You may have missed this in the Rob Ford scandal of the day, but today the Government announced that it was calling on the CRTC to report on ‘television channel choice’ under s. 15 of the Broadcasting Act. Specifically Minister of Heritage Shelly Glover said:
“our Government believes Canadian families should be able to choose the combination of television channels they want . . . This decision is an important step in defending Canadian consumers, who want choice and flexibility in their television services. Our request will ensure that the CRTC develops a more complete roadmap to unbundle TV channels.”
You may be scratching your head on this. Yes, the CRTC did just launch its Talk TV consultation and among the many questions being asked are: “If you subscribe to cable TV or satellite TV, how satisfied are you with the way your channels are packaged?”. Why does the government need to do this and what is the significance of a s. 15 report?
First, the CRTC decides on its own what it is going to study and what public hearings it will hold. The one exception is if, under s. 15 of the Broadcasting Act, the Governor in Council asks the CRTC to hold a hearing or make a report on any matter under the CRTC’s jurisidiction. So the significance of the s.15 request is that the CRTC must now report on that narrow issue to the government rather than its usually reporting which is just to the public. But is that all?
We have to ask ourselves why the government would ask for a report on one question when it is going to get a report (we all will) on the many questions which are part of the Talk TV consultation. This appears to me to be a political response to a very complex issue that the CRTC is trying to look at in its entirety. It speaks to voters without having to actually implement any changes.
The government has done this before. I’m sure that you remember the very public fight that went on between the broadcasters and cable companies over Fee For Carriage (which then morphed into Value for Signal). September 16, 2009 the government requested under s. 15 a report on the implications of a value for signal regime. The issue had come up time and time again during public hearings and most recently under the April 2009 hearing on the renewal of licences for the private conventional stations (i.e. Global, CTV etc.). As part of the licence renewal decision, the Commission decided that it would hold a hearing in the Fall of 2009 on, among other things, a value for signal regime. That hearing was pre-empted by the s. 15 notice which effectively hived off the issue from the other outstanding issues and resulted in its own public consultation.
Did the outcome change because it was a s.15 report and not a regular hearing? I don’t think so. There was more of a public consultation than had probably been planned. From the perspective of an industry stakeholder we had the same submission process and public hearing. The broadcasters and BDUs had the same fight in the media and in the hearing room that they would have otherwise. There was no legislative response from the government. And the whole issue became moot when Shaw bought Global and Bell bought CTV. However, there might have been a political win from the government being seen as a champion of the consumer who was being caught between the broadcasters and the BDUs but little practical impact.
In this case, the CRTC could decide to hold a separate consultation on unbundling or just report specifically on the topic from the existing hearings. They were given the deadline of April 30 to deliver the report to the government so it is expected that they will prepare it as they are preparing the report on the public consultation. The s. 15 request adds a political layer to the consultation and but it may not have any practical impact beyond the extra workload on CRTC staff.
Update: Cartt.ca (subscription) has a link the the actual s.15 order as well as a description of the relevant parts of the order and its relevance.