This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.
By Peter Menzies, September 5, 2023
Canada’s broadcasting industry has been frozen in time because its regulator is too overwhelmed by its new duties to manage core functions.
That reality was brought home in three recent Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announcements – each of which frees up resources and staff to deal with the workload created by the Online Streaming Act.
That legislation, known as Bill C-11, amended the Broadcasting Act to give the CRTC authority over the internet and came into law in the spring. But despite reassurances that the Commission was ready for its expanded role, chair Vicky Eatrides has drawn a halt to virtually all its work on the broadcasting side, punting it all into the future. This is likely to present a huge challenge for companies trying to adapt to the rapidly evolving ways in which people choose to be informed, enlightened and entertained.
Early this year, just days before Ms. Eatrides assumed her role, Joanne Levy, the regional commissioner for Saskatchewan and Manitoba, was declaring the CRTC fully prepared to shift from regulating the contained world of airwaves and cable to harnessing the internet and its infinity.
Ms. Levy, in a statement delivered to On Screen Manitoba’s All Access conference in early January, indicated the CRTC was well-prepared for the enormous task before it.
“The CRTC will hit the ground running,” she told delegates at the conference. “There is already an extensive amount of work that’s been completed by CRTC staff that will enable us to swing into action.”
And swing into action they did, announcing an aggressive process designed to get money from foreign streamers such as Netflix and Disney+ flowing to approved film and television producers by 2025.
But as it turns out, that comes with a mighty cost.
On Aug. 8, the CRTC announced the extension of licenses for 343 television channels, discretionary services, cable and satellite services. Those that were due to expire Aug. 31 were all renewed as is until the same date in 2025, while those expiring next year were similarly extended to 2026. By then, one assumes, the CRTC thinks it may have time to consider requests from licensees for revised formats and other modifications to their obligations and start playing catch up.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 22, the entire radio industry was put on hold.
“The Commission examines each year hundreds of applications and complaints filed by the public or industry stakeholders in regard to radio undertakings and foresees significant delays in examining them during the modernization of its regulations,” the Commission stated in an information bulletin announcing a halt on all activity “for a period of approximately two years.”
There wasn’t even a hint of this in Alberta and the Northwest Territories regional commissioner Nirmala Naidoo’s speech to the Western Association of Broadcasters conference in June. Indeed, she even made note of the need to “make the most of new and emerging trends and technologies” and that “Canada’s regulatory regime aims to maximize these opportunities and to help broadcasters meet these challenges.”
Well, maybe in a couple of years. We’ll see.
The third white flag came two days later when Ms. Eatrides rolled out the CRTC’s plan to manage its role in overseeing the Online News Act. It, too, got launched into the future. So, even while Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge is encouraging Big Tech companies to go ahead and make deals with news organizations, the CRTC isn’t even planning to have a list of “eligible news organizations” in place until late 2024/early 2025, when negotiations may commence.
The predecessor to the Online Streaming Act, Bill C-10, was first introduced in Parliament in November, 2020, and additional financial resources were given to the CRTC to prepare for the enormous expansion of its role, one critics suspected could take up to a decade to unfold. Either someone at the CRTC badly underestimated the size of the task at hand or the Heritage ministry sorely underfunded the additional staff and resources that would be required.
Former Heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez had forecast the implementation process for the Online Streaming Act could take place within nine months. Ms. Eatrides’ predecessor, Ian Scott, estimated it would be closer to two years.
But no one said that, in exchange, the CRTC would – to all intents and purposes – be required to abandon what has for decades been its job No. 1: the regulation of radio, television and cable. The backlog that these delays will create will take years to clear and, in the meantime, there is a very real risk that the innovation vital to keep Canada’s broadcasting industries healthy will grind to a halt.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former publisher of the Calgary Herald and a previous vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).