Oh Canada, so close to the US…

If history is right, Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s most infamous dictators, once decried his nation was too close to the United States and too far away from God. Canada, though not as dramatically, might feel the same about the neighborhood. The God issue is another subject altogether.

Nevertheless, proximity to the United States has been an extremely influential factor in the development of Canadian culture. This is a practical matter, because no nation develops a sense of self without defining what makes them different from other nations around it. We can’t deny, however, that the United States and Canada do share commonalities; they were both colonized by the British, and both share the English language. Yet the differences are also striking. For example, where Americans describe their nation as a melting pot, Canadians consider theirs as a mosaic, a multicultural state, in which different groups are not expected to assimilate. Instead, they co-exist, or so it goes. Whether or not the coexistence is harmonious, or equitable, is debatable, but the fact that Canadians claim it is worth noting as an important ideological difference. And it does not end there. The political system (parliamentary), bilingualism (because of Quebec), and even the fact that Canada remained under British rule until the twentieth century contrast starkly with the American experience.

How does broadcasting fit into this picture? According to Michael Arpin, Vice Chair for Broadcasting of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadians view telecommunications and broadcasting as crucial for the development of the nation. This should not come as a surprise since Canada, after all, is the second largest country in the world (the United States is the third). The problem is that Canada is also sparsely and unevenly populated. The eastern seaboard, which includes Ontario and Quebec, and the areas around the US border are the most demographically dense, whereas the central and northern portions of the country are not densely populated at all. Still, a nation does not exist without internal cohesion. Transportation, telecommunications, and broadcast systems are part of this process, as Arpin reminds us:

With the possible exception of the development of a national railway system in the 1800s, few industries have played as important a part in unifying Canada as telecommunications, broadcasting and satellite distribution of signals. From the days of the telegraph, and from the introduction of radio and television, we have understood that these technologies are powerful tools that allow Canadians to connect with each other across great distances, help develop our economy, shape our national identity and assert our cultural sovereignty (Arpin, 2007).

The last sentence is the  key to Canadian broadcasting philosophy: it views telecommunications and information technologies as “tools” that support national development, both economic and cultural. Furthermore, broadcasting in Canada, at least in terms of philosophy, is about nation building, about creating a common culture through a shared media experience.

The quest for cultural sovereignty, Canadian style

Sovereignty is a quality of nation states. In political theory, it indicates that a state has control over a territory, and, with autonomy, can exercise political power through policy, law, and/or coercive means. Cultural sovereignty, in the Canadian case, suggests independence; it implies the ability to produce an autonomous culture, that is distinctly Canadian (i.e. not American).Yet, sharing a border, as I stated previously, has complicated Canada’s quest for cultural sovereignty. Once broadcasting began, in the early years of the twentieth century, the situation became even more complex because you obviously could not stop radio waves at the border. They spilled into Canadian territory from the United States, and interfered with Canadian signals. According to Skinner (2008), some American stations were “explicitly built to broadcast over the border and exploit Canadian advertising markets” (p.). Regulation was first introduced not just to bring order into chaos, but to extend sovereignty to the Canadian airwaves.

This is the recurring theme of Canadian broadcasting, and it is an issue that kept Canada from following the British broadcasting model too closely. Like the British did, Canada also envisioned a strong public broadcaster, that would “inform, enlighten, and entertain” (Broadcasting Act of 1991, I(l)) the Canadian public. Furthermore, they originally intended for this public broadcaster to take over all aspects of broadcasting in Canada, that is, it would not only provide services, but also regulate the operations of commercial broadcasters. However, Canada is not Great Britain. License fees, first of all, would have been completely impractical because people had more choices. Nevertheless, Canadian regulators believed that they could fund public broadcasting through other means, through government allocations, or by instituting the obligation to carry Canadian content. Early on, it became clear that the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) never had enough funding to live up to these expectations. As a consequence, Canada developed a mixed system, which now, following the passage of the 1991 Broadcasting Act, includes public, commercial, and community broadcasters. With technological advances, like cable, satellite, and the Internet, cultural sovereignty became even more elusive.

Canadian Content

For me, one of the most interesting, albeit frustrating, facets of the Canadian broadcasting system is the issue of Canadian Content. All players in the system are supposed to provide Canadian content, and abide by the quotas established by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But what is Canadian content? Let’s look at some Canadian television shows and see if we can figure it out.

According to the CRTC, Canadian Content is defined by specific criteria, none of which seem to have anything to do with content itself. Music, for example, qualifies as Canadian if it fulfills any two of the following conditions: it is produced in Canada, performed by a Canadian, composed by a Canadian, or performed and/or recorded in Canada. Television programming, on the other hand, is Canadian if the producer and key staff are Canadian, by how much money is spent in services provided by Canadians, and by how much money was spent on lab processing done in Canada. Co-productions can also qualify as Canadian content, provided that Canadians hold 50% of the investment and receive 50% of the profits. Cable and pay per view systems also abide by Cancon rules, but those decisions are made on a case by case basis (Media Awareness Network).

As it stands, the CBC provides most of the Canadian content because, according to Cancon rules, 60% of the programming aired daily between 6 am and midnight, must be Canadian. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, are not bound by this requisite. They only have to air 60% overall, for the year, and of this 60%, half must be broadcast between 6 pm and midnight.

The Cancon Rules leave plenty of leeway to Canadian commercial broadcasting. They exemplify the liberalization and de-regulation policies that are meant, in theory, to make countries more competitive in a global economy. The other side of that coin is, though, that commercial broadcasters have very little incentive to produce Canadian content that reflects Canadian culture in any explicit manner because, as Skinner suggests:

Not only [is] Canadian programming more expensive to produce than foreign programs [are] to buy, but if a Canadian program [is] scheduled to replace a foreign program – even if it drew as large an audience as it replaced – any return on investment would be roughly equivalent to that of the imported program” (Skinner, 2008).

Media Concentration

In Canada, media ownership is heavily concentrated. Currently, three private companies — CTVGlobemedia, Canwest, and Rogers Broadcasting — dominate Anglophone television sector.  Quebecor and Remstar control the Francophone sector (CRTC, 2009).

The latest controversy: Fee for Carriage

Canadian television broadcasting faces the same challenges that other systems are facing. For one, it is not easy to protect local broadcasters from the competition they face from Satellite and Cable, or from the Internet. Audience fragmentation is very real, in spite of the overwhelming media concentration of Canadian media, or of the regulations that are meant to protect Canadian  productions.

In 2008, one of the most heated debates regarding broadcast policy was about fee for carriage. In a nutshell, Canadian media companies, spearheaded by CTVGlobemedia and Canwest, presented a fee-for carriage proposal to the CRTC. They argued that the economic crisis  had forced them to take drastic budget cutting measures, including layoffs, and program cuts. The solution, or at least something that would slow the crisis down, was fee-for carriage. Under this scheme, CRTC would mandate cable and satellite providers to pay Canadian companies  50 cents per subscriber for the right to carry their signal.

In November, CRTC denied the request. Instead, they passed the following policies:

  • Beginning August 31, 2011 distributors (cable and satellite companies) can offer channels to customers in an a la carte fashion (instead of the current system where subscribers buy a basic cable package and then purchase themed bundles of additional channels). This gives viewers more direct choice in the channels they watch.
  • Effective Sept. 1, 2009, a new fund will support the creation of local content (i.e. TV news) by conventional broadcasters in markets with fewer than a million people. Broadcast distributors currently provide 5% of their revenues to fund production of Canadian programming. This will be increased to six percent, with the extra 1% benefiting this new Local Programming Improvement Fund. The CRTC said it expected the cost of the fund – totaling around $60 million annually – not to be passed to subscribers (i.e. our bills wont go up to pay for the fund). However, cable and satellite TV operators aren’t happy about the increase and have indicated to the press that anytime their expenses go up, the consumer pays one way or another.
  • Currently a U.S. channel that offers similar programming to a Canadian specialty channel can be barred from entry into our broadcast market. However, the CRTC has decided that Canadian news and sports services are financially healthy and already face competition so new foreign services will be allowed. As a result, expect more American sports and news channels on your TV program guide once this ruling takes effect in 2011.

(Binning, 2009)

I can’t get over the fact that Canada now has ala carte cable. But that’s an entirely different matter. I guess it is far more important to ponder whether or not Canadians have created a broadcasting system that enhances cultural sovereignty.  In terms of organization, they recognize the role of three components in over the air broadcasting. In terms of structure, media concentration in the commercial sphere is severe. In terms of regulations, generating Canadian content has been a major concern, but the nature of that content is loosely defined as economic participation, and/or opportunities for Canadians. With this in mind, Cancon regulations do not facilitate productions with strong cultural elements, especially in the private sector. After all, Canadian producers still want to compete in the international market, and out there, Degrassi is easier to sell than Little Mosque.

In other words, the answer to my question is yes and no. Yes, because the regulations and philosophy of the system are unique and different, and no because the context in which operations occur, and the pressures from in a commercial environment are important deterrents.

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References

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