Some broadcasters are more equal than others

Heritage Minister is reportedly considering lending a hand to Canwest after turning a deaf ear to the CBC

Some broadcasters are more equal than othersGood things come to those who wait. At least that’s Canwest Global Communications’ perspective on Ottawa’s new-found willingness to consider assistance for Canada’s beleaguered private television networks.

On Wednesday, Heritage Minister James Moore confirmed that the Harper government is looking at loosening broadcast regulations and changing tax rules to help the media giant stave off bankruptcy. But the spin from the company’s Winnipeg HQ is that this is less a bailout than a righting of historic wrongs.

“It’s a sign that the government is hearing the growing chorus of voices—consumer groups, organized labour, the Opposition, special interest groups—who are all saying that the way consumer dollars are collected for viewing cable are not being adequately and fairly sent around to everybody,” says John Douglas, Canwest’s vice-president public affairs. “Our position on this is the same as it has been since 1971.”

Canwest, along with CTV and Quebecor, owners of the private French TVA network, have long been asking the CRTC to treat their conventional channels more like specialty networks, which receive a share of cable subscribers’ monthly bills known as carriage fees. Cable providers like Rogers, which owns Maclean’s, are opposed to the idea, claiming the system could inflate customers’ bills by as much as $10 a month. The conventional broadcasters say the estimated $300 million a year fee-for-carriage would generate is essential to their survival. The CRTC categorically rejected that argument last fall, saying the networks failed to prove they really needed the higher revenues. But as the global economic meltdown has taken its toll on advertising, broadcasters are finding that Ottawa is a lot more receptive to being—rather than crying—poor. “We have the CRTC admitting now that the model is broken,” says Douglas. “And anything that would be contemplated by the federal government, I’m assuming, would be in recognition that the state of the industry is what we said it was two years ago.”

But deep cuts to local news coverage by all the private networks, moves by Canwest to sell its five E! channels and threats by both CTV and CanWest to walk away from unprofitable smaller markets, are also clearly forcing government’s hand. And the message that immediate help is needed has been taken directly to 24 Sussex Drive. Both CanWest CEO Leonard Asper and Quebecor’s Pierre-Karl Péladeau, have personally met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of their companies in recent weeks. The federal lobbyist database also shows meetings with Minister Moore, senior CRTC executives, and former industry minister Jim Prentice. Douglas would not comment on specific meetings, or reports that Canwest has engaged the lobbying services of Ken Boessenkool, a former senior Harper adviser, but said the company has always kept Ottawa in the loop about its concerns: “The amount of dialogue we’ve had is no different that what we’ve had over the previous years.”

If the government’s aim in saving Canwest is to preserve local programming, easing content restrictions is a curious way to go about it, argues Canada’s largest media union. In a statement released Thursday, the Communnications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada says the federal government should be wary of bailing out from under the weight of its “bad business decisions.” In fact, if the CRTC does eventually allow the broadcasters’ to collect carriage fees, the government agency should use the opportunity to tie the extra funds to “new, original news and information programming,” says Peter Murdoch, the union’s vice-president, media. “Local programming is not the cause of Canwest’s debt problems, nor should it be made its victim.”

The prospect of doling out government aid to Canwest also raises the question of just what the government should be doing to help other types of media struggling in these uncertain economic times. Canwest, for example, also owns 39 daily and community newspapers in Canada. And while they don’t appear to be lobbying Ottawa for assistance on that front (the lobbying database lists “broadcasting” as the subject of all recent meetings), given the industry’s current difficulties south of the border, it is not inconceivable that Canada’s papers will also soon find themselves at a crossroads.

David Black, president and CEO of Black Press, which operates more than 150 community and daily papers in Canada and the U.S., declined to comment on any possible assistance for his competitor (“You don’t want to go there”) but said there is a case to be made for Ottawa helping print too. “I don’t believe that government will work very well without daily newspapers,” he says. “If the opposition raises its voice in the House and no one is there to report it, what good does that do?” Given the current crisis, journalistic ethics may have to take a back seat to economic realities, says Black. “You want to be able to run editorially without fear or favour, but on the other hand we’ve got a problem.”

The one place where the Harper government is emphatically drawing the line, however, is public broadcasting. Moore has already said Ottawa will not provide more money to the CBC after the network disclosed that it is facing an estimated $100 million hole in its budget due to shrinking ad revenue. Ditto to requests for an advance on next year’s funding or a bridge loan. “The only way we’ll get the financial flexibility we had asked for,” says CBC spokesperson Marco Dubé, “is to sell some of our assets.” For his part, the Heritage minister suggested earlier this week that the CBC would have to cut between 600 and 1,200 jobs to balance its books.

Whether the public and private broadcasters—long bitter enemies—will find common cause in these troubled times, remains to be seen. One of the issues that Leonard Asper is registered to lobby on is the future mandate of the CBC. But at this point, CanWest has no position of whether its rival deserves some assistance too. “That’s not for us to comment on,” says Douglas. “We’re in a position to comment on our situation and the realities of our network.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.