Monday, June 14, 2010

The Gatekeeper Goes Rogue


Every time CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein speaks lately, I get the feeling that he pictures he and his fellow commissioners as lonely warriors guarding our porous frontier against the invasion of Barbarian hoards.

Every ruling, every regulatory proposal smacks of an arrogance based on seeing yourself as all that stands between order and chaos, one of the brave few insuring Canada isn't drowned by a flood of outside (and therefore dangerous) influences.

Speaking at the Canadian Telecom Summit last week, von Finckenstein cautioned that because we're in "an age of convergence", liberalizing the rules over who can own a telecom company means you'd have to apply the same rules to the broadcast system.

In other words, if you want better service or cheaper rates from a cell phone provider, it means we will need to allow "outsiders" to acquire an equivalent stake in our broadcast networks.

Huh? How do you make that leap?

Is this guy supposed to be looking after the interests of the consumer or the corporations who already dominate the market?

And anybody who doesn't know the answer to that probably doesn't think the Pope has a thing for funny looking hats.

Apparently, in Commissioner KvF's view, since much of what used to be broadcast can now be accessed by mobile devices as well and both systems here are mostly owned by the same semi-monopolies, allowing telecom competition by companies with foreign investors will further erode and diminish our culture.

I've often wondered if any CRTC Commissioners actually watch Canadian television. And a stance like this makes me also wonder if any of them own a mobile phone -- or an internet connection (which I'll get to in a minute).

For if they did, they'd know that our culture is already tsunami'd by foreign influences directly imported by the same guys Konrad thinks shouldn't have to deal with any "foreign financed" competition.  And most of that is because of policies he and past CRTC Chairs have put in place.

By turning on a television, von Finckenstein and his fellow Commissioners might notice there's barely any Canadian content during the so-called "Prime Time " hours when most people are watching.

Much of that is due to a CRTC ruling in 1999 that gutted the Canadian production industry by granting full Cancon status to cheap gossip shows and the news.

This gave purebred and supposedly super-patriotic Canadian companies carte blanche to sweep dozens of Canadian dramas and comedies off their schedules and replace them with even more foreign content.

A later incarnation of Commissioners mandated that "Prime Time" in Canada now ran from 6 pm until Midnight to make it even easier for this foreign content to fill the actual prime viewing hours  of 8 - 11 while simultaneously requiring even less network commitment to Canadian content.

Because of these and other indignities, we've reached a point where a significant percentage of series announced by American networks for the 2010 - 2011 season are now not only written and directed by Canadians (as has long been the case) but now feature Canadian actors in the lead roles.

Enough Canadian talent to float a real industry here or anywhere else has moved into the Hollywood Hills in less than a generation.

Unable to work in their own country because of rulings by Konrad von Finckenstein and the CRTC, all of these artists were forced to move on, immediately finding their talents appreciated and exploited elsewhere  --- and then sold back to their home country by foreign producers reaping profits that will never enrich Canada or help build a globally competitive Canadian TV industry.

Despite publicly acknowledging that many of those past rulings were misguided, von Finckenstein has only "proposed" changing the TV rules next year, and then only by half measures the networks are still in a position to overturn.

Isn't it interesting that foreign ownership of the delivery system can't be allowed when almost everything the system delivers is foreign?

And now that same logic needs to be applied to mobile phones?

What is the CRTC protecting, the culture? The consumer? Or something else?

Of course, those of us who work in television have long been aware that the CRTC consistently rules in favor of the broadcasters. And defending their converged interests with regard to telecom and internet services seem to be additional Commission priorities.

Ensuring consumers of all these services are well served or that Canadian culture has a priority position in its own country has ceased to be what the CRTC fights to achieve.

Our Gatekeepers have fully turned on those they were hired to defend.

The rules say non-Canadians can own no more than 46.7% of a broadcast or telecom entity, rules the CRTC used to deny a telecom license to Wind Mobile a few months ago.

The Federal government overruled them on that because they saw a serious need to increase competition within an industry where the big dogs have had a death grip on what services are offered and how much they cost.

At the moment, a cell phone plan here costs double what it does in Australia, a country with almost identical population, distance and remote settlement issues. Issues telecom providers insist drive up their prices.

Mobile banking has been around for years in parts of Africa that don't have electricity or running water. But it's only recently become possible here.

And many of us have encountered an iPhone or Android app that works perfectly in the US or Europe but isn't even available for Canadian telecom customers.

Hell, I owned a cell phone in Australia in 2000 that could do things that phones here couldn't accomplish until last summer.

That's how far behind we've fallen! And only because the CRTC regulatory style is to follow the instructions of corporations who do the minimum required instead of the maximum a competitive market would demand.

Meanwhile, the top download speed for Canadian ISPs (also mostly owned by the same broadcast/mobile conglomerates) is 1/10th of what it is in South Korea, a country with a far larger online population doing all the downloading, streaming and file sharing Canadian ISP's insist causes congestion and they must throttle or the system will implode.

Why isn't the commission asking how entire nations in other parts of the planet are being retro-fitted with fiber optic cables and state of the art internet hardware while communities less than an hour from major Canadian cities are still on dial up connections?

How is it that no Commissioners are asking how entire American cities have free wireless access while Canadian ISPs constantly increase their rates and decrease the size of data plans?

It's obvious to anyone paying attention that Canadian internet operators use their protected status to amortize every piece of equipment while never having to feel the hot breath of an oncoming competitor they have to outperform.

As a result, the CRTC recently ruled that Bell Canada can begin to bill according to how much customers download monthly.

Now, of course, those who use a service more should probably pay more.

But is this the right moment to do that?

Did anyone in Gatineau stop to consider that virtually all of those New Media/Next Media projects now mandated if you want to get Federal money for a TV show will now cost the public even more to access -- and long before they've had the chance to sample the products or get in the habit of viewing or using that content in the many new ways available.

Will people freely stream and sample the ancillary offerings of the next media if it costs them more?

How will any of these cross-platform projects be able to encourage more people to watch Canadian shows if people think twice about streaming or downloading them in the first place?

Once again, initiatives intended to enhance and exemplify Canadian culture will be sacrificed to protect the interests of a few companies capable of pretending they're Canadian.


Well, it seems, even that 46.7% ownership rule is flouted by some of the CRTC's fair-haired children.

According to media consultant Eamon Hoey, there are ways commonly used to "game the system" so as much as 70% of some of these companies may already be owned off shore. Details on that interesting tidbit here

How come Commissioner von Finckenstein doesn't know this is going on?

Or has he become used to looking the other way to protect the people he's really working for, instead of the ones whose gates he was originally hired to protect.

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