Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Dogs In The Manger

manger dog

Over Christmas, somebody told me Aesop’s fable about “The Dog in the Manger”.

It seems that one day a dog went to sleep in a manger. Come suppertime, he was woken by the cattle, who were hungry. But the dog kept the cows from eating the hay he’d been sleeping on, leading one of the cows to moo the moral of the story:

“Some begrudge others what they aren't using themselves”.

The same sentiment is attributed to Jesus in Thomas Verse 102: “Woe to the Pharisees! For they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of the cattle; for he neither eats, nor does he let the cattle eat”.

Remind you of anybody --- like maybe the Canadian broadcasting system and its CRTC enablers?

For years now,the production of drama, comedy and documentaries in this country has continued to shrink as we create less of each and our networks increase their spending on foreign (primarily American) content. For those of us who work in the industry, that has often felt like our own little cross to bear.

Our shows don’t get picked up for broadcast but there’s still lots of stuff from Hollywood to keep everybody else entertained.

We’ve tried to mount a number of assaults on this problem, even getting the broadcast regulator (the aforementioned CRTC) to schedule hearings on the state of the industry and where it needs to be improved. But for three years now, any progress has been submarined by a broadcaster agenda that requires their needs be taken care of first.

And the CRTC has always acceded to those demands, figuring (I assume) that if there isn’t a healthy broadcaster, whatever the rest of us do isn’t going to matter much.

Oddly, however, that’s led to our broadcasters needs becoming ever more dire. Despite being granted additional commercial time, genre protections, simultaneous substitution, a larger share of public funding to create online presences for their shows and the shows themselves; they recently needed special funding to continue providing local news and even money for airfare and hotels so writers with shows they liked could pitch them in LA in the hope of landing a production partner who’d cover most of the cost.

At the latest round of hearings, the ones where it became imperative to “Save Local TV” we were suddenly made aware of two more things the broadcasters needed --- more time to transition into the digital spectrum (including relief from having to provide HD signals to all parts of the country) as well as a blackout on any transmission of programming to which they had acquired the local rights by anyone else.

In follow up discussions on where the money could come from to save local TV, pay for digital transition, provide enhanced online streaming of their offerings and halt viewing of any programming they had purchased rights to in any other format, the broadcasters made it clear that the cash wasn’t coming from them and no matter how hungry the public might be to get television in HD or via a computer, mobile phone or from another source, their interests had to be protected first.

At that point, it became clear that the cross Canadians working in the business have had to bear would now be shared by everybody else in the country.

And in the last few days, it has become even clearer that this country is in danger of becoming a technological backwater for no other reason than to keep those dogs in the manger happy.

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, products and technologies have debuted which have taken the public imagination by storm.

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For starters, ESPN and Discovery announced a joint initiative to launch 3D television services within the next year. In fact, ESPN will debut with the opening game of the FIFA World Cup on June 11, 2010 along with 25 other World Cup Matches, the Summer X Games and a full slate of College sports.

Discovery will be offering a full schedule of Sony and IMAX 3D product as well as creating 3D programming of its own.

None of this will be available in Canada.

In fact, parts of the country won’t even see the World Cup in HD unless somebody steps up to provide our broadcasters with enough money to upgrade the system.

And then there’s the CableCard.

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The CableCard is an PCMCIA card which allows consumers to view and record digital television channels on PVRs, laptops, home computers and even televisions without the use of a cable company’s set top box.

While our CRTC has increasingly found ways to make sure that Canadians can only access TV signals through a cable or satellite provider, the American FCC long ago mandated that cable companies allow other devices to access their programming.

You still have to pay a monthly fee for the service. But you pay for what you want to watch, not a bundle of five or six channels you don’t want in order to access the one that you do.

Only problem is --- the CableCard won’t be available in Canada.

The same thing is true for Mobile DTV.

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Mobile DTV is a system (including an already available iPhone app) which allows you to watch HD television broadcasts on a mobile phone or any other wi-fi enabled device.

Again, not available in Canada and not likely to arrive for some time.

Last month, the Federal Cabinet had to step in and overrule a CRTC decision that prevented an upstart mobile phone provider from setting up shop and challenging the Bell/Rogers/Telus triumvirate that owns and controls the mobile market in Canada --- and has used the CRTC version of consumer protection to impose some of the highest mobile phone rates and smallest menu of services on the planet.

And while it remains to be seen if the additional competition will reduce those prices and increase the service options, it was clear that the current providers were hampering the country’s productivity and its ability to compete with nations less parochial in their approach to what their populations want and need.

The dogs in the Canadian broadcast manger are no longer simply stifling the artists of this country, they are impairing our ability to enjoy the freedom and creative options these new technologies offer as well as the opportunity for Canadians to create, develop and compete in these new worlds.

What good is saving local TV if it costs us the future?

3 comments:

The White Wolf said...

Your dogs in a manger analogy is frighteningly apt.

Would you mind, Jim, providing us with a concise breakdown of what the Broadcasters are doing wrong -- and what it IS they could be doing right -- for us to send to our local MP's?

They've made it (on purpose?) so fucking complicated.

Ken said...

Excellent post, Jim. The dog analogy couldn't be more cogent. But to use another biblical reference: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." Acts 4:5. Feels like the concerned parties -CRTC, big cable and broadcasters- have so mystified the issues for the average Canadian, that they'll be able to carry on this discussion with little public oversight. The fact that the feds (rightly or wrongly) overturned a CRTC decision regarding cell providers flew by with nary a question or deeper look. Tip of an iceberg? Or good governance? I still don't know.

jimhenshaw said...

Ken,

Thanks for the additional biblical quote, I assume you're working with the New Urban Translation.

But you raise a salient point, as does White Wolf.

These issues have become complicated simply because the CRTC has too many special interests it needs to protect instead of serving its mandate of looking out for the consumer.

White Wolf,

I honestly wouldn't know where to start a reading list for your MP. My best suggestion would be to search the site for CRTC and pick what you think might wake him or her up.

Jim