In coverage of the CRTC’s mandatory carriage hearings, which is probably the most important thing that will happen this year as far as TV subscribers’ wallets are concerned, various pundits have expressed opinions for and against forcing certain services on all Canadian subscribers. Many have questioned whether we should even have mandatory carriage at all, even for such clearly public service channels as CPAC and AMI TV.
But looking at the applications, and the reasons given by their owners for being treated as an exceptional case, I’m left not so much with a feeling that this service should have mandatory subscriptions and this one should not, but rather: Why is this service even necessary? Almost all of them seem to fill a need that should be filled by other broadcasters, but isn’t because it’s not profitable (hence why the service was started or is being proposed, and why it needs government intervention to stay afloat financially).
Here’s the list of things we’re being asked to be forced to pay for, and the other things we’re already paying for that should be accomplishing those things already:
Who’s asking us to pay: All Points Bulletin/Avis de recherche
Who should be doing this: Mainstream news channels, other platforms
I can appreciate why APB/ADR thinks it’s a valuable service. And so can the CRTC, which gave ADR that status and put it on all cable systems in Quebec. But my biggest issue with this channel is that it’s completely useless if nobody watches it. And there seems to be little in its plan to address its ratings problems.
The channel is a mix of bulletins from police departments, usually listing suspects, with blurry surveillance camera photos and descriptions. It’s boring, and very unsurprising that when it tried getting data from BBM on how many people watched it, the number was so low as to be within the margin of error of zero.
There’s good reason to want to get this information out to the public, but a barker channel that nobody watches sounds like the worst way possible. Extending this to English Canada, where the channel will try to present local crime bulletins to a national audience, sounds like even less of a good idea.
User-generated youth programming
Who’s asking us to pay: Fusion, Dolobox
Who should be doing this: YTV, online video sites
I’ve given up trying to understand what exactly the point is behind these two proposed services, or how they would work. They seem to be targeted at youth, involve some sort of user-generated-content angle, and want to empower young Canadians by giving them our money so they can shoot stuff. Which kind of makes me think they’ll turn out to be like a high school TV newscast in the end.
I doubt either will be approved by the CRTC if only because of their unclear nature, but the fact that they exist suggests the existing youth-oriented specialty channels, particularly YTV, aren’t reaching out enough to youth and particularly minority youth and getting them involved in the process of making their own television.
Who’s asking us to pay: Sun News Network
Who should be doing this: Mainstream news channels
Sun News is a favourite whipping boy because it’s so incredibly transparent to constantly nag on the CBC for getting government subsidies and then turn around and demand one for itself.
Having watched Sun News, I understand many of the criticisms against it, that it’s transparently biased, it skews its reporting and over-focuses on examples that help it build a right-wing narrative. But I also understand that, as annoying as it can be, it does present news and views that you don’t hear elsewhere. Whether because they’re politically incorrect or don’t fit the usual media narratives, many of the news and opinions expressed on Sun News are not wrong merely because they’re not shared by most Canadians. My biggest worry about Sun News isn’t that it gives a safe haven for right-wing thought, but that it might suck away the conservatives from the other news networks and polarize Canadian news just like the U.S. news channels. The last thing we need is media constantly reinforcing our distorted world views, left or right.
Who’s asking us to pay: AMI TV, Described Video Guide
Who should be doing this: All major broadcasters, major TV providers
The CRTC sets minimums on major broadcasters for the amount of programming it airs with described video. For closed captioning, it’s already at 100% or near that for most TV services, but described video is still far behind. So a channel devoted just to described video makes sense. If Canada’s large vertically-integrated companies could work together, they might have pooled their resources by now to present a channel like this for free and offer their programming in exchange for ad revenue. Instead, we’re asked to pay a tax to AMI so it can acquire this programming.
AMI is actually pretty well supported, even by cable companies, so I’m not going to harp on it too much. For the other service, the audio-only Described Video Guide, it’s more silly. Owner Evan Kosiner wants $0.02 per subscriber per month to create audio feeds for each cable provider in Canada that say what channels offer described video programming and when. Even Kosiner says his service wouldn’t be necessary if this information was available by other means. But set-top boxes aren’t good at offering information to the blind, and most TV providers’ websites aren’t the most accessible either.
If only a website had this information at a … oh wait, it does. Kosiner complains that it’s not good enough, but I would think that its technical shortcomings (not having the channel numbers listed for each provider) can be overcome more easily than starting up a new service that all Canadians have to pay for.
Representation of minorities
Who’s asking us to pay: EqualiTV, APTN
Who should be doing this: All broadcasters
Among the standard forms the CRTC makes broadcasters fill out are ones that list how many minorities they have on their staff, on air and off. The existence of services that target minorities makes perfect sense in a specialty channel world, but arguing that Canadians need to pay for them because they’re not represented in mainstream programming should force us to ask what’s wrong with mainstream programming.
Francophone programming from outside Quebec
Who’s asking us to pay: ACCENTS, TV5 (and, arguably, ARTV)
Who should be doing this: Radio-Canada, TVA, TFO
The fact that three services have made representation of francophone minorities in Canada a key part of their demands suggests there’s a real problem here. And there’s ample evidence that there is. Despite being a public broadcaster who, one assumes, would make minority-language communities a big priority because those minorities don’t have many commercial options, Radio-Canada has been very Quebec-centric in both its national news and non-news programming. So much so that a senator wrote a really thick report to complain about it. Things have gotten a bit better since then, but even then there’s this assumption that everyone watching Radio-Canada television is doing so within 300 kilometres of Montreal.
TVA is on this list because it has an agreement with the CRTC that it must be carried on basic cable everywhere in Canada (at no charge), and in exchange it provides some programming that relates to francophones outside of Quebec.
TFO arguably does fulfill this mandate as an Ontario-based public broadcaster in French. But nobody watches TFO.
Who’s asking us to pay: Starlight
Who should be doing this: The Movie Network, Movie Central, Super Channel, movie video-on-demand services, Telefilm Canada, Canada Council for the Arts, federal and provincial tax credits
Starlight is the other big fish at this CRTC hearing, not only because of its expensive price but because of its big ambitions to give a shot in the arm of the Canadian film industry. It’s not so much a specialty channel as a new fund for Canadian movies. But Canada already has a bunch of different ways to finance the production of films, and there’s little evidence that the quality is getting much better.
There’s an argument to be made that the problems with Canadian filmmaking can’t be solved by just shovelling more taxpayer money into the system. They need better promotion, and to start relying more on actual consumer demand than government funding. Starlight won’t solve this. Rather, it will put Canadian movies into yet another one of those channels nobody will watch. And as an independent service that doesn’t benefit from vertical integration, nobody will be reminded that it exists (unless it uses taxpayer money for ads for itself too).
Pay movie channels like The Movie Network have quotas for Canadian programming. But they’ve also moved more toward recurring television series than theatrical feature films. If there was demand for a Canadian-movie-only channel, couldn’t we add it as a separate channel distributed with TMN and Movie Central?
And the rest
In addition to the above, there are services asking for distribution without any wholesale fee (Legislative assemblies of Nunavut and Northwest Territories, IDNR-TV, Canadian Punjabi Network) because they just can’t get carriage. Those have different issues which I won’t get into here.
There are also channels that you can’t really argue against. There’s CPAC, whose Parliamentary coverage isn’t replicated elsewhere. You can argue about its fee, or that it shouldn’t charge because it’s owned by (some of) the cable companies, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t need to exist. And there’s Canal M and AMI audio, which are audio-only reading services for the blind. Can’t argue against those without seeming heartless, and they don’t cost much anyway.
And there’s Vision TV, which doesn’t seem to provide anything particularly exceptional that I can see, despite how great Touched by an Angel, Murder She Wrote and Downton Abbey are.