The CRTC got it (mostly) right

Why, it’s almost as if I wrote the decision myself

I am writing this with trembling hands, willing my fingers to type the words I never thought to see under my name: The CRTC Made The Right Decision.

You can imagine my surprise. Certainly it must have come as a shock to the parties in the longrunning fee-for-carriage dispute. Both sides were demanding, and expecting, that the CRTC would guarantee them a living, as it had always done in the past. The cable (and satellite) companies expected the CRTC to continue to force the broadcasters to provide them with content for free. The broadcasters expected the CRTC to force the carriers to pay them for their signals. And if it had just been one or the other pressing their case, I’m sure the CRTC would have happily obliged.

But it couldn’t satisfy both of them, and rather than split the difference the CRTC has chosen to get out of the game altogether. Rather than forbid the broadcasters from charging for their signals, the CRTC will now allow it. Only rather than force the cable companies to carry the signal at whatever fee the broadcasters would like to charge, the cablecos will have the right to drop them, if they find the price too high — no more “must-carry.” (As, for their part, the broadcasters will be able to withdraw their signal — and “black out” programs on other networks for which they hold the Canadian rights — if the price is too low. Or they can just stick with the current system.)

In other words, rather than bind the hands of one side or the other, or worse, set the fee itself at some arbitrary level, the CRTC is leaving the two sides, buyers and sellers, to negotiate the fee between them. You know, like in any other business. Why, it’s almost as if I wrote the decision myself.

Oh sure, the rest of it is the usual bilge: Canadian content quotas, both in terms of airtime (but down from 60 per cent to 55!), and spending (30% of gross revenues overall, 5% of it on “programs of national interest”), though broadcasters will have greater flexibility to shuffle all this unwanted Cancon about the dial. But why let all that spoil a good day? Here at Andrew Coyne’s Blog, we’re all about the love. The CRTC got at least one decision right.

Well, almost right. Two corollaries are needed before I start breaking out the party hats. One, if cable companies are no longer to be obliged to carry signals, consumers should no longer be obliged to pay for them. The cablecos may decide they can live with the fees the broadcasters are charging, but consumers may think otherwise. As long as the cablecos can just pass the fee along to consumers, via the forced bundling of channels, they will have little incentive to drive a hard bargain with the broadcasters. So pick-and-pay is the logical, and long-delayed, next step, allowing consumers to choose precisely which channels they will and will not pay for.

The other bit of unfinished business is the CBC. The Corpse is mightily put out that the commission did not give it the same green light to charge for its signal, and I can’t say I blame it. So let the CBC charge a fee if it likes — but cut its public subsidy by the same amount. Over time, the idea should be to move the CBC all or nearly all the way on to pay. It would still be a public broadcaster, so far as that was thought desirable. It just wouldn’t be a subsidized broadcaster.

But that’s for another day. For today, let’s just all hug and say the words together: the CRTC got one right. The CRTC got one right…

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