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Media Bites: The CRTC Needs a "Hip" Replacement

06/20/2013 08:53 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

You've heard the sassy expression, "said no one ever," right? It's a line that seems to be taking social media by storm these days as a snarky ending to all sorts of sarcastic tweets and status updates --"middle-aged guys in Crocs are sooo sexy, said no one ever," etc.

It's also a good line to summarize the Canadian government's current approach to media regulation. As the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) sits poised to embark on an unprecedentedly sweeping revision of the laws governing Canadian broadcasting this fall, it's striking to notice just how much of their agenda is dominated by worries and wants that I'm fairly sure no one in this country has actually expressed -- ever.

For instance, when's the last time you heard someone gripe that their cable package didn't contain nearly enough mandatory channel "diversity?"

"Yes honey, I know money's tight, and I know we only want to watch OLN, CNN, and CTV, but dammit, I can't shake the feeling that we should also pay for a few channels we've never heard of that air shows we don't like. It's just the right thing to do."

Yet this most tortured of arguments -- the idea that Canadians need to enjoy a "diversity of programming" and must therefore be forced to purchase cable channels in large, arbitrary bundles -- is widely expected to provoke much defensive passion during the big CRTC policy revaluation jamboree, so sacred is this principle to the cable cartels that invariably dominate the discussion.

Or what about the oft-heard complaint that it's too easy to not get certain cable channels? Sun News, for instance. I'm sure everyone who isn't subscribing to Sun News at the moment feels very guilty about all the money they're not giving to Ezra Levant and friends. If only the government could somehow reign in my cruel selfishness,  they cry.

Well, good news nobody, because adding fresh faces to the CRTC's "mandatory carriage" roster will also be on the autumn agenda, as networks like Sun finally hear, after months of begging, if they'll be getting the same status as the Aboriginal Peoples Network, French CBC, and the eight other channels the CRTC has previously declared we're not allowed to not give money to.

And then there's Netflix, which, of course, is widely hated by its two million Canadian subscribers because it offers just too many high-quality American shows and movies and not nearly enough low-budget Canadian-made dreck. As the Toronto Star's Michael Geist noted last month, it's "become standard operating procedure at CRTC hearings to ominously point to the Netflix threat," and the only reason such pointing hasn't caused any trouble so far is because the CRTC hasn't yet considered Netflix important enough to be worth their time. But with cable subscriptions plummeting, it seems the internet-based streaming service is now officially too powerful to ignore.

Options on the CRTC's table include forcing Netflix to make a certain quota of its content Canadian -- say, 55%, the number Canadian cable channels currently have to obey -- or, at the very least, funneling some of their profits into subsidies for the creation of Canadian movies and television shows.

Options on Netflix's table include leaving Canada.

Granted, these are all worst-case scenarios. Optimists have focused on of a recent string of speeches by CRTC president Jean-Pierre Blais in which he's spouted a bunch of no-duh truisms like "broadcasting, as we once knew it, is no longer, and will never again be the same" and "innovation is essential to survival in a fast-changing, digital world" that nevertheless sound inspiring and  progressive when uttered by the boss of Canada's most regressive regulatory body.

Chairman Blais has even -- if you can believe this -- suggested public feedback and considerations of the "public interest" may play a larger role than usual in his group's future deliberations, citing the CRTC's recent decision to limit the punishments cell phone companies can level against you for cancelling a contract as proof he's not completely tone-deaf to public wants.

But as Geist noted in his piece, the CRTC's understanding of the "public interest" still tends to be vastly different than that of most normal humans, in large part because the Commission refuses to shake the belief that the Canadian public is fundamentally A-OK with limiting consumer freedom so long as it "protects Canadian culture."

Now, "culture," as most folks understand it, entails shared traditions of family, work, religion, food, education, housing, and commerce, from which emerge common standards of what's cool, funny, scary, romantic, offensive, exciting, or sad -- which determine our tastes in entertainment.

And as it stands, Canadians' tastes aren't really that different from American ones (400 years of co-dependent cohabitation on a common continent will do that), which explains why Canadian writers and directors often become rich and famous in Hollywood, and why all-American hits like the Big Bang Theory and Survivor consistently top the Canadian charts.

In topsy-turvy CRTC world, however, culture is not something that sprouts organically from the bottom up, it's  imposed from the top down by an entitled clique of cable companies and heavily-subsidized artists who believe patriotism requires watching and buying whatever junk they produce. And if the people won't, the state should make 'em.

It's a fine opinion to have, I guess. It's certainly the argument that seems to have won the day.

Just don't expect any normal Canadian to say it -- ever.

 

 

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