By Frank Moher
I didn’t think I had a home team in the TV broadcasters vs. TV distributors battle that has been thrust at us in recent months. Seemed like one set of mega-rich corporations pounding on another to see who’ll get to remain the fattest longest.
The nut of the dispute, in case your TV is broken or you’ve somehow otherwise missed the bajillion ads run by both sides, is that the networks — CTV, Global, CBC — want the cable and satellite companies — Shaw, Rogers, Bell — to fork over some of the revenue they earn from carrying local stations. The networks claim this is the only way to save local news — which is as shameless a ploy as the old “buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog” strategy — while the cable guys claim they’d have to start charging customers more –conveniently forgetting that they could just suck it up and absorb the cost themselves (rather than, say, once again hiking pay to their top five executives by 28%).
A pox on both of them, thought I.
But then Shaw Cable began running an ad pointing out that they also create a lot of local content. This is true. In fact, in small-to-smaller communities like the one I live in (we’re talking the central Vancouver Island area), Shaw’s community programming offers the only consistent coverage of local events. Vancouver stations certainly don’t give a crap about us, and the ones out of Victoria, while they make an effort to look our way, are necessarily more focused on Victorians.
So it may be what we have here is an urban vs. rural (or at least not-so-urban) battle. My local broadcaster is the cable company.
Still, let’s say the CRTC, which is refereeing the fracas, decides that the network affiliates should be allowed to negotiate fees-for-carriage. Fine. Whatever. Before they do, though, the private networks should have to go the NHL route and agree to a cap on how much they can shell out for American programming (just as NHL owners agreed to a cap on what they pay for players). Because if the broadcasting business is in trouble, even as distributors continue to prosper, it’s not just because of the pressures placed on them by new technology and a lousy economy. It’s also because they can’t control themselves when it comes to bidding for whatever shiny new show the U.S. networks dangle before them.
As The Toronto Star‘s always excellent Bill Brioux noted yesterday, CTV, Global, and CityTV (which is owned by Rogers and so has stood out the fight) spend over $700 million on U.S. TV shows each year. That’s more than 10 times what they spend on Canadian entertainment programming and, according to Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, more than double what they spent in the mid-90s.
For its part, the CBC won’t say what it spends on American programming, claiming that’s “competitive information,”, but we know it’s a lot less than its private confreres. So that’s where we set the cap: whatever the CBC’s spending in the States (somebody can make them tell us, can’t they?), the private broadcasters can spend too. If they want their fee-for-carriage, not to mention the $200-million per year they already get from the public purse, that’s the quid pro quo.
Then — who knows? — they might even discover they don’t need to tap the cable guys to save local news, now that they’re not spending millions to acquire the rights to “Desperate Housewives.” Note that this approach doesn’t tell them what they have to do, as that of Canada’s indie producers would. The Canadian Film and Television Production Association wants the CRTC to impose a minimum spending requirement for Canadian programming on the networks. But that’s precisely the sort of quota-setting Canadians detest: watch Con-Con or we’ll shoot this dog. No, just tell the broadcasters what they can’t do, as good policemen always have, and then let them figure out the rest.
Then, if they still need new money to keep local programs on the air, give it to them. Something tells me they won’t, though something else tells me they’ll take it anyway. But at least fewer public bucks will be going to Hollywood producers to help them buy new jacuzzis.