Writing in the Globe and Mail, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley reflects on the lessons held by the hit show Vikings for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The show represents the new television universe that sees people watch what they want, when they want, and poses a mortal threat to regulators. “The CRTC is an important part of the explanation of the failure of Canadians to produce edgy popular programming”, writes Crowley.
Brian Lee Crowley, FEBRUARY 21, 2014
In the hit TV show, Vikings, the earl who rules over the Vikings is stuck in the old ways. He always wants to go raiding to the east, because, after all, they’ve always gone east, and even though the people there are just as impoverished as the Vikings, well, there is no place else to go.
Then along comes the hero, Ragnar, who has two things: The rumour of rich lands to the west (England) and a technological innovation allowing him, for the first time, to navigate there. When Ragnar returns with a ship full of booty, the earl confiscates it all and decides Ragnar is a dangerous and disruptive force who endangers the community’s way of life. Coincidentally, he is also a mortal threat to the earl’s dwindling authority.
Jean-Pierre Blais, the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the federal regulator of the airwaves, seems determined to channel the earl in the face of the rumours of gold in the TV programming world. As Mr. Blais himself acknowledged in a recent media interview, TV is on a roll; edgy shows such as Homeland andBreaking Bad attract huge audiences. He lamented that Canadian producers and broadcasters did not appear to be “taking the creative risks that seem to have been the hallmark of the current golden age of television.”
What Mr. Blais does not seem to realize is that the programming he admires is the product of a world that, economically, culturally and technologically, has no use for a CRTC. Indeed, the CRTC is an important part of the explanation of the failure of Canadians to produce edgy popular programming.
Perhaps there was such a role to be played once. TV was broadcast over the airwaves (spectrum) and that spectrum was fairly limited, especially given the technology of the time. Since it was expensive to get into the broadcasting game, there was a small handful of powerful broadcasters not subject to much competition. TV was exclusively a “push” medium; broadcasters and their advertisers decided what was produced and consumers had relatively few means to express their preferences. Moreover, a broadcast medium reaches everyone in its coverage area, including, for example, children. These factors gave government a plausible argument that TV was a public good, and Canadians needed a strong regulatory agency to ensure quality programming over the public airwaves.
None of those justifications hold water any more. TV is increasingly delivered over the Internet, where bandwidth abounds and the CRTC does not rule. Technology is driving down the costs of entry for content producers. Anybody with a good-quality mobile phone and a YouTube account can be rewarded with millions of viewers. Most of the programming that Mr. Blais looks on so longingly isn’t produced by traditional “broadcasters” at all, but by pay-TV services such as HBO and Netflix.
Perhaps most importantly, TV is increasingly a “pull” medium. That is to say consumers can find and pay for exactly the programming that suits their taste and budget. Look no further for the explanation of the anger consumers feel at “bundling,” where they are forced (chiefly by the CRTC but also by monopolistic cable providers) to pay for programs they do not wish to watch in order to get the ones they do. Such bureaucratically dictated cross-subsidization begets mediocrity.
If content producers don’t produce stuff people want to watch, they go out of business, at least in the brave new golden age of television. But the CRTC and the hoary old thinking behind it are the chief obstacle to such an age in Canada.
Mr. Blais thinks that this can be justified by mumbo-jumbo like: “One should really think of the television system as a public good that delivers entertainment, yes, but it also delivers other public interest objectives.” Translation: If consumers don’t choose what the CRTC thinks they should, then those preferences should simply be overridden for the greater good.
Good luck. I can buy a set-top box now for less than $100 that allows me to pull television in over the Internet without the need for a CRTC-regulated cable company. For a few bucks a year (not a month) I can subscribe to the most popular pay services. I can get software that allows me to appear to have an American rather than a Canadian IP address, thus defeating the CRTC’s misguided attempts to impose its preferences on me.
Be warned, Earl Blais. New technology allows Canadians to sail west to the rich new lands of TV programming. Freedom underpins the golden age. You are freedom’s opposite. Ragnar is coming for you.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.