CRTC turns to Canadians to talk TV

CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais (pictured) kicks off a public consultation on the TV business Thursday night in Toronto, seeking feedback on programming, technology and viewer access to information.

The CRTC launched Let’s Talk TV: A Conversation with Canadians on Thursday night at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media.

Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais put the call out to Canadian citizens and creators to join a conversation about what the future of Canadian TV should look like.

The goal of the CRTC’s conversation with Canadians is to collect big data related to three key themes: programming, technology and the “viewer toolkit,” a term it uses in reference to the amount of information available to consumers to make informed choices. The regulator will then focus in on major issues in those areas to inform the system’s future regulatory framework.

“The outcome of all of this could be everything from more regulation to less regulation, or relying more on competition. The reality is if you can’t find a way to satisfy your clients, your business model isn’t going to survive,” Blais told reporters ahead of his speech. “We have to have a framework that in its essence will have to be dynamic, adaptive, able to change with the times. That might suggest a little bit more flex to make sure the outcomes are still rich,” he added.

But Blais was quick to point out that despite complaints – he said later that the CRTC received 11,507 last year, about flexibility, pricing, simulcast ad substitutions and scheduling issues and bundling – Canadians are still consuming content and watching television in the traditional way.

“We have a bit of a pulse that there are frustrations, but the fact that people on average still watch 28 hours [of linear TV] a week is a bit of a testament that they value it,” Blais told reporters.

The chairman noted that as technology drives more people to want more choice, the federal government’s recent announcement during the throne speech that it would make pick-and-pay a priority dovetails with the CRTC’s own process. The chairman acknowledged that there will be tradeoffs in channel unbundling, but said that the issue should be examined as much as a citizenship issue as a pricing issue.

Let'sTalkTVBlais, who at the Prime Time conference in March called for Canadian creators to grow their businesses by honing in on what Canadian audiences want and exploring new distribution models, added that content creators are an important part of the conversation, both in the early phase of discussion and during the more formal regulatory hearings.

In his public address, Blais expressed the need to adapt the current Canadian TV system in the face of rapid technological change.

“We are still operating under a regulatory system designed by the CRTC for ‘broad’ casting – the monolithic, mass appeal approach of the good old days when content was distributed to a vast, dispersed audience,” he said.

The regulatory framework was adapted in 1990 in response to the explosion of specialty channels, and in the last decade, the programming experience has shifted dramatically again, this time to what Blais calls a “me-casting” system, thanks to increased access to mass media, VOD and other OTT services.

“The on-demand world also creates both threats and opportunities to traditional economic models, with direct impact on creators. And by that I mean not only the people who produce programming, but also the folks who distribute it on various platforms,” Blais said.

Discussions during the question-and-answer period with the audience largely focused in on content creation – cultural versus commercial viability, how there can be better collaboration between content creators and content deliverers, and structural issues in the production and broadcasting system. Audience members also posed questions about the challenges of regulating consumption of content online, and whether or not it’s even possible.

Charles Falzon, chair of the Ryerson RTA School of Media, said he thinks the discussion around online content will also focus on whether or not the emphasis should be on regulation, or instead on creating guidelines and incentives for online content.

He added that for content creators, the value in the discussions will be in exploring how to create a mix of content that is both entertaining and offers a Canadian voice. “I think that there’s a chance if we don’t have this dialogue, our content creators will only focus on what Canadians want from the point of view of entertainment level, as opposed to what Canadians want from a cultural perspective. They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said.

The CRTC’s formal regulatory process will kick off next spring, leading to a public hearing in September 2014.