I lost a night of sleep this week to something I don't often lose sleep to: worries about the concentration of our media industry in Canada. I don't imagine many other people lost sleep that night for the same reason, but i bet a lot of you were vainly flipping from channel to channel late that same night, surfing endlessly, seeking and never finding something you actually wanted to watch. Perhaps a lot of these people would agree with the observation that the more and more channels we find on TV, the less and less there seems to actually watch.
Increasing media concentration is widely perceived as a problem all over the world. The media business after all, has a lot of economies of scale and naturally tends toward monopoly ownership, from and economic perspective, bigger is defintely better, but what about the quality of what they produce? Is new technology tending to make ownership of traditional media irrelevant? Or reinforcing the spread and apparent balance of what is ultimately coming from few sources?
A Canadian Senate Committee traveled across Canada in April 2005 to study this issues related to media concentration in Canada. One of the findings of the commission was that the Broadcasting Act makes only a passing reference to news and information. The CRTC Canada's regulatory body was found to "lack teeth" having no ability to levy fines on broadcasters. The CRTC's mandate also needed to be expanded. "As it stands, the CRTC has had no obligation to consider the impact of certain broadcasting decisions on news and information programming."
The main public concern with concentrated ownership is the corporate social responsibility required from media owners, who not only provide a product, but in doing so set the public agenda, and by their coverage of News determine what matters and what doesn't. As recently seen in the UK's phone hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was seen to have undue influence in national political affairs, and a revolving door existed between senior media executives and senior advisers to the Prime Minister.
In 2010, the concentration of ownership in media in Canada grew substantially tighter as two of the largest broadcasting companies were absorbed by two of the largest telecommunications companies. CTV/globeMedia was acquired by Bell in early 2011 and Canwest/Global by Shaw in 2010. This occurred with scarcely a blip of public debate. After earlier mergers this leaves Canada with probably the most concentrated media ownership in the developed world, with the additional twist that the Big 4 media companies (Shaw, Rogers, Bell and Quebecor) are also the owners of the telecom infrastructure that delivers the media content. This "wall to wall" ownership of everything from the studio to the living room and everything in between is unique to Canada. As a result, the independent media creators producers and distributors (the remaining %40 not owned by the Big 4) are forced to do business with the Big 4, and they do so at a serious disadvantage.
In June of 2011, The CRTC held a Review of the regulatory framework relating to vertical integration one of the problems exposed by this hearing was that the Big 4 were putting the squeeze on independents, for example by jacking up the prices of carrying popular cable channels like TSN. Several companies were threatened with having their rights to carry these channels terminated, which would have quickly put the small companies out of business, as customers looking for these channels would have to switch over to Big 4 owned cable providers.
Also in June 2011 Kai Nagata, who was the Quebec City Bureau Chief for CTV, quit his job and wrote a lengthy essay "Why I Quit My Job" explaining the existential problem of corporate run news. Kai asked why should corporations pay reporters and do hard news when running video of (celebrity) Kim Kardashian's ass is cheaper and will bring just as many eyeballs to their news programs? Lacking social responsibility, TV news is subject to a race to the bottom toward sex, violence, sensationalism, celebrity and scandal. Other media programming, while less relevant to the public interest, also suffers the same problem. Like nutritious food, quality programming costs more and may not be our first choice when seeking to "veg out".
The Broadcasting Act of Canada contains a substantial amount of guidance as to what the broadcasting system should do. Programming should provide a "balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment." However there is no enforcement of quality, only the economic enforcement of ratings and what advertisers want to sponsor.
This week, after another futile attempt to find any show on cable worthy of resting my tired eyes on, I landed (somewhat reluctantly) on CPAC, which was repeating the recent CRTC hearings on vertical integration in the Broadcast industry. As boring as this sounds, I was soon horrified and enthralled watching as a parade of small media and cable companies appeared before the CRTC commisioners to explain how the Big 4 were working to snuff them out. A company vice president from PEI's Eastlink cable was nearly brought to tears as CRTC chief Konrad von Finckenstein dismissed their problem of being at the mercy of a company that was now their direct competitor when it came to negotiating access to popular cable channels. Even the not so tiny CBC appeared with serious concerns about being able to get paid for the content they produce when the cable companies they are selling to are also the owners of the competing networks. Of the CRTC commissioners, all Harper appointees by now, only von Finckenstein seemed to care enough to even ask a few questions of the delegations seated before him. Other commisioners seemed either disinterested or hostile to the concerns of the small companies or activist groups.
In this era of Big Media, do we have choices on what we consume? Yes. This week our family said "no" again to cable and returned the 200 channels of mostly crap and reruns back to the Big 4 company it came from. We have an increasing range of media choices available on the net, either in downloaded or streaming form, and thankfully there is still the Library. But in perspective, this kind of decision is a defensive retreat from the onslaught of low quality, overly commercialized junk that now dominates the mainstream airwaves. The mainstream could and should have higher quality programming, and this programming could and should be created and delivered by an industry as diverse as the population of Canada is.
From an economic perspective, regulating a better, higher quality media industry is an obvious win-win for Canadians. More made in Canada programming means more jobs, and these are good jobs. It is one of rare cases where foreign competition is moot, any money invested in making a better broadcast system stays right here in Canada. If Big Media is allowed to stay as consolidated as it is now, they have room in their profit margins to improve quality, but will of course not do so unless they are forced to. Arguably, the $30-$100 almost every family is paying a month is quite sufficient to pay for the level of quality we deserve, we just aren't getting quality because quality is not required.
public broadcasting media industry corporate mergers
[+] Position: Concentration of media ownership harms democracy.
- Argument for: The government has no right to prevent the expression of any opinion, with the exception of hate speech.
- Argument for: It's a freedom of speech issue.
[+] Position: The government can encourage more people to voice their opinions directly.
[+] Position: We can use tax laws to disocurage ownership of overlapping outlets. If the income taxes (or somesuch) rise by some increment for greographically overlapping subscriberships (10%?), there is a disincentive for owners to saturate ownership of outlets.
[+] Position: Anti-Trust, not tax laws
[+] Position: We need to improve the quality and diversity of our news sources.__
[+] Position: We can improve the quality of news sources by improving feedback from news consumers.
"If we can get fifty words onto a blackberry, they can click MORE... what we can encourage them to do is go deeper and deeper in the stories... to encourage people to read a story, a profile, a background, a timeline. - Senator Tachak
"...I am concerned for the implications for society about this... not that a Canadian Senate Committee can fix society..." - Senator Joan Fraser
"Perhaps it's more a democratization of the use, perhaps the elites won't be able to be as influential as they are now, with the control of the newspapers... there'll be more of a feedback, more democratization, more people responding to it, as the blogs have shown... in Saskatoon if there are major political issues we can make many people talking about it, not just the editor."
"More viewpoints will strengthen traditional media... at the same time, our definition of who is a journalist and what is the news will change. We'll have many more people taking on the role of journalists." - Tim Currie