Canada's public interest TV ringing alarm bell over C-11

  • National Newswatch

The federal government has introduced Bill C-11 to update Canada's broadcasting rules for the first time since 1991 and bring them into the digital age ― legislation that is long overdue.The bill, also known as the Online Streaming Act, is intended to support a level playing field between large foreign streaming services and Canadian cable and satellite television. Yet despite those intentions, a gap exists in the proposed rules that could put an end to the public-interest television channels that Canadians rely on and that play a critical role in promoting our culture, our history and our values.Today, Canadians can access a variety of public-interest channels at no extra cost including AMI (Accessible Media Inc.), which provides TV/audio programming for Canadians who are blind or partially sighted; APTN which shares programming by, for and about Indigenous Peoples across Canada; the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) that provides Canadians with a window into Parliament, politics and public affairs in both official languages; OMNI Regional and its partner ICI Television which provide made-in-Canada multilingual and multicultural programming; and TV5 and Unis TV which share francophone programming across Canada, with Unis TV telling the local stories of official language minority communities from outside Quebec.It's easy to see the valuable role that public-interest channels play by offering uniquely Canadian programming. Yet if the gap in Bill C-11 isn't addressed, those channels may no longer exist.Under the current system, the CRTC ― the independent government body that oversees Canada's broadcasting system ― requires cable and satellite operators to pay for public-interest channels and carry them as part of their basic TV package. Bill C-11 takes a different approach.While the proposed legislation is rooted in the belief that foreign streaming services that benefit from the Canadian market ought to contribute to it financially and help share Canadian content, the bill as written prevents the CRTC from being able to require online streaming services to pay for Canadian public-interest television channels. Instead, C-11 leaves these payments up to “good faith” negotiations and, since they won't make a profit off of Canadian public-interest television, foreign web giants including Amazon, Google and Apple have little incentive to negotiate.That reality and reliance on “good faith” negotiations could prove disastrous for public-interest TV. Revenues from cable and satellite operators are already forecasted to drop precipitously over the next few years as a growing number of Canadians “cut the cord” and switch to online streaming services. These cable and satellite operators are also expected to move their services online, where they will face fewer rules under C-11.When CRTC Chair Ian Scott appeared before the Senate committee, he called for a critical change to C-11― a change that would allow the CRTC to set terms and conditions for channels such as APTN, AMI and other public-interest channels when they are carried by online broadcasting services. Unless that change is made to C-11, the channels many Canadians rely on are unlikely to survive.Public-interest television channels matter. They don't focus on commercial content to bring in advertising dollars, but rather exist to serve marginalized and racialized communities throughout the country, promote tolerance, diversity and inclusion, and support our country's democracy by helping to protect it from disinformation.Canadians urgently needs Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and the Senators on the Transport and Communications Committee to amend Bill C-11 and allow the CRTC to set relevant terms and conditions. Parliamentarians don't want to find themselves a few years from now without public-interest television, wondering what they could have done to save it. The time for action is now, and the solution lies in correcting the draft legislation.On behalf of all Canadians, we urge Parliament to fix C-11 and stand up for the protection of our culture, our stories, and our communities.Sam Norouzi is the Senior VP and General Manager of ICI Television, an independent multilingual and multiethnic TV station available over-the-air in Greater Montreal and throughout Quebec on all basic cable and satellite services.