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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

CRTC reins in media ownership


The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) new regulatory policy to ensure “plurality of editorial voices” and “diversity of programming” in private media is long overdue. Canadians have been waiting for some 38 years. Studies, commissions and reports have all called for regulations to restrict the concentration of ownership in television, radio and newspapers. Until now, those cries were largely ignored.

But advocates of stronger regulation say this new policy is too little too late. The damage is already done, much of it in the past year since Konrad von Finckenstein, former head of the Competition Bureau took over as chair of the CRTC.

Under Finckenstein’s leadership the CRTC approved five big mergers worth almost $6 billion dollars, including CanWest Global’s partnership with U.S. financier Goldman Sachs to buy Alliance Atlantis for $2.3 billion and CTVglobemedia’s purchase of CHUM Ltd. for $1.4 billion.

This merger madness sparked an outcry and the CRTC responded by calling public hearings into the issue in September 2007. The agency received 162 written complaints, 1,800 comments from the campaign by Canadians for Democratic Media and 52 parties testified. In discussing the effects of media consolidation, many people noted that while there may be more choices out there, viewers, listeners and readers are getting less news and information than ever before especially at the local level. In response the CRTC has adopted a new policy (Broadcasting Notice CRTC 2008-4) to address cross-media ownership, diversity of programming and broadcast distribution.

Cross-media ownership – Television, radio and newspapers

1. This CRTC policy aims to provide a “plurality of editorial voices” in a local market by limiting ownership to two of three mainstream media in a local market – television, radio and local daily newspapers. So the CRTC set the limit at two, but retained its longstanding policy that allows a media company to own one conventional TV station, and no more than two AM and FM stations in a large market (three in smaller markets). Since newspapers fall outside the jurisdiction of the CRTC and are nominally regulated by the Competition Bureau, it’s unclear how this new rule will do anything to ensure diversity and plurality. In Vancouver for example, CanWest Global can continue legally to publish the Vancouver Sun, the Province, National Post, its community weeklies and broadcast Global TV.

The CRTC also classified The Globe and Mail and Toronto-based National Post as national newspapers, not local dailies. The ideal that the National Post is a national newspaper defies many Canadians. In Atlantic Canada it’s been years since we’ve had home delivery or could buy a copy at the corner store. The national designation, however, is good news for the CTVglobemedia, owner of The Globe and Mail, with its extensive television and radio holdings.

The CRTC did not wade into the complexities of online or wireless journalism. It also excluded weekly newspapers from its calculations. In failing to recognize this vast and fast growing sector, the CRTC has overlooked the fact that there is little plurality of editorial voices in many parts of rural Canada. Small communities are dependent on mostly corporate-owned weekly papers and broadcast media that pipe-in news from urban centres.

But in the current media landscape, no companies violate this new CRTC cross-media ownership rule. Challenges will arise should a media company with newspaper and television holdings, for example, want to expand and buy another media outlet with radio holdings.

Ownership Policies and Diversity of Programming

2. This CRTC policy is all about trying to create a balance in market power and preventing any one company from controlling content in the television sector. The rule limits a television broadcaster to 45 per cent of a national audience for its conventional, pay and specialty channels. Currently that’s not an issue, but this regulation has serious implications for future mergers. The 45 per cent cap means the two big private English-language broadcasters CTVglobemedia (37.4%) and CanWest Global (26.3%) and the two French-language broadcasters Quebecor (32%) and Astral Media (23.2 %) have limited wiggle room. Future acquisitions will not be simple and may require splitting up companies to stay under the 45 per cent.

That said, the CRTC allowed that television broadcasters can expand their national audience above the 45 per cent cap the old fashioned way – through normal competition or by introducing new services – but not through acquiring other media companies.

An editorial in The Globe and Mail on January 16, 2008 complained about ‘the arbitrariness” of the 45 per cent cap. . But the CRTC notes in its 25-page document that it’s just following the figure used by the Competition Bureau to determine market dominance in other industries and private media by all accounts are businesses with shareholders and profit margins. Canadian television broadcasters operate in a protected market and have yet to make a convincing case for relaxed regulations or special treatment. Indeed, a case could be made for a much lower national audience cap for television given that the airwaves are public property and according to the Broadcasting Act these media companies are supposed to be providing diverse programming that is in the public interest. But most media companies don’t want to have this discussion.

Diversity of broadcast distribution services (BDU)

3. This new CRTC regulation aims to uphold the current competitive environment of broadcast distribution and ensure diversity of voices. It will not allow one company in any community to control all means of broadcasting distribution such as direct-to-home, cable, and satellite television. For example, this policy would prevent a merger between satellite television distributors Star Choice and Bell Express Vu. The CRTC did not consider phone television a competitor at this point.

Reaction predictable

Even though the new rules do not affect current media ownership in Canada and are not retroactive, big media as evidenced in The Globe and Mail editorial are attacking the CRTC and the new rules. This is the same sort of rhetoric we have heard over the last 38 years at any suggestion that public policy rein in media expansion. The CRTC and government have caved in time and time again to the huge pressure from publishers, private broadcasters and their powerful lobby, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. It’s about time that the CRTC took a stand and reminded broadcasters that they are caretakers of the public airwaves and have a responsibility not just to their shareholders but the Canadian public.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and ACTRA applaud the CRTC for doing its job, but are these changes enough to achieve plurality of editorial voices and diversity of programming in Canadian media?

The Communication, Energy and Paper Workers Union and Canadian Media Guild say no – this regulatory policy does little to limit more media concentration. The recent round of mergers and earlier ones in 2000-01 have caused irreparable loss of diversity. That’s true, but one must give a nod to CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein who has taken tentative steps to contain media’s business interests and inject public interest back into the mandate of the CRTC and broadcasting. It is important to keep a close watch on future media developments to see if the CRTC upholds this new regulatory policy when faced with new mergers and when broadcasters renew their licences. If the CRTC does not enforce its regulatory policy then maybe it’s time to join the president of the Media Guild (The Toronto Star, Jan. 16, 2007)   and call for a review the CRTC and its operational guidelines.

References

Broadcaster Magazine. “CRTC Preserves Media Concentration in Canada – Media Guild.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

—.“ BREAKING NEWS — CRTC Introduces New Policies to Media Ownership.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

—. “ CRTC Ownership Policy Permits Big Players to Get Bigger–CEP Union.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

—.“ CRTC Did Not Go Far Enough In Supporting Programming–Directors Guild.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

—. “ CRTC’s Diversity of Voices Policy.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

CBC News. “CRTC imposes cross-media ownership restrictions.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

CRTC, “Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2008-4,” Ottawa, January 15, 2008

Accessed Jan. 16, 2008)

The Globe and Mail. Editorial. “The CRTC plucks a 45 from the air.” January 16, 2008, A16.

Mediacaster. “CRTC Introduces New Policies to Media Ownership.” January 15, 2008.

Accessed Jan 16, 2008.

Robertson, Grant. “New rules to crimp broadcast mergers.” The Globe and Mail. January 16, 2008. B1.

Shecter, Barbara. “CRTC restricts media ownership in local markets.” CanWest News Service. Halifax Daily News. January 16, 2008. 20.

Trichur, Rita. “CRTC limits newspaper, radio ownership.” The Toronto Star. Accessed Jan. 16, 2008.

Trichur, Rita. “The Critics slam CRTC cross-media ownership policy.” The Toronto Star. Jan 16, 2008/ Accessed Jan 16 2008.

KIM KIERANS is the Director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, where she also acts as professor of broadcast writing, reporting and documentary. Her research areas include community newspapers and media concentration.

Kieran spent 22 years reporting, editing, and producing for CBC Radio (Maritimes) and continues to work as a freelance writer and editor for CBC One and a columnist on community news.

She holds a BA (Hons) in Classics from King’s/Dalhousie and a MA in Atlantic Canada Studies from Saint Mary’s University.

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