Angry Hardin book chronicles CRTC's
sellout of Canadian TV to commerse
Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television, by Herschel Hardin,
Douglas & Mclntyre, 339 pages, $24.95
Book Reviewed by Matthew Clark
In this angry book, Herschel Hardin presents a detailed and closely
reasoned indictment of the commercial television industry in Canada
and most especially of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission, which (Hardin argues) has failed to
carry out its regulatory mandate.
According to the Broadcast Act of 1967-68, which created the CRTC,
"the Canadian broadcasting system should be effectively owned
and controlled by Canadians so as to safeguard, enrich, and strengthen
the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada."
Further, the Act called for the use by each broadcaster of "predominantly
Canadian creative and other resources."
The 1965 report of the Fowler Committee, which led to the Broadcasting
Act, says that "broadcasting should be a major instrument for
the development of a distinctive Canadian culture . . ." "To
reflect a nation's culture and to help create it a
broadcasting system must not minister solely to the comfort of the
people. It must not always play safe . . . One of the essential
tasks of the broadcasting system is to stir up the minds and emotions
of the people, and occasionally to make large numbers of them acutely
According to the Fowler report, two-thirds of evening programs of
English-language commercial stations in the Toronto area were of
American origin, and 75 percent of evening television viewers were
watching the American shows. "Let to operate freely, economic
factors would quickly tend to make Canadian private television stations
mere extensions of the American networks." The licensing of
the CTV stations, which were Canadian but commercial, had
"merely increased the broadcasting of popular entertainment,
mainly of American origin," and all too often, the Canadian
programs were imitations of American programs. (Throughout Closed
Circuits, Hardin laments the Americanization of Canadian television;
he complains almost as much about the dominant position, in both
finances and programming, of southern Ontario.)
The rhetoric of the Broadcasting Act and of the Fowler Committee
was taken over wholesale by Pierre Juneau, the first chairman of
the CRTC, and Harry Boyle, vice-chairman and then, following Juneau, chairman.
"The commission is arguing," Juneau said, "that unless
we do something about it, Canadians are going to have their choices
dictated to them by a distribution system which will inevitably
find it more economic to pipe all over Canada the overflow of mass-produced
American programs rather than support programs that are relevant
to Canadians." But the louder the commission talked, Hardin
argues, the faster they were selling Canadian television down the
"The historical purpose of the CRTC," Hardin argues, "was
to allow the Liberal government to avoid facing up to the situation
and taking necessary action . . . The CRTC was not primarily a regulatory
agency. It was a diversionary agency."
At the time, however, the CRTC was taken seriously by both its supporters
and its opponents. The broadcast industry did not welcome the CRTC's
initial (early 1970) Canadian content proposal that 60 per
cent of prime time television be Canadian and that 30 per cent of
all music on radio be Canadian. According to Broadcaster,
the industry's trade magazine, "What (the CRTC) is really doing
perhaps unknowingly is laying the foundations on which
other less scrupulous authorities may readily build a fascistic
machine, comparable to the one Hitler used to enslave most of Europe."
Hardin, in turn, characterizes the commercial broadcasters: "Their
convenient ideology was the American ideology that freedom means
the freedom of commercial exploitation, and their freedom to be
as American, conformist, derivative and pandering as humanly possible,
while protesting nevertheless their Canadian citizenship."
The CRTC faced pressure to modify the proposed regulations not only
from the broadcast industry, but also from many politicians, who
were responding to their constituents' desire to keep on watching
American television. And, indeed, over a period of time, the regulations
were gradually eroded, both directly and indirectly.
In December 1969 the CRTC had announced a ban on feeding U.S. signals
by microwave and cable to areas distant from the border, but in
April 1970 the ban on microwave links was lifted. The quota for
prime-time Canadian television content was reduced to 50 per cent
from 60 per cent, and the definition of prime time, which had been
6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., became 6 p.m. to midnight. Averages were
initially to be calculated every four weeks, then each quarter,
and finally every year, so that stations could push Canadian content
into the slack summer months. And because of permissive co-production
regulations, "Canadian content did not have to be Canadian
in any meaningful sense of the word."
Furthermore, whatever the regulations were, they would be meaningful
only insofar as they were enforced. The fundamental tool for enforcing
compliance was the power to deny the renewal of broadcast licences,
but the CRTC was reluctant to exercise this power. Juneau believed
in encouraging licensees rather than punishing them; Hardin argues
that this policy ultimately became permissiveness, as the CRTC allowed
licensees to relax or abandon the promises they had originally made.
This, then, is the basic argument of Closed Circuits. The
bulk of the book is taken up with case histories demonstrating the
argument. Hardin begins his historical account with the licensing
of Global Communications in 1972 to operate a third station in southern
Ontario. This licensing opened a new level of commercial television
in Canada, as the CRTC invited applications for new licences in
Vancouver, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, and raised the possibility of
a third national network. Hardin calls this licensing "one
of the most destructive acts in Canadian broadcasting history."
This decision "established another channel tethered to the
American broadcasting industry. It introduced more commercialism
against an embattled public-service tradition and opened the door
to still further commercial expansion. It hemmed in the already-surrounded
CBC, left with one channel to support the tradition, against not
only an Americanized commercial CTV, and now Global, but
also the whole weight and power of the American television industry.
It diverted valuable resources into the additional purchase of U.S.
programs and into the commercial apparatus. It distracted attention
from the real, structural dangers to Canadian television and from
the only alternatives that made sense."
In its application, Global had promised to develop Canadian
programming, particularly drama and variety, using independent producers
and production houses. Global also agreed to limit its commercials
to eight minutes per hour rather than the twelve minutes other stations
Hardin points out that Global's programming commitments were
very similar or even identical to commitments which CTV had made
more than 10 years before and then abandoned.
By March 1974 Global Communications, which had been broadcasting
for only three months, was in financial disarray, and the Toronto-Dominion
Bank had cut off credit. A rescue takeover deal was quickly cobbled
together, with IWC Communications of Toronto in partnership with
a Winnipeg syndicate, later incorporated as Global Ventures Western.
A CRTC hearing was held with only seven days' notice.
"This was not, however, really a licence hearing," Hardin
comments. "It was a hearing to save everybody's skin, includingthe
CRTC's." The CRTC felt some responsibility to help the station's
creditors; Hardin suggests that if Global had gone under,
the CRTC's own financial judgement would have fallen into question.
At the hearing, the prospective new owners committed themselves
to maintaining "Global's original premise and the basis
on which the Global license was issued." They also promised
that creditors would be treated honourably. Approval of the takeover
was announced the day after the hearing, but the new owners were
allowed to run 10 minutes of commercials per hour instead of eight.
The station's creditors were eventually offered 25 cents on the
dollar or payment deferred for five to nine years. Global's
next annual report showed a "gain on settlement claims of unsecured
creditors" of $2.7 million.
CITY-TV had also offered to take Global over, but
the CRTC "would entertain an application only from the party
chosen by the outgoing management group. The outgoing management
group chose the deal most favorable to itself."
"The commission's stated policy," Hardin continues, "was
to not 'intervene in normal bargaining between the current holders
of the assets or shares of licenses and would-be purchasers.' This
blithely ignored the fact that the bargaining involved the public
licence, under the CRTC's supervision, as well as the privately
owned assets. By refusing to hear alternative proposals, the commission
let the outgoing management group use the public licence, which
it did not own and which was meant for public service, to its own
financial advantage. Most important, the commission's action meant
that the public did not necessarily have the best new licensee,
although the best possible broadcasting was supposed to be what
the CRTC was about and what licenses were for."
Despite its commitment to maintain the basis for the original Global
licence, the new owners began to drop "every show which was
designed to justify its existence," as journalist Bob Blackburn
complained. (Hardin notes, however, that the original Global
schedule hadn't been very Canadian to start with.) At a hearing
in the fall of 1975, the commission asked some pointed questions
about the changes, and Global's management pleaded economic
necessity. In 1976 the licence was renewed, but the station was
now allowed to run 12 minutes of commercials per hour. Two and a
half years after the takeover, IWC Communications sold its half
of the business to Global Ventures Western. IWC's investment till
then was $3.5-million, and the sale brought it $6.8-million, for
a capital gain of $3.3-million, or 95 per cent.
The history of Global continues, but this summary gives,
I hope, an idea of the kind of story Hardin tells. Other cases he
discusses include CITY-TV in Toronto, CITV in Edmonton,
CKND in Winnipeg; he has chapters on advocacy advertising
and the Children's Broadcast Institute, and also long sections on
cable television and pay television. Each case has its own variations,
but in each case the basic outlines are the same: the CRTC fails
to regulate effectively, fails to carry out the mandate of the Broadcasting
The fundamental problem, Hardin. believes, is obvious: "because
of the economics of television, commercial television was inappropriate
for Canada . . . " The solution is equally obvious: "measures
for establishing new public television should be undertaken."
Hardin himself is the founding president of the Association for
Public Broadcasting in British Columbia, which appears throughout
the book as a noble and heroic (but quixotically unsuccessful) David
against the Goliath of the CRTC and the commercial television industry.
Hardin's defense of public television is by no means so detailed
as his attack on commercial television. He does discuss at some
length the British example, particularly the report of the Pilkington
Committee, which argued for a second public channel. "What
the public wants," according to the Pilkington Committee, "and
what it has the right to get is the freedom to choose from the widest
possible range of programme matter. Anything less is deprivation."
"In order to maintain a large presence with viewers,"
Hardin argues, "and at the same time to undertake the greatest
range of programming, public broadcasting needs more channels than
those allocated to commercial exploitation."
Only noncommercial television, Hardin continues, can "break
Toronto's stifling hammer lock on network programming to
make the Canadian broadcasting system truly Canadian, rather than
an extension of programming administration in only one part of the
Public television would also allow the abolition of commercials
on television. "One of the most intriguing failures of the
social and political process in our society, which also tells us
a lot about how power works, is that these unceasing interruptions
of a widespread and daily activity are allowed to continue. Sports,
entertainment, news, current affairs, drama, comedy, and so on are
produced separately from commercials. Why not decide to do one and
not the other and then spend some time working out the best alternative
method for financing it, of which there are quite a few?" Hardin
argues, quite convincingly, I think, that public television can
be financed more rationally, more economically than commercial television.
As he points out, we all pay a hidden tax for commercial television
through increased prices of advertised goods and services. "The
overheads of financing television by commercials are enormous .
. . For Canada, noncommercial financing of television is the only
method that makes any sense."
I found Closed Circuits on the whole quite persuasive. It
does not, however, pretend to be a balanced picture. It is, rather,
a brief for the prosecution. I do not believe that passion and commitment
are necessarily vices, nor that disinterest and dispassion are necessarily
virtues. Still, one may legitimately wonder what the defense would
be. I am not at all sure that the general quality of television
programming can be defended, not the quantity of money that commercial
industry makes. It is only fair to say, however, that Hardin does
not fully discuss the cases where the CRTC has successfully regulated.
He dismisses, for example, the repatriation of licences from foreign
control as a "straightforward bureaucratic business."
Although he recounts some of the political pressures which constrain
the CRTC, he sometimes seems to expect it to regulate in a political
vacuum. He talks a great deal about corporate and regulatory structure,
but very little about the content of programming, which is, after
all, the heart of the issue.
But these are relative details. Hardin presents overall a fascinating,
informative, and persuasive case, which should be of interest not
only as a study of commercial television in Canada, but also as
an account of regulatory bureaucracy.
Matthew Clark is a Toronto-based writer, political activist,
Published in Sources, Summer 1986
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