Q&A: Michel Arpin reflects on critical year and road ahead

There was an unprecedented flurry of activity in Gatineau, QC over the past 12 months, what with the CRTC's approval of the Canwest Global takeover of Alliance Atlantis, hearings on the Canadian Television Fund and the BDUs, and decisions that rewrite the entire Canadian broadcasting system. The coming year looks to be no less momentous, with broadcasters up for licence renewals, terms of trade to be ironed out between producers and casters, and the regulatory role in new media needing to be defined.

There was an unprecedented flurry of activity in Gatineau, QC over the past 12 months, what with the CRTC’s approval of the Canwest Global takeover of Alliance Atlantis, hearings on the Canadian Television Fund and the BDUs, and decisions that rewrite the entire Canadian broadcasting system. The coming year looks to be no less momentous, with broadcasters up for licence renewals, terms of trade to be ironed out between producers and casters, and the regulatory role in new media needing to be defined.

Playing a key role in all these developments is Michel Arpin, the commission’s vice-chairman, broadcasting. Arpin has worked in the broadcast industry since 1963, and has held posts at the CRTC dating back to the early 1970s. Arpin recently spoke to Playback about the regulator’s controversial recent decisions, and what can be expected in the new year.

How would you describe this past year at the CRTC?

It was a total revision of the broadcasting landscape. The BDU hearings and the resulting decision was, to my knowledge, the most complex and comprehensive process the commission has undertaken in the audiovisual field.

How hard is it to be a broadcast regulator in the digital age?

Each era has its challenges. In 1945, [early CAB president] Glen Bannerman said that ‘at no time in the history of broadcasting has the future been quite so confused and beclouded.’

I would have to say that in 2008 people are still confused. In 1945 and over the years, they have found solutions. I’m feeling good about it. Creative people will figure it out. I’m just here trying to create a framework for that creativity to allow the broadcast media to expand and provide better service to Canadians.

Will Canadian drama on our television screens be an issue again at hearings in 2009?

The decline in Canadian drama is an issue that the unions regularly put on the table. It’s documented. I’m sure they will bring it to the top of the pile at the hearings.

What are your favorite television programs?

I’m a news and documentary consumer. I’m not that interested in televised fiction or even feature films. I would prefer to read a novel.

What is the CRTC’s reaction to recent layoffs by Canwest and CTV, both of which cited not being able to collect fee-for-carriage as a contributing factor?

I understand that [Canwest president and CEO] Leonard Asper and CTV are disappointed. All the conventional broadcasters are disappointed with the decision. But they had to say something, so they blamed the government.

We note that they have been making major acquisitions over the past decade. They say they are owed that money because their competitors [specialty channels] are getting two sources of revenue. But they never talk about their companies’ structural issues related to all those acquisitions.

Their American counterparts have dealt with many of their structural problems. We don’t hear CBS and NBC complaining, and they don’t have fee-for-carriage. And they aren’t benefiting from simultaneous substitution and other regulatory protection that we provide.

Do you have any sense how the government has reacted toward your recommendation that the CTF be split into a two-stream system?

We have had no contact with the minister of heritage and we don’t know yet what’s going to happen to the CTF.

Since TQS has been given leeway in terms of the amount of local news production it’s required to do, will the other broadcast players be given the same leeway, given the current economy?

TQS was a very unique case – they were under creditor protection. If another broadcaster comes to us and they are bankrupt, they will get similar protection. But it’s unlikely that the broadcasters who are applying to renew their licences are facing problems of the same magnitude. But we are all dealing with a different economic framework. We will have to see what happens.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the upcoming hearings on new media?

The CRTC takes the view that the Broadcasting Act is technology neutral, and that its broadcasting portion allows us to regulate the Internet. We are interested in what’s available to Canadians regarding high-quality broadcasting material: Internet, music and television programming. The purpose of the hearing has nothing to do with user-generated content or alphanumeric content. It’s restricted to professionally produced broadcasting programming.

Many say that the Internet providers are no different than cable providers. We are concerned about whether there are problems of access to Canadian programming. Is it hard for Canadians to watch Canadian content on the Internet? We want to investigate that. Is it because it’s not being put online or because the gatekeepers are forbidding it?