Category Archives: TV

What’s in the proposed new Broadcasting Act

The federal government has tabled legislation to rewrite the Broadcasting Act. Bill C-10 has a long list of amendments that change wording in the act and it’s a bit confusing to get through. So here’s a list of what’s actually in the bill (based on my Twitter thread from yesterday):

  • Creates a new definition of “online undertaking” meaning “an undertaking for the transmission or retransmission of programs over the Internet for reception by the public by means of broadcasting receiving apparatus” — in other words, an online broadcaster, using the same vague wording as for traditional broadcasters but presumably including services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. Such “undertakings” would not need to be licensed to operate, nor would they pay fees to the CRTC, but the commission can regulate them, impose Canadian content or funding obligations, and demand information including confidential financial information.
  • A specific exemption for content posted to a “social media service” that excludes such content from the definition of broadcaster for the purpose of the act.
  • Gives the CRTC the power to impose fines on broadcasters. Currently, the commission cannot impose “administrative monetary penalties” on broadcasters like they can on things like spammers. They’ve gotten around this by imposing additional financial contributions as conditions of licence when licenses are renewed. With this change it could impose fines directly, up to $25,000 for a first offence or $50,000 for subsequent ones, for a specific set of reasons.
  • Explicitly state that the broadcasting system serves all Canadians, “including Canadians from racialized communities and Canadians of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and ages.” The CRTC already respects these values, so it probably won’t change anything, but specific reference to things like sexual orientations could be cited in discussions of setting new policies or court challenges to CRTC decisions.
  • Explicitly mention news. Right now the act only mentions obligations to news for the CBC specifically. The new act would say that programming provided by the entire system should as a matter of policy “include programs produced by Canadians that cover news and current events — from the local and regional to the international — and that reflect the viewpoints of Canadians, including the viewpoints of Indigenous persons and of Canadians from racialized communities and diverse ethnocultural backgrounds.”
  • Eliminate the seven-year maximum length of licenses. The CRTC has already started reducing licence terms, generally five years now for TV licenses. Under the new act, they could set unlimited terms but also wouldn’t have to wait five years to make changes to licenses.
  • Codifies how the CRTC deals with confidential information, including explicitly allowing it to share said information with Statistics Canada and the Competition Bureau.
  • Give the government more time to overturn CRTC decisions related to awarding, renewing or amending licences or referring them back to the commission for reconsideration. The 90-day deadline would now be 180 days.

And some minor changes:

  • Change the procedure for orders from the government. Instead of being referred to a House of Commons committee with a 40-day notice, the orders would need to be published and have a 30-day notice.
  • Moves article 9(1)h of the act, which gives the CRTC the power to require distributors carry certain programming, to a new section, requiring several amendments to other laws that reference it.

If that seems like it’s not that much and very unspecific, that’s true. The act only gives general policies and creates legal powers. A lot of the more interesting stuff related to policy will be done through a policy direction to the CRTC, which the minister says will be done once the amendments to the act are passed. There are also other bills to come including amendments to the Copyright Act.

Then, the job of interpreting the new policy and actually setting new regulations will be up to the CRTC.

Among the things we don’t find in this bill:

  • Changes to copyright law, or anything that would change how Google and Facebook deal with content
  • A better definition of broadcasting that would make it clear what is regulated and what is not
  • A definition of social media that would let us answer if, for example, YouTube is a social media platform or if it’s both social media and an online broadcaster depending on content
  • Anything new regulating social media
  • Any policy direction to the CRTC
  • Any substantial changes to how traditional television and radio is regulated
  • Any change to the CBC’s structure or mandate
  • Any consumer protection measures
  • Any measures related to sales taxes for online broadcasters

Compared to what was recommended in the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel report in January, it’s not quite as bold, but there are several elements in there, including the most important one giving the CRTC the power to regulate online media (though the commission would have argued that it already had that power).

Now we’ll see what terms the CRTC set for Netflix et al, and if they’ll agree to them.

Mike Finnerty leaves Daybreak again — for good

UPDATE (Nov. 25): Finnerty finally confirmed the news, saying he plans to go back to London. On his last show, Finnerty announed Sean Henry will be his replacement. Audio of Finnerty’s goodbye is below.

Mike Finnerty ad from a previous Daybreak stint

Despite his professed love for Montreal and his work as host of CBC’s radio morning show Daybreak, Mike Finnerty has already left it twice to go to the U.K., first in 2009 to work for The Guardian (he was replaced by Nancy Wood, but within a year she was dropped and he came back), and again last year on a seven-month leave to be a cheesemonger.

So maybe it’s not too surprising that CBC has posted his job again. But this time it’s a 12-month renewable contract, which is what you’d expect from a permanent host. Is he leaving for good (again)?

In a brief response when I asked him if he’s taking another leave of absence, Finnerty said: “Nope, nothing to announce for now, and no other comment.”

CBC Montreal also had no comment on the matter.

UPDATE (Nov. 27): Finnerty’s on-air goodbye was short and sweet. After a show about how the city has changed in the past 10 years (since he first started as host), he interviewed Henry and gave a brief goodbye, less than a minute long, crediting his team, thanking his listeners, and paying tribute to the city.

He concluded that “my wish for Montreal and for Montrealers is that we continue to live, love and laugh together. I’ll see you soon.”

Power failure knocks CTV channels off the air for two hours

It happens. There’s a major technical at the most inconvenient time, in the middle of the local news broadcast, causing the local CTV station to cut to dead air. Master Control in Toronto cuts to a commercial, and then pumps in CTV News Channel as a backup.

It seemed that was happening again on Monday, but then something unusual happened: CTV News Channel itself went off the air. And a bunch of other channels, too.

A power outage in Bell Media’s Agincourt studios, home to CTV Toronto and TSN, was the culprit. It knocked out CTV and CTV2 stations in the eastern half of the country (from Winnipeg east), as well as CTV News Network, all five TSN channels, Discovery Channel, CTV Comedy and others. Other channels, particularly the former CHUM stations based at 299 Queen St. W. downtown, like Much, CP24, CTV Drama and CTV SciFi, remained on the air throughout, as did Bell’s French-language channels.

Some digital services were also affected by the outage, which began around 5:30pm ET, and lasted until 7:30pm, with some channels not being fully back until 9pm. CTV News Channel rebroadcast CP24 for much of the evening after coming back online.

It’s unclear what exactly caused the outage in the first place, or why backup systems failed to keep CTV on the air. I suspect there will be a lot of discussions at Bell Media management and technical meetings about what went wrong.

The outage is a reminder of the dangers of centralization — when all your stations are controlled through the same building, they can all be knocked off the air. But more importantly it shows that Bell Media’s contingency protocols are inadequate. An ideal system would have allowed the master control facilities at Queen West — or even better a master control facility in another city — to quickly take control of the affected channels, even if just to broadcast filler programming.

CTV undoubtedly has backup systems, but they obviously failed, either from technical or procedural fault, which means they were probably not adequately tested.

Expect that to change, at least until Bell Media forgets about this incident and needs to make more cuts to technical staff and redundancies.

New Canadian news channel tries to revive the Sun News Network model

While Canadians were focused on a U.S. presidential debate, a trailer was released for a new conservative news channel called The News Forum that purports to “provide viewers with politically balanced domestic and international perspectives, inclusive of a conservative counterbalance for the current media landscape.”

The channel has a carriage deal with Bell Canada on all Bell’s TV systems. It is now operating as an exempt national news service, according to the CRTC, which allows such operations without a licence until they reach 200,000 subscribers.

Its ownership is a bit unclear, but its CEO is Tore Stautland, who is CEO of Trillennium Media Group Inc., a producer of mainly Christian programming for channels like Daystar Canada, Vision and Joytv.

Its on-air hosts include former Conservative minister Tony Clement, former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen, author Faytene Grasseschi, lawyer K.R. Davidson, former YesTV host Sheldon Neil, and former Global Thunder Bay reporter/anchor Nima Rajan.

From its ownership, description, choice of hosts and choice of topics and guests, it seems clear that The News Forum is designed to be a social/religious conservative outlet, meant more as a source of right-wing opinion than hard news. Which will no doubt draw comparisons to the Sun News Network, Quebecor’s right-wing news-opinion channel that shut down five years ago.

Based on my brief glances at its programming available online, it seems the main differences relate to tone (no Ezra Levant or Brian Lilley gleefully throwing mud, though Lilley has already been a guest), slant (more religious) and budget (more along the lines of a YouTube channel than a major TV network).

Like Sun News, The News Forum doesn’t try for a partisan balance. Almost all of the politicians it interviews are conservative.

The channel has made it clear it won’t shy away from controversial topics (and by that it seems to mean defending unpopular conservative views), conducting a friendly interview with controversial anti-trans researcher Debra Soh, for example.

It’s not clear that The News Forum will have actual journalists beyond that on-air staff, relying instead on a Canadian Press subscription and summarizing newspaper stories to provide that raw news material.

Its schedule consists of the same half-hour shows repeated every three hours. Besides those linked to above, it also includes two shows from Israel.

By not having that daytime news block and expensive journalists covering the country, could it save enough money to make this channel viable? We’ll see.

Global Montreal replaces Jamie Orchard with Toronto-based anchor, cancels Focus Montreal

Tracy Tong anchors the Global Montreal flagship newscast out of Toronto on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.

You can end the speculation of who will replace Jamie Orchard as lead anchor at Global Montreal: It’s Tracy Tong.

In Toronto.

Tong announced the news shortly before anchoring the 5:30pm newscast on Monday. (Andrea Howick had been filling in on most nights since Orchard announced she had been laid off.) Tong has also been anchoring the 11pm Montreal newscast out of Toronto.

The move completes the conversion of Montreal’s local newscasts into Global’s “Multi-Market Content” model, which replaces locally-anchored live newscasts with a copy-paste edited newscast produced and anchored out of Toronto with a mix of local and national stories. Being recorded and produced in advance means Tong can do separate newscasts on Global Toronto and Global Montreal, even though they air simultaneously.

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OMNI adds Arabic, Filipino national newscasts as new licence term begins

Anchor Reham Al-Azem hosts OMNI News Arabic from the Montreal studio.

As of Sept. 1, the OMNI television channels have entered into a new CRTC licence term, which means a higher wholesale per-subscriber fee ($0.19 per month, up from $0.12) and some new obligations, including more news.

OMNI made good on that last part last week by launching OMNI News in Arabic and Filipino (Tagalog). Like the existing Italian, Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese newscasts, which don’t look like they’re changing, the new newscasts have journalists in different cities. I was told they wouldn’t have anchors, but it’s clear they do. OMNI News Arabic was hosted its first week by Reham Al-Azem out of the Montreal studio (built for the former Breakfast Television Montreal), while OMNI News Filipino was hosted by Rhea Santos in Vancouver.

Both newscasts are also produced in part out of Toronto.

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Paul Karwatsky leaves CTV Montreal to devote himself to autism awareness

Paul Karwatsky.

After taking a leave from his job long enough to have people wondering about his status, Paul Karwatsky has decided to leave his job as anchor at CTV Montreal to focus on autism awareness, a subject close to his family.

The news was announced to staff on Friday morning, leading to a story in the Gazette, and an announcement was posted to CTV’s website on Friday afternoon.

It included a statement from Karwatsky explaining his decision:

As many might know, I’ve been heavily involved in raising autism awareness for years. I’ve decided to dedicate myself full-time to this cause which is close to my, and my family’s, heart. It’s a key time in history for all those living with autism and so much needs to be done to ensure our children have all the opportunities they deserve as they grow. All my efforts will be focused on this moving forward. The details on what exactly I’ll be doing are to come.

Though it’s unsaid in the statement, the fact that changing his career would mean a more family-friendly work schedule had to be a consideration. He has been hosting both the 5pm and 11:30pm newscasts since the 5pm news was added in 2018, and the late-night news slot is tough for people with children. Previous anchors like Cathrine Sherriffs*, Debra Arbec, Tarah Schwartz and Annie DeMelt who worked the late-night or weekend newscasts (or both) all left those jobs for more 9-to-5 ones, and only Arbec (the 6pm anchor at CBC) is still in the industry.

On Facebook, Karwatsky said leaving was a “massively difficult decision” and would provide more details about his future in the next few weeks:

This was a massively difficult decision. The outpouring of well-wishes I’ve been getting is overwhelming. I’m going to post a proper goodbye to everyone who sat through my bad jokes at home over the years . I really want to say that there is no better group of people than the hundreds and hundreds of Montrealers I’ve been privileged to meet who’ve supported our station over the years.. people who I truly feel are part of a huge extended family for me… a family I joined nightly all those years ago in watching CFCF when I was a kid. I’ll still be a part of that family watching from home. I can’t express how much I’ll miss being a direct part it all. But I’m excited about the future and some of the great things I’ll be getting behind. Details to come over the next few weeks! Thank you to you all.

Karwatsky’s departure was briefly noted during the 5pm and 6pm newscasts on Friday, the latter by Mutsumi Takahashi.

CTV says it will name a replacement for Karwatsky. As it happens, all of the potential internal candidates are women. Caroline Van Vlaardingen would be the most obvious choice. Others with some anchoring experience include reporters Amanda Kline, Kelly Greig, Cindy Sherwin, Angela MacKenzie and Maya Johnson. If they really wanted to go for a man, the pool is much thinner locally. There’s … Rob Lurie?

Externally, well, there’s one person with decades of Montreal English-language newscast anchoring experience who’s currently available.

When Karwatsky’s replacement is named, she or he will be Takahashi’s fifth co-anchor, after Bill Haugland, Brian Britt, Todd Van der Heyden and Karwatsky. Though because the two split the four daily newscasts, they don’t actually anchor together anymore.

UPDATE (Sept. 15): Karwatsky explains his new job in a video, and opens up a bit to the Gazette’s Bill Brownstein about how autism has affected his life as a parent.

*Correction: I listed Catherine Sherriffs as an example of someone who left a late shift for a 9-to-5 job, but in fact it was because she was being moved from the late shift to a day job that she decided to leave CTV.

Global Montreal repays Jamie Orchard’s decades of service by laying her off

Jamie Orchard at her desk in the Global Montreal studio

In 1997, as the Global Television Network was preparing to launch a new station in Quebec, it tapped a 31-year-old entertainment reporter for market leader CFCF to be one of its anchors. Jamie Orchard told the Montreal Gazette at the time that “it was one of those offers I couldn’t resist. Being part of a new station getting off the ground is rare opportunity and an unbelievable challenge.”

At first, she hosted an entertainment show on the local station. Then the morning show, another entertainment show, the late-night newscast, and since 2004 she has been the senior anchor and the face of the station and its local news.

Or had. On Thursday, Orchard announced that she had been laid off, one of apparently dozens of people across the country that Corus Entertainment has decided are no longer needed.

While it’s usually standard procedure in broadcast media to have on-air staff escorted out the door when they’re told they’re being dumped, and certainly never put in front of a live microphone again, Orchard was allowed to stay on for another month, keeping the news secret that whole time, and give an on-air goodbye. (It doesn’t look like Global posted it online.)

It’s a testament to the trust Orchard has built with the station, and its viewers, and station manager Karen Macdonald, who has also been with it since the beginning.

Orchard’s social media announcement sparked a lot of reaction, including a message from Montreal’s mayor and its former mayor.

The union, headed by veteran reporter Anne Leclair, also issued a statement saying “Jamie is an excellent journalist who always approached every subject with great professionalism. She is a model for ethical journalism. We are also losing an important voice and key connection between our newsroom and Montreal’s English-speaking community.” The statement notes that the station has lost 10% of its newsroom permanent staff this summer, not including Orchard.

Naturally, the news angered Global Montreal’s viewers. Not that it has too many of them, falling well behind CTV Montreal in audience for its entire existence.

Its small audience may be loyal, but their threats to change the channel won’t matter. Local news is a money loser for Global in eastern Canada, and cutting costs has more of an effect on the bottom line than feeding that loyalty.

My reaction to this news isn’t so much anger as it is disappointment. Global seemed to be headed in the right direction. After years of cutting to the bone and centralizing the tasks of news production, there seemed to be an air of renewal, with new staff being hired and a new focus on online reporting as the future of journalism. But this summer, facing a budget crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Global backtracked and laid off that young, diverse workforce it had just hired.

Since I first visited Global Montreal and met Orchard more than a decade ago, I was left with the impression that the small station with limited resources had one special thing going for it: its staff was close, like a family. That’s why, I was told at the time, staff turnover was so low.

It’s why Orchard said she would stay as the station’s anchor for as long as it would have her. It’s why she was allowed to say goodbye on air, because she could be trusted with that.

It’s unfortunate that, 23 years later, Corus Entertainment couldn’t be nearly as loyal to Orchard as she was to her employer.

UPDATE (Sept. 22): Rather than hire a new anchor, Global has decided to have Montreal’s local evening newscast anchored out of Toronto.

CRTC approves Bell’s purchase of V

In a decision released Friday afternoon, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced it has approved the acquisition of the V television network by Bell Media, filling one of the few remaining holes in Bell’s multi-platform empire.

The V network’s five owned-and-operated stations (it also has three affiliate stations that aren’t affected by the transaction) will become part of the Bell group as of Sept. 1, and have new conditions of licence, including an incremental increase to the amount of local programming and local news they are required to broadcast:

2020-21:

  • All stations: 5 hours local programming and 2.5 hours locally reflective programming per week

2021-22:

  • CFJP-DT Montréal and CFAP-DT Québec: 8.5 hours local programming and 4.25 hours locally reflective programming per week
  • Other stations (Trois-Rivières, Saguenay, Sherbrooke): Same as 2020-21

Bell has committed to exceeding those requirements.

The CRTC has also increased Bell’s requirements for Canadian programming, which were 35% for its French channels (RDS, Canal Vie, Vrak, Canal D et al) and 10% for V, up to 40% to for the combined group.

For Programs of National Interest (mainly expensive scripted programs), which became a point of contention in this proceeding, the CRTC has sided with critics that said Bell should be forced to keep it at 18% for the entire group instead of averaging the group between the 18% for its existing French-language channels and the 10% that V was previously subject to.

The CRTC calculated tangible benefits at $3.1 million, split between the Canada Media Fund (60%) and the Bell Fund (40%). The latter, a certified independent production fund, will spend the money solely on French-language initiatives.

Bell welcomed the decision, without giving any specifics on its plans. The company told the CRTC it would expect to get newsrooms back running at the V stations by next January, and those newsrooms would be independent from those run by CTV.

The acquisition also includes Noovo.ca, which is V’s online video hub and whose change of ownership does not require CRTC approval.

The specialty channels Elle Fictions (formerly MusiquePlus) and MAX (formerly Musimax) remain under the control of Maxime Rémillard and with the same minority shareholders including the Caisse de dépôt, Investissement Québec and the Fonds de solidarité FTQ. Another CRTC decision regroups them as their own separate group, whose name is to be determined.

UPDATE (May 7): Quebecor has filed notice in court that it may appeal the decision, once the CRTC releases its reasons.

CBC suspends local TV newscasts amid COVID-19 outbreak

Updated April 15 with some 11pm newscasts returning.

Local news is vital. It provides an essential service, especially in times of emergency. People rely on local broadcasters to provide them up-to-the-minute information told by local journalists.

So what does the CBC do during an unprecedented public health crisis? It shuts it all down.

The public broadcaster announced Wednesday that effective immediately it is “consolidating” its TV news coverage, and replacing the 6pm and 11pm local newscasts at all of its stations (except CBC North, which provides news in Inuktitut) with CBC News Network.

According to a memo sent to staff this morning, the decision was made because of a lack of staff at CBC’s Toronto Broadcast Centre, which handles master control (why it has a lack of staff is not explained), as well as “much stricter newsgathering protocols.”

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How Canadians can watch Super Bowl LIV with American ads (the 2020 guide)

Letter from CTV to TV providers, provided to me by a helpful source

The free ride is over. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that the CRTC had overstepped its authority in the way it created an exception to simultaneous substitution rules, CTV will once again be taking over the U.S. feed for the Super Bowl on Sunday for Canadian cable and satellite TV subscribers.

And that means Canadians will be looking for loopholes to get around those rules. So here they are.

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BTLR panel report sides with much more regulation of online media

We can talk about making Netflix charge GST, or phasing out ads from the CBC, or the various proposed changes to telecom policy that will have a huge financial impact for the industry but be largely invisible to end users, but the real headline out of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel report released on Wednesday is this: A big expansion of government regulation in media.

I’d say this wasn’t a surprise looking at the backgrounds of the panel members, but that would be unfair. The panel was made up of legal experts with experience all over the industry, including with telecommunication providers who would be largely against these kinds of additional regulatory burdens. And, frankly, it was a surprise that they would push for this much additional regulation.

Certainly, going boldly in the other direction wasn’t an option. The terms of reference that guided the panel made it clear that the government hasn’t changed its objectives in terms of getting the industry to promote Canadian content, ensuring diversity and accessibility, protecting local news and the CBC, and ensuring that additional costs won’t be assumed (directly) by the consumer. If you have issues with those objectives, take it up with the government, not the panel.

And in any case, those 97 recommendations are in the hands of that same federal government, and it will be up to them to decide which of those recommendations to follow and which to ignore. Those recommendations that are less politically popular should get filtered out at that stage, as well as those that would be too disruptive to take the political risk.

The recommendations are summarized in various news stories about the report (CBC, Globe and Mail, Wire Report, iPolitics, Cartt.ca, The Logic, Global News, Postmedia, Toronto Star)

Here are some highlights of what the panel has proposed:

Streaming and online media

  • Make all online media subject to government oversight. Not just Netflix, but Facebook, Google, Apple, even news media websites. While they would not have to be licensed by the CRTC, the larger ones would have to at least register (and have many of the same obligations), and report confidential information. (A suggested order would make this apply only to those with more than $10 million in Canadian revenue a year.)
  • Require “curators” (media providers with editorial control over their media) to devote a portion of their content budgets to Canadian programming. (Or impose a levy where such a quota is inappropriate.)
  • Require “aggregators” and “sharers” (those without editorial control) to give a portion of their Canadian revenues to the Canadian system, including news.
  • Make foreign streaming services subject to sales tax. Quebec and Saskatchewan already do this at the provincial level, and Canadian streaming services are already subject to this, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
  • Allow the CRTC to collect data (including recommendation algorithms) from media producers and publish that data in aggregate form.
  • Require “media content undertakings” to devote portions of their catalogues to Canadian content and ensure a certain prominence to Canadian content, including in things like app stores.
  • Monitor and if necessary intervene in large media companies’ use of “Big Data” that may have privacy implications for Canadians.
  • (Carefully) establish liability for digital providers for harmful content distributed using their systems, while protecting freedom of expression.

CBC/Radio-Canada

  • Phase out all advertising within five years.
  • Set up a five-year funding guarantee for the CBC instead of having it set its budget based on parliamentary appropriations that can change with every federal budget.
  • Add “taking creative risks” to CBC’s mandate.
  • Remove specific references to radio and television from CBC’s mandate.
  • Move away from the CRTC licensing CBC’s individual services

Internet service providers

  • No new ISP tax. The panel recommended against the idea of taxing internet service directly to support Canadian media.
  • Require the CRTC to, if they deem it necessary, implement “measures to improve affordability for marginalized Canadians from diverse social locations.”

Telecommunications

  • A much larger role for the CRTC in establishing rules for how telecoms do business with each other and interconnect.
  • Give the CRTC power over “passive infrastructure” like street furniture to make it easier for telecom companies to install equipment.
  • More power to the CRTC to regulate access to telecommunications infrastructure inside large apartment and condo buildings to ensure competition.
  • Require the CRTC consult municipalities before granting permission to install telecom facilities.
  • Expand the CRTC’s jurisdiction to cover all “electronic communications services” being provided in Canada, regardless of if they’re Canadian-owned or have a presence here.
  • Direct disputes over tower sharing to the CRTC.

News media

  • Expand the federal journalism tax credit to include broadcast media.
  • Require sharing and aggregation websites like Facebook and YouTube to provide “links to the websites of Canadian sources of accurate, trusted, and reliable sources of news with a view to ensuring a diversity of voices” and require “prominence” of such links.
  • Require social media platforms abide by regulated terms of trade that balance “negotiating power” with news producers so news producers are compensated for their content being shared online.

The CRTC

  • Rename the commission the Canadian Communications Commission (which sounds a lot like a “Canadian FCC”).
  • Give the commission more powers to do market research and regulate proactively rather than based solely on industry applications.
  • Allow the commission to issue conditional and interim broadcasting decisions, fine broadcasters, and issue ex parte decisions where warranted.
  • Reduce the maximum number of commissioners to a chair, one vice-chair and seven other members, down from the current 13 total, and have all members based out of the Ottawa region.
  • Create a Public Interest Committee of experts that would “provide advice as part of the decision-making process.” The panel cites the OFCOM Consumer Panel in the U.K. as a model.
  • Create and fund an accessibility advisory committee.
  • Allow sharing of confidential information between the commission and the Competition Bureau as well as the Privacy Commissioner.
  • Synchronize rules related to powers and procedures between the telecom and broadcasting side.
  • Establish a firm 120-day deadline to review a decision when asked through an appeal by a party to it.
  • Strengthen rules that provide funding for public interest interventions in CRTC proceedings.

Production funds

  • Combine the Canada Media Fund and Telefilm Canada, which finance TV and movie production, respectively.
  • Redirect cable and satellite companies’ required contributions to the Canada Media Fund be redirected to certified independent production funds, like the Bell Fund, Fonds Quebecor, Shaw Rocket Fund etc.

Devices

  • Make it illegal to “operate devices, equipment, or components to receive unlawfully decrypted subscription programs” online (borrowing from the anti-satellite-piracy law).
  • Make the minister of industry responsible for ensuring “communications devices and their operating systems respect security requirements, protect users’ privacy, and incorporate accessibility features.”

That’s a lot. Even if there are exemptions for small businesses, this new regulatory regime would cover a large part of the online industry. And if these new laws and the regulations that stem from them aren’t very carefully implemented, there could be a lot of undesired side-effects, including many online businesses blocking out Canada because they don’t think it’s worth going through the regulatory burden.

And even those who will participate because there’s so much money at stake (like Netflix) will certainly balk at some of the regulatory obligations like submitting their algorithms to audits. When the CRTC tried to get some basic information out of Netflix as part of its Let’s Talk TV proceeding five years ago, Netflix flat-out refused, and the commission had no power to force the company to comply, so it just gave up. Stronger laws could change that (especially if other countries have similar laws), but expect a lot of resistance.

There’s also a lot unclear about how this will affect those currently licensed by the CRTC. The proposal would change the objectives of the Broadcasting Act, and (though this isn’t laid out explicitly) remove the requirement that Canadian broadcasting be Canadian-owned. That could have serious implications if, say, it allows Bell and Corus to be bought by American media giants.

The federal government has said it plans to have legislation by the end of the year. I look forward to seeing how much of this radical change it has the stomach for, especially in a minority parliament.

Bell makes Crave bilingual, opening another front in its war with Quebecor

I regret to inform you that Bell and Quebecor are at it again.

The latest skirmish? Bell’s announcement that it is launching a French version of its Crave streaming service, or more accurately making its existing Crave service bilingual. This adds a third player to the (paid) Canadian French-language TV streaming market, joining Radio-Canada’s Tou.tv Extra and Quebecor’s Club Illico.

That sounds pretty simple, and generally good news for the market. Annoying for Quebecor, obviously, to have a new competitor, but hardly something they can complain about.

Except at the same time, Bell is doing with its Super Écran pay TV channel what it did with The Movie Network in 2018: Integrating it into Crave and forcing TV providers into a new deal to get access to Super Écran’s on-demand content for their subscribers. (Super Écran will, thankfully, keep its branding though, and be referred to as a Super Écran add-on to Crave.)

Bell has reached such deals with some providers, but not Videotron, which is calling foul because Bell has shut down Super Écran Go, through which Videotron customers subscribed to Super Écran could access its content online.

The 2018 Crave-Videotron war didn’t last too long, but it needed a $100-million lawsuit to settle. And Bell and Quebecor aren’t exactly great at negotiating these days.

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CRTC rules Bell TV unfairly packaged TVA Sports

So Quebecor was right all along.

Kinda.

In a decision published on Thursday, the CRTC ruled that Bell TV unduly showed preference to its related channel RDS to the detriment of competitor TVA Sports by choosing to put the former in its most popular package in Quebec, but not the latter.

It gives Bell until Feb. 5 to tell the commission how it will rectify the situation. The two obvious options are to either add TVA Sports to the package, or take RDS out of it.

Like most TV providers, Bell offers discretionary channels on an à la carte basis, but most people have them as part of larger packages. With Bell, these larger packages are organized in tiers: Good, Better and Best in English, and Bon, Meilleur and Mieux in French. The data show that the lowest-end package of that group is by far the more popular. In Quebec, about 90% of subscribers with one of these packages has the “Bon” package, which has RDS but not TVA Sports.

Bell had argued that its contract with Quebecor only required TVA Sports to have similar packaging to RDS2, and that even that clause doesn’t apply anymore. Quebecor, meanwhile, argued that TVA Sports has greatly transformed since it launched in 2011, and is now on par with RDS, particularly since it picked up the national rights to NHL games.

The CRTC sided with Quebecor, and said “Bell deprived TVA Sports of a significant number of subscribers and several millions of dollars per year of subscription and advertising revenues, resulting in a significant loss of income.”

Quebecor’s back-of-the-envelope calculations suggested that if Bell TV treated TVA Sports the same as RDS (including paying the same per-subscriber rate), TVA Sports would not be in deficit. The rate isn’t part of this decision, but rather was decided as part of final offer arbitration in a separate case (Quebecor is mad about that one too, since the CRTC sided with Bell).

This apparent unfairness was the major reason Quebecor decided in April to cut the TVA Sports feed from Bell, until ordered by the court to re-establish it.

We’ll see what Bell does to rectify the situation. Quebecor would obviously prefer more subscribers to TVA Sports, but Bell could choose to take RDS out of the “Bon” package instead, especially if it can get away with grandfathering those who already have it.

Bell complaint dismissed

In a separate decision also released Thursday, the CRTC also sided with Quebecor in a case over packaging of Super Écran on Videotron. The decision, in response to a Bell complaint, found that Videotron did treat Super Écran differently from Quebecor’s own Club Illico when it removed Super Écran from the “Premium” group of channels, but that there was insufficient evidence that Super Écran suffered financially because of it.

Videotron’s pick-your-own-package model, which is the main way they’re selling TV services these days, invites customers to choose a certain number of channels. Separate from that are “Premium” services that cost more. Most Videotron packages allow one or two “Premium” selections from a list of services, that used to include Super Écran and The Movie Network (now Crave), plus Super Channel, the over-the-top service Club Illico, and a package that includes FX, AMC and U.S. super stations.

Videotron removed Super Écran and Crave from the “Premium” offer after Bell increased its per-subscriber fee. It argued it was just too expensive to continue to be a throw-in like that. Instead, you have to search under “other specialties” to find them among the ethnic channels and pay an extra $17 (Super Écran) or $20 (Crave/HBO) a month.

The decision seems to suggest the issue could be revisited if Bell can prove there was significant financial impact on Super Écran as a result of this change.

Supreme Court overturns CRTC order banning ad substitution during Super Bowl

After three years of Canadian cable TV subscribers having access to American ads during the Super Bowl, we’ll be going back to the previous system after all.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the CRTC exceeded its authority when it issued an order that required cable and satellite TV companies to not substitute U.S. feeds with Canadian ones during the Super Bowl, in response to demands from Canadians to be able to watch the U.S. Super Bowl ads.

The 7-2 decision explicitly leaves open the possibility that the CRTC could use its authority under other sections of the Broadcasting Act to possibly reach the same result. The most obvious way would be under article 4(3) of the Simultaneous Substitution Regulations, which state that the CRTC can declare a condition whereby simultaneous substitution would not be in the public interest, and prohibit it accordingly.

But that won’t happen before the next Super Bowl less than two months away.

Specifically, the court found that article 9(1)h of the Broadcasting Act, the same article that allows the CRTC to require TV distributors to include certain channels in their basic packages and collect fees from every subscriber for them, “does not empower the CRTC to impose terms and conditions on the distribution of programming services generally,” and since the order the CRTC issued in 2016 does not require these companies to distribute the Super Bowl, its wording is invalid.

The article states that the CRTC may “require any licensee who is authorized to carry on a distribution undertaking to carry, on such terms and conditions as the Commission deems appropriate, programming services specified by the Commission.”

The majority found that this wording can’t be stretched to give the CRTC a bunch of powers it doesn’t say it has. The CRTC can order providers to carry certain channels, but that’s not what the Super Bowl order does.

This is notably the third time that an order issued under article 9(1)h has been rejected for this reason. Previous orders invalidated the CRTC’s “value for signal” regime that would have required providers pay for local TV stations, and a requirement for TV providers to abide by the Wholesale Code.

The court did not make decisions on other arguments, such as whether the CRTC has the power to regulate individual programs, or whether the CRTC’s order conflicts with the Copyright Act.

The two dissenting judges found that Bell and the NFL had not met their burden to prove that the CRTC decision was unreasonable, and generally deferred to the CRTC and its expertise in interpreting the section of the Broadcasting Act it was citing. It also found the CRTC’s decision was not invalidated by the Copyright Act.

The decision probably only accelerates a process that was coming anyway, as the Canadian government had already agreed as part of negotiations on a new trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico to overturn the CRTC’s order.

And, of course, there are still other ways to watch the U.S. Super Bowl ads.