The CRTC is the last line of cultural defence

'Mr. Noble... you're not smiling. Perhaps you'll smile more after the break.'
With that, the vice-chair of the CRTC, Madame Andrée Wylie, called for a 15-minute break in proceedings. Indeed, Jerry Noble, who was quarterbacking Global's pitch for new conventional TV licences in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe region, was not a happy camper. His team was the first of five applicants to make their case before a panel of very smart, very cynical and very well-informed commissioners.
Thank God Global was first.

‘Mr. Noble… you’re not smiling. Perhaps you’ll smile more after the break.’

With that, the vice-chair of the CRTC, Madame Andrée Wylie, called for a 15-minute break in proceedings. Indeed, Jerry Noble, who was quarterbacking Global’s pitch for new conventional TV licences in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe region, was not a happy camper. His team was the first of five applicants to make their case before a panel of very smart, very cynical and very well-informed commissioners.

Thank God Global was first.

Teams associated with the other four applicants were glad for the opportunity to temporarily observe the fire fight from a safe distance. We all relished the chance to gauge the nature and mood of the commissioners before we became the target. No one enjoyed Jerry’s discomfort because we were next.

Five companies competed for the last remaining analog signals available in Canada’s wealthiest TV market. Existing Toronto broadcasters, enthusiastically intervened against the applicants. And the entire industry was in Hamilton late last year, watching this TV licensing drama unfold.

I had a bit role with one of the applicants. The 20 or so members of our team spent weeks together tearing the application apart, finding weaknesses, grilling each other, learning more and more about the hearing process, learning how to listen and answer questions clearly. Gradually we merged into a tight team. Weekends and weekdays were spent away from family. Meals consisted of sandwiches. No one slept well. Moonie conventions must be like this.

Torstar, Global, Craig, Alliance Atlantis, Rogers applied. CHUM intervened against. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were consumed. Money was spent on consumer research in order to prove to the commission that consumer demand for the featured programming existed. Consultants were hired to project tuning and ad revenue levels out over the next seven years. Economists debated the current and future prospects for the economy in general and for ad spending in particular. Operational plans were developed. Programming budgets were tallied. Detailed financials were prepared. Special communication lawyers were hired. Rooms were booked. Rehearsal halls reserved.

Why all the fuss? Conventional TV licences are incredibly valuable and the CRTC stands between the media aspirants and the licences. Licences go only to those corporate entities that can convince the CRTC that they are advancing the cause of Canada’s Broadcasting Act. Because of this act, Canadians own their broadcasting industry. The act ensures that Canadian content exists in TV programs and radio music. The ‘Act’ has produced a broadcasting system that can strengthen Canada’s cultural, social and economic structures.

In short, the CRTC is trying hard to keep the cultural poachers at bay.

Not everyone loves the CRTC. Critics say the CRTC has become too cumbersome. The institution has become too expensive. It has become too powerful.

I say we’re damn lucky to have the institution and the people. CRTC commissioners must be remarkably dedicated. Why else would they adopt a kind of gypsy lifestyle, moving about the country, listening patiently to complaints from individuals, non-profit associations, cultural bodies, all the while playing regulatory chicken with the big boys?

These people are our last line of cultural defence.

A country that cannot field an indigenous media system does not deserve to be a country.

But moving for a moment down from the lofty perches of nationalism and cultural protectionism – getting down to the level of food on the table – the CRTC also helps us all keep our jobs.

If there were no CRTC, there would be no difference between Canadian and U.S. broadcasting – no independent production or music creation. Outsiders would own our media. New York and L.A. media buyers would buy commercial time from reps in New York and L.A. to reach Canadian target groups.

If that’s the case, why bother having Canadian agencies at all since there would be a greatly diminished production and creative community here. Might as well drop the marketing outposts while we’re at it since there would be few agencies, media planners, creative departments or account executives.

So the next time the CRTC commissioners are in town, drop by the hearing room. Watch them make a few high-powered broadcasters sweat. Watch them negotiate some conditions of licence that will help hold the last line of defence.

Watch them keep your job alive.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.