The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is not sticking to its knitting. Until this year, nobody minded all that much. But it is a fact that the corporation’s mandate under the Broadcasting Act is to “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” You see any mention of the Internet in there? When the CBC started colonizing the web, nobody’s ox in particular got gored; any grumbling was destined not to last long in an environment of infinite bandwidth and zero pricing.
But now the grey area befogging the CBC’s mandate has officially become a problem—specifically, with the February launch of CBCmusic.ca, the Corp’s free digital streaming music service. Private broadcasters are crying foul, saying that CBC mission creep has finally gone too far. And they have taken their complaint to the CRTC, the national broadcast regulator.
The heart of the CBC’s new digital service is a set of some 40 “genre streams,” or channels, curated by the Corporation’s existing programming staff. This represents an impressive liberation of the CBC’s enormous library: instead of having to make an appointment to listen to Radio 2’s classical music programming, and suck on a firehose full of Edvard Grieg if it happens to be Edvard Grieg week, you can switch to the website and listen to an all-piano channel, an all-opera channel, an all-chamber channel, or an all-modern channel. If you favour rock, there’s a generic catch-all stream, but there are also specific indie, “classics” and metal channels.
You get the idea. In fact, you are probably already literally getting it on the upper reaches of your cable TV dial if your carrier offers Galaxie, the analogous service founded by the CBC in 1997 and sold to private operator Stingray Digital last year. Stingray, a Montreal-based media holding company that also owns the Karaoke Channel, offers an online version of Galaxie for a small fee. Other private companies, including Astral Media and Quebecor subsidiary Groupe Archambault, have been rolling out similar fee-based online boutique streaming services. The CRTC defines these as part of the “broadcasting” system, and has taken them under its regulatory wing. And there can’t be much question that from a consumer standpoint, the CBC’s service is likely to annihilate them competitively. Free, as the Internet maxim goes, is a tough price to beat.
The CRTC’s new-media broadcasting regulations contains a rule forbidding providers from abusing any “undue preference” to gain leverage. In an April 11 letter to the CRTC, Stingray Digital, acting on behalf of a coalition of private music licensers, argues that this is exactly what the CBC is doing: it contends that the CBC’s free service relies on public funding not available to private broadcasters, and on preferential royalty rates for streaming records that it supposedly receives from SOCAN and other copyright enforcers because of its public, nonprofit nature.
A sharply worded April 16 response from CBC lawyers at Faskin Martineau called (unsuccessfully) for summary CRTC dismissal of this argument. If the CBC couldn’t use government money to “compete” with private broadcasters, the memorandum notes, then the Corp would have to shut down Radio 1 and 2 tomorrow. And while the CBC admits that it is not bound to the same royalty structure as commercial radio, it denies that it has received any “preference” from copyright collectives. “There’s no rights organization out there that doesn’t try to get the best possible deal from a buyer, whether it’s negotiating with the CBC or anyone else,” says Chris Boyce, CBC’s executive director for radio and audio.
The dispute before the CRTC may eventually boil down to a bunch of extremely fine semantic details, but the real question is: is what the CBC is doing broadly okay? With regard to the CBC’s mandate, online “genre streams” arguably lie about halfway between a traditional radio station and a record store, and thus about halfway between something that is obviously kosher and something that would obviously not be. At the CBC Music site, the Corporation is urging fans to write the CRTC in support of the new service, and mail to the commission is running 100 to 1 in favour. But the question cannot just be whether CBC Music represents a windfall for those who like it. Of course it does; and, equally obviously, it would be a windfall for science fiction fans if the CBC started paying Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson to give away their books for free.
Stingray Digital’s complaint offers one potential loophole for the Corp to pass through and escape the quarrel. Its real problem with the CBC’s digital streaming service, it notes, is that the site, being full of American and international music content, is indistinguishable from the existing user-pay services. CBC Music has a French-language equivalent, Espace.mu, that focuses almost exclusively on French-language Canadian artists, and the private broadcasters admit that none of them have provided an analogous French service; they have no objection at all to Espace.
They suggest that CBC Music should become more like its French sibling: an “exclusively Canadian service directed to the exposure and promotion of Canadian artists”. That, in fact, is the defence many fans of CBC Music are already making to the CRTC: they like the idea of the site promoting Canadian artists, and feel that this is an important function of the CBC. The problem, as the CBC’s Boyce rejoins, is that “ghettoizing” Canadian music on an all-Canadian website almost certainly wouldn’t be the best way to promote it. “People don’t get out of bed wanting to listen to Canadian music; they want to listen to good music,” Boyce says. “Creating a service that’s counter to how people consume music would mean giving up an opportunity to expose Canadian artists.” The CBC has a May 17 deadline to file its final response to the Stingray complaint with the CRTC; the commission will also cease receiving public comments on that day, and will turn to Stingray and the other plaintiffs for their counter-counter-submission.