Sisters and Brothers:

 

Here’s a quick commentary on the CRTC's group licensing decision.

 

“Group” licensing applies to the “vertically integrated” TV networks and distributors (“BDUs”): Bell, Corus/Shaw and Rogers in English Canada, Québecor and Groupe V in Québec. There were lots of issues and multiple rulings packed into the one proceeding.

 

Unifor locals were waiting for two big decisions, local TV (2017-148, -149, -150, -151) and OMNI (2017-153,-154).

 

On local TV, the CRTC was implementing its local TV policy (2016-224) published last spring. The task was to flesh out what they meant in 2016-224 by obliging the broadcasters to maintain “historical” levels of funding and broadcasting of local news. The Commission had already ruled out making “local presence” (i.e. staffing minimums, bricks and mortar) a binding condition of license.

 

Sorry to report this, but the broadcasters got exactly what they asked for on spending and programming for local news.

 

On expenditures, the broadcasters colluded to propose a “historical” spending figure of “11%” of previous years’ revenue. We pointed out to the Commission that the broadcasters’ labour costs were all very different, so why did the networks all spend the same percentage of revenue on news?

 

The CRTC just gave them what they wanted.

 

Much worse, on news programming hours the broadcasters also asked in unison, and received from the CRTC, a standardized weekly minimum of 6 hours in major markets, and 3 hours everywhere else. Never mind that the average of actual news programming by the VIs in major metropolitan markets is eleven hours per week, 85% higher than the CRTC’s new minimum.

 

Why? Because CTV persuaded the CRTC that for competitive reasons the Commission should adopt a minimum exhibition standard tied to the lowest common denominator, meaning Rogers. Thanks to this decision, both CTV and Corus now have more room to cut programming because the “historical” levels of programming are artificially set too low. We all saw what just happened to local sports news in Ontario and Alberta.

 

Another part of the local TV ruling concerned station closings. The CRTC will require broadcasters to give four months’ notice of a station closing and then show cause to the CRTC why they should be allowed to do it. There’s not much more guidance than that.

 

This may be another example of the CRTC’s bark being far greater than its bite. In issuing the local TV policy last spring, the Commission ruled that because it was opening the sluice gates to divert the community portion of BDU TV funding to local news, “VI” local stations could not be closed. They were a little unclear as to whether this applied only to the VIs who chose to reallocate those BDU funds or whether it was a prohibition on closings of any VI stations. Whatever they meant a year ago, in this licensing decision they are clearly backing away from a total ban.

 

Finally on Local TV, this decision gives us some insight into Chair Jean Pierre Blais’ lofty rhetoric about the big broadcasters’ civic duty to invest in local TV, while failing to impose any meaningful conditions of licence (COL) for expenditures, feet-on-the-street, or programming hours, COLs that would probably force VIs to increase their cross subsidization of their broadcast divisions.

 

Blais says he has given the VIs the tools to fund local TV. In the TV policy, he allowed them to strip money out of community TV and put it into local TV. In the licensing decision, he points out that the broadcasters can transfer Canadian Programming Expenditures from specialty TV to local TV.

 

It becomes clear what his local TV legacy really is. Give the VIs the freedom to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” and whatever Canadian programming is sacrificed is their decision, not his.

 

It’s obvious from this ruling that our efforts to lobby the federal government to act on local TV, to take the steps that the Commission will not, is the most important task we can undertake.

 

On the OMNI ruling, the Commission granted Rogers a three year licence for reviving daily local news, funded by a 12 cent per month mandatory carriage fee.

 

Unifor strongly supported Rogers’ application as the least imperfect solution to the business model problem (although we did urge the commission to grant a larger carriage fee with higher programming obligations).

 

It is pretty clear that Blais sees the 3-year license until 2020 as nothing more than a stop gap measure. The Commission issued a companion decision, actually a notice of hearing, inviting all comers to submit applications for a national ethnic TV service with more language groups, more original programming, and more regional programming. The application deadline is August 2017.

 

This battle for ethnic TV is long from over. The big question is: given what we know about the economics of ethnic TV, can anyone make it pay

 

 

 

 

Angelo Contarin

President, Unifor Local 723m

angeloc@unifor723m.org

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