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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 uncomfortable."

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 river.

"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 were allowed.

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 Act.

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 country."

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, and musician.

 

Published in Sources, Summer 1986



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