Speech Article from  Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Jean-Pierre Blais to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage

Ottawa, Ontario
October 20, 2016

Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)

To the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage

Check against delivery

Thank you, Madame Chair, for inviting me to appear before the Committee.

Local communities look to the media to keep them informed on the subjects and issues that matter to them. They look to the media to reflect the diversity of the people who live there. But shifts in technology, the business of the media and consumer behaviour have created some challenges in providing the local news coverage Canadians depend on to stay informed. 

Your Committee has been studying these issues. So have we. I’d like to discuss with you today what we’ve done so far. As you know, after extensive public consultations, the CRTC issued in June a new policy framework on local news and community programming. It sets out new requirements to ensure robust local coverage across the country. And it reallocates resources within the broadcasting system to support them. 

Canadians value their local news programming. They told us that during our "Let's Talk TV" conversation, which reached out to people across the country, beginning in 2013. They told us again earlier this year during our consultation on local news and community programming. This type of programming promotes the democratic process by keeping citizens informed and engaged. And they want it. A survey for "Let's Talk TV" showed that 81% of Canadians place great value on local news.

But the media landscape has been changing. Online news sources and social media are easily available on multiple platforms. Canadians can easily become creators as well as consumers of content. These changes have had a significant effect on traditional media.

Advertising revenues have dropped. Newspapers have shut down or consolidated newsrooms. They have trimmed copy to make room for more photos. An alarming number of TV stations have cut the length of their newscasts. They have reduced staff and centralized news operations, shrinking their local presence. 

The CRTC works to ensure that Canadians have access to a world-class communication system. Such a system must have strong coverage of all the smaller local worlds that make up our country. But that coverage does not come cheap. The costs of delivering local news are outstripping the revenues derived from it. This puts pressure on the broadcasters who want to provide high-quality programming. 

We do not believe that local television news can be allowed to fall by the wayside simply because it doesn't look good on the balance sheet. The marketplace of products, revenues and profits is not the only marketplace that counts. Far from it. There is also the marketplace of ideas and information. That marketplace trades in a kind of wealth that supports every aspect of our Canadian society.

Local news is an important public service. It is a privilege to use the public airwaves, and a commercial broadcaster who holds a licence has a public responsibility to provide that locally-oriented service. 

You may ask about digital platforms and social media. Are they providing an alternative source of local coverage? Well, yes and no. They're accessible and gaining in popularity. But so far they lack the funding, the experience and the news-gathering expertise to offer the focused professional coverage that Canadians have a right to expect.

Digital platforms offer quick and easy communication. But at least for now they can't provide a reliable alternative to the skills of investigation and analysis that established media have developed over the past decades. Established media also have the advantage of having journalists who adhere to professional standards and codes, and who are trained to gather and interpret facts to create valuable, intelligent news analysis. They enable citizens to participate more fully in Canada’s democratic life and institutions, at the local, regional, provincial and national levels.

We know that there is money within the broadcasting system that can be reallocated to support a solid stream of local TV news and information to Canadian communities.

In five metropolitan markets — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary — English-language private stations are required to broadcast at least 14 hours per week of locally relevant programming, especially news. In smaller markets, the minimum is seven hours per week.

French-language stations will continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, using a benchmark of five hours of local programming per week.

The required programming will be supported by a reallocation of the resources provided by television service providers, such as cable and satellite companies.  ‪The support that these companies currently provide to Canadian programming will be modified to facilitate the funding of the production of locally reflective news.

This means that starting on September 1, 2017, independent television stations will have access to $23 million through a new Independent Local News Fund. The stations initially eligible are located in 18 communities across the country, including in Prince George, Lloydminster, Thunder Bay, Rouyn-Noranda and St.-John’s.

In addition, we are giving large private broadcasters the flexibility to keep local stations open and to fund the production of local news programming. As such, up to $67 million could become available for the production of local news in 2017-2018. These large integrated companies will determine where and how best to use money to ensure the presence of programming that reflects the local community. To benefit from this flexibility, the companies will be required to keep all of their local TV stations open.

News programming will be considered locally reflective if it meets three criteria: a) the subject matter relates specifically to the local market; b) it portrays an image of the market onscreen by, for example, featuring coverage of its municipal or provincial government; and c) it is produced by the station’s staff or by independent producers specifically for the station.

Our new policy framework also addresses community television, which is still valued by Canadians, especially in smaller communities. We are encouraging access programming — that is, programming produced by members of the community. And we are encouraging community reflection, which enables viewers to see local realities that are rarely covered by other kinds of television. 

Community programming provides means for thousands of community and amateur sports groups across the country to be seen and heard in their communities. It also provides information on municipal politics and public affairs outside the major centres. That's essential to full participation in the democratic process.

Community television will continue to be financially supported by television service providers. And we are taking measures to ensure that priority is given to programming content rather than facilities and overhead. 

So that is a brief summary of our new policy for local and community TV. Establishing this policy was an important step, but it was only the first step. While I’ve been able to discuss our policy as it was published last June, I can’t comment on how it will apply in the future, as certain implementation elements are still before us.

To implement these changes, we must establish new conditions of licence for television broadcasters. In November, we will hold public hearings to renew the licences held by large ownership groups.

On November 22 in Laval we begin a hearing to review the applications from the French-language ownership groups: Bell, Corus, Québecor and Groupe V.

For the English-language ownership groups — Bell, Corus and Rogers — the hearing begins on November 28 in the National Capital Region.

The fact that these hearings are pending means that I may not be able to answer all the questions that you would like to ask me today. The CRTC is unique in that it is not only a policy-maker, but also a quasi-judicial tribunal. We have a duty to ensure that our evidenced-based proceedings are conducted in an open and transparent manner. All parties have the right to rely on our procedural fairness and our impartiality as a decision-making body.

To protect the integrity of the process, the clear legal advice I have received is that I can't say anything that might give the impression of pre-judging any of the issues that may come before us in our upcoming hearings. Nor can I speculate on what decisions we might make. 

There are also other matters currently before the CRTC that may be of interest to members of the Committee. I trust that you will understand that I won't be able to discuss them for the same reason.

Thank you.

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