed the public interest, and has proven himself unfit for heading our only broadcast regulator. The sooner he resigns, or is forced out, the better Canada's mediated democracy will be. The time is now, Canadians, to write your MPs, file formal CRTC complaints, and protest so that this CRTC lunacy will be reversed.

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