Playback’s Newsmaker of the Year: Jean-Pierre Blais

As part of Playback's annual Best of the Year list, we look at the new CRTC chairman's track record of turning regulatory decisions into front-page news.
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This article originally appeared in Playback‘s Winter 2014 print issue. View it here.

CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais is motivated by building a trusted brand.

Blais tells Playback that when he first took the post of CRTC chair in June 2012, his “20,000-foot level” goal was to create a trusted institution by 2015.

“I hesitated to take the job at first, because I knew it was a bit of a daunting task going forward – we knew that technology was changing a lot of things,” he says, adding he felt some of the decisions made in recent years had affected the brand’s public image.

“On the Twittersphere, we are often to blame for all kinds of things. We have wide shoulders apparently,” Blais says, laughing, citing examples such as the airing of Canadian ads during the Super Bowl. “There’s sometimes a misunderstanding as to what we do, and things that occur because companies choose to market [their products] in a particular way.”

Blais joined the regulator at a time of rapid change in the media space, resulting in a packed agenda during what many have called a transformative time for the CRTC.

Immediately, Blais had to tackle the Bell-Astral hearing (“We’re not surprised that some people [are] disappointed by the outcome. If the answer was that obvious, we could replace the CRTC with a computer program”), CBC licence renewals (“It’s strange that in a time of so much change there had not been a conversation with the national broadcaster”) and the hundreds of applications in the 9(1)(h) mandatory carriage hearings.

He also faced StarlightTV’s tribunal of Canadian film heavyweights and an impassioned SunTV News network requesting mandatory carriage for their channels (denying both), instituted a new policy allowing Canadians to cancel their wireless contracts after two-years without cancellation fees; quieted loud TV ads and approved the $1.32 billion sale of MLSE to BCE and Rogers Communications.

The CRTC’s actions on some of the agenda’s big line items, including the surprise rejection and subsequent approval of the Bell-Astral decision, as well as calling for reviews of current tangible benefits practices and the Category C news service, seem to reflect what Blais said from the get-go – he wants to create a world class communication system for Canadians.

The latest undertaking in that vision is the Let’s Talk TV initiative, in which Blais is calling upon Canadians for feedback in a review of the current Canadian broadcasting system, consistently emphasizing that everyone – Canadian consumers, citizens and creators – have a role in public policy.

“I certainly did not want us to be involved in a balancing act between the broadcasters and Canadians. To me that made no sense – [it] suggested that if something was more important for broadcasters, that Canadians would lose out, and that’s not the dichotomy I wanted to bring to this decision,” he says.

The idea that every citizen plays a role in public policy – versus one iron-fisted regulator ruling the roost – is the golden thread in Blais’ management philosophy

He compares his idea of shared leadership to the structure of the internet – a group of webs, in which every point in the information pipeline is connected and part of a process – explaining that Canadians each share in the decision-making load to the advantage, ultimately, of Canadians.

A veteran public servant, Blais is a lawyer by trade who has worked at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and at the Department of Canadian Heritage, and also held previous posts at the CRTC. He says he taps into his previous experience, where he saw cultural funding programs that were previously locked into an analogue world, in looking at how the current system needs to change in response to the digital revolution.

Despite all the challenges facing Canada’s broadcast industry, Blais says the CRTC’s approach is one that other countries are looking to as they make fundamental decisions of their own. At the 2013 International Institute of Communications (IIC) conference in London, a forum for communications regulators to discuss issues facing the media industry, the CRTC contingent found itself standing at the head of the class, says Blais.

“There are 40 regulators from around the world, from Mongolia, Hong Kong, Australia, and they’re actually asking us what [is Canada] going to do?” he recalls. “The Canadian model has been largely exported. If you look at what the French or British or Germans or South Africans do, they have similar supply and demand models that we created.”

Blais at the Prime Time conference in Ottawa in March urged producers to put Canada on the world map by exploring coproduction and co-venture financing opportunities and cash in on new distribution networks.

“Frankly, I think great stories travel,” emphasizes Blais. “We’ve had some success in exporting our content and we should do more, because if you’ve got a potential audience base of not just the Canadian market, but potentially other markets, you’re going to go a little further,” Blais tells Playback. “We’ve got great ideas here. These are challenging times, but you can’t sit at home waiting for a subsidy.”