The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission speaks through its decisions, and for the most part those decisions are straightforward. They’re written by a special team who ensure they’re as consistent, dry and clear as possible.
But a decision issued last week by the CRTC, while a victory for Canada’s public broadcaster, also takes a shot across its bow that almost seems snarky.
The decision responds to a complaint filed by Leclerc Communication, owner of radio stations CKOI and WKND in Quebec City. Leclerc argued that Radio-Canada was unfairly discriminating against it by refusing to air television ads for its radio stations, while running ads for Radio-Canada’s Première and Espace musique networks.
The CBC didn’t deny this. Instead, it argued that it is justified in having a policy that prevents running “advertisements for services considered competitive with CBC/Radio-Canada services.”
It also argued that Leclerc could easily advertise elsewhere, an argument Leclerc said was “as irrational as it is desperate.” And it invoked the idea of commercial freedom to argue that it shouldn’t be forced to run ads from anyone.
In the decision issued June 27, the CRTC sided with Radio-Canada. It determined that the public broadcaster did indeed put Leclerc’s radio stations at a disadvantage, but that this disadvantage was not “undue” and so did not break the commission’s rules.
“The Commission is of the view that the CBC is not subjecting Leclerc to a material adverse impact by refusing to offer advertising opportunities since Leclerc has access to 72% of the local television advertising inventory by advertising on TVA and V and that it can therefore reach 93% of the television viewers in the market.”
This reasoning baffles me. Leclerc argued that it needed access to Radio-Canada TV because it wanted to reach a demographic of mature, affluent and well-educated listeners, which it felt would fit WKND. The CRTC argues that’s not necessary because there are other ways to get advertising (not including radio, of course, because those are direct competitors).
And if those other advertisers were to also refuse Leclerc’s ads for competitive reasons? The CRTC’s decision doesn’t address that rather obvious hypothetical. (Thankfully it’s not necessary. TVA, which owns no radio stations, was only too happy to take Leclerc’s money.)
Since return on investment is so hard to determine when it comes to traditional advertising, it’s nearly impossible for Leclerc to prove that the CBC’s policy has a material adverse impact on its business. And the commission seems to have given the benefit of the doubt to the CBC.
“The Commission questions the true motives of the CBC”
But the decision includes a paragraph that, while not binding, might force the broadcaster to rethink its policy:
“However, the Commission questions the true motives of the CBC, which continues to turn away a client that does not belong to a vertically integrated group on the grounds that it is in competition with its operations. The Commission takes this opportunity to suggest that the CBC focus less on viewing other players in Canada’s communications ecosystem as competitors and put more effort into fulfilling its public service mandate.”
Considering the drastic cuts facing the broadcaster in the years ahead, even the CRTC is wondering why it’s saying no to money from a small broadcaster in order to protect the market share of a network that doesn’t carry any advertising and should have nothing to fear from commercial radio.