Broadcasting in the Nineties: New Balances, New Perspectives
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 24 May 1990, p. 12-24
Spicer, Keith, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Some remarks about the CRTC and what it is like to work there. Some outside perceptions of the CRTC, and the speaker's job. Some balances which define: the players in the broadcasting universe, the clientele the regulator must please or displease with some rough justice, and the balance between Canadians' interlocking views of Canada and the world. Each of these areas of balance are discussed and explored in some detail. The players are four main families of broadcasters: the CBC, the private over-the-air broadcasters, the educational TV sector, and cable, each with their own distinct roles. The CRTC's clientele consist of several groups: consumers, artists (or cultural creators), industry (or the economic creators), and the federal government. Each are discussed in some detail. Balancing Canadian programming with programming from the outside world. Approaches to "Canadianizing" the airwaves. The healthy paranoia of the CRTC with regard to defending Canada's national personality. Opening Canadians' eyes to the whole globe. Redefining "foreign" broadcasting. Canada as an ideal of civilization called tolerance. What we need to made Canadian broadcasting as great as it can be.
Date of Original
24 May 1990
Language of Item
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Keith Spicer, Chairman, Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission
Chairman: Harold Roberts President


As I begin my season as your new President, I must confess I am suffering from a "hangover," but not, 1 hasten to add, the kind that many of you might assume.

It is not a question of too late an hour nor too much wine the night before; rather it is the fact that my predecessor and distinguished Past President, Sarah Band, had tried to have our guest address the Club during her term. Unfortunately, Mr. Spicer was unable to address us until now and thus, I have a "hangover."

Mr. Keith Spicer has been Chairman of the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission since September 1, 1989. To say that he brings a wealth of experience to the post is to make an understatement of great magnitude.

Toronto-born in 1934, Mr. Spicer holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Toronto, having completed undergraduate and graduate work at U. of T., the Sorbonne and L'Institute d'Etudes Politique of the University of Paris. He holds honorary doctorates from York, Ottawa, and Laurentian Universities.

His career has been very diverse. He has been a professor at six universities in Canada and the United States; a radio/television host and commentator; a government official, including being Canada's first Commissioner of Official Languages; a businessman in the communications field; a journalist and author in both English and French-speaking Canada and Editor of The Ottawa Citizen from 198589.

He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and of the Union des Parlementaires de Langue Francaise.

His appointment as Chairman of the C.R.T.C. immediately placed him in controversy concerning both new legislation to control the C.R.T.C. and developments in the telephone communications field.

1 suspect that several of our guests at the head table today have more than a passing interest in what he has to say.

We welcome Keith Spicer and invite him to address us now.

Keith Spicer.

Good day ladies and gentlemen:

The CRTC is an interesting place to work. Everybody you meet outside thinks you're doing a different job.

Musicians, writers and film-makers see you as a so-called cultural agency paid to defend them; private radio and TV executives see you as fellows who need to pay less attention to culture and more to their bottom-lines; the CBC sees you as well-disposed busybodies who really needn't pay much heed to them at all; and the cable industry sees you--well, as guys who, after last week, probably shouldn't be paid at all, unless it's being paid to take a one-way trip to somewhere very, very warm.

Just when you think you've got all those broadcasting people figured out, you remember: Oh, my God, and then there's telecommunications--in dollar terms at least three times bigger than broadcasting, and with a vocabulary 20 times stranger. To muddy the waters completely, the gurus tell you every morning to gargle with the magic word "convergence."

As far as I can tell, convergence means at least 36 different things. But, in some soothing way, it hints that the CRTC is really not, as it often seems, in charge of elephants and pickles. "Convergence" suggests that the whole kaleidoscope CRTC universe will soon come together and make clear to all the logical link between microcircuits and Mitsou, the Quebec pop star. In Toronto, I guess that would be the link between cross-subsidies in telephone rates and the lady in leather known as Alannah Myles.

Today 111 stick to broadcasting, including cable, and try to sketch out some new balances--and new perspectives flowing from them--which we should probably watch in the 10 years ending our century. These are balances the CRTC must deal with both strategically and operationally, but they also help other Canadians structure their thinking about some of the vital issues we must resolve as a free, creative and prosperous people.

The three sets of balances define: first, the players in the broadcasting universe, second, the clientele the regulator must please or displease with some rough justice, and finally, the balance between Canadians' interlocking views of Canada and the world.

Balance Between the Players:

First, the balance between the four main families of broadcasters, the CBC, the private over-the-air broadcasters, the educational TV sector, and cable. I'll leave for another time lesser, but very useful, categories such as community or other non-profit and native radio or TV broadcasters.

I should say that, for all of them, the CRTC wants to see four characteristics: an extremely strong commitment to revealing Canadians to themselves, a broadcast world with each network projecting an original and distinct personality, and the highest possible quality, which I would define broadly as programming, that's credible to experts but accessible to ordinary non-expert Canadians as fresh, engaging entertainment. Finally, beyond any network role or affiliation, each broadcasting voice must serve the cause of free speech--it must supply and animate Canada's marketplace of ideas.

The CBC is the backbone and heart of Canadian broadcasting. It's a literal fact, I believe, that without the CBC for the past 50-odd years there would not be a Canada--or at least a Canada we could recognize. With or without the words "national unity" in the Broadcasting Act, national unity is what the CBC inevitably promotes just by being itself at its best, the mirror and echo-chamber of Canada. Even before Lome Greene and Roger Baulu said: "Here is the CBC news" and "Voici les nouvelles de Radio-Canada" in the Second World War, the CBC became synonymous with the idea and ideal of Canada, coast to coast, border to Arctic, and by short-wave around the world. No other broadcaster will or can be what the CBC must be. As a mere rule-maker (a more creative trade than I thought!), I don't pretend to advise the CBC today on its priorities. I might wish, like a few of you, that they could figure out a way to give us both Stanley Cup hockey and the national news on the same night....

I just have two words of encouragement. On one hand, I applaud the two admirable leaders now at the top--Gerard Veilleux and Patrick Watson--in their plans to give us a stable, motivated CBC boldly committed to original Canadian programming. Never more than at this anxious time in our history have we needed a CBC that helps Canadians talk to each other and know each other's hopes and fears and dreams. If we want to avoid or soften future crises of nationhood we've got to have a CBC that educates us to at least the basics about each other.

That can help keep us together. It can also help keep us open-minded. Racism and bigotry follow a simple but inexorable equation: ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hostility. Educating Canadians about each other literally attacks intolerance at its roots.

CBC, both radio and TV, does a lot for understanding among Canadians. But let me give you a small example of the remaining potential. During the Sault-Ste-Marie language nonsense, we saw and heard mainly from the extremists. And French Canada, on its news, heard almost exclusively the extremists. A dialogue of the deaf, and of the blind. I wonder what might have been achieved by sub-titling the national TV news of English and French Canada--the French news with English subtitles outside Quebec, and the English news with French subtitles within Quebec. Naive? Impractical? The other day in Paris, I watched the TV news in my room from Germany, Italy and Spain--all with French subtitles. And they're not building a country, just a closer-knit continent.

On the other hand, I encourage the Government to continue its meditation on the CBC's unique role in our country. It's hard for any Government to love any CBC--"you fund them," grumble politicians of every era, "then they slam you on the news every night!" But beyond this normal human reaction is an argument of long-term self-interest for all governments: those sometimes irritating characters at the CBC, over time, can play a decisive role in making Canadians cherish Canada--and therefore in getting them to support leaders, of any party, who try to keep Canada whole. That's why all Canadian governments need the CBC very badly. And that's why federal governments should look for ways, detached from day-today annoyances or conflicts, to fund the CBC adequately, predictably and generously. Personally, I don't think that too much of that funding should have to come from advertising. You become what you sell--and it seems to me the CBC's job--without propaganda--is to sell Canada.

The second major player is the private broadcaster. One of the early lessons I learned is that they are not, and can never be, seen as a single entity. For they not only have sometimes conflicting interests (example: AM and FM radio); they are by definition competitors with each other. But they all share this characteristic: they want to be independent entrepreneurs, and free to broadcast shows they can be proud of and which, quite rightly, allow them to make a motivating profit.

The private sector also makes energetic contributions to Canada. Many of its stations, for example, are the electronic town hall in countless localities of this land. They are the place where the whole village meets, hears the news and gossip, and finds help for a cause and commitment to the hometown heroes.

One of the happiest surprises of the past few years has been the appearance of solid Canadian drama on English private TV, both network and independent. We're also getting some excellent new Canadian programming on the new cable specialty services. The old underlying tension between profits and Canadian content is still there, and probably always will be, but for a new species of entrepreneur, Canada and decent ratings are not necessarily contradictions. Shows such as CTV's Bordertown, My Secret Identity, Katts and Dogs, EN G, are attracting big audiences because they're good TV.

I think there may be two lessons here, especially for drama. First, maybe we should all be looking to quality, or audience appeal, as the key to quantity--getting more Canadian programming by making shows people want to watch, thereby increasing the shows' market value to the broadcaster. Second--and I'm sure of this--the key to foreign sales is not to produce self-conscious clones of U.S. shows, but unapologetically Canadian ones. We make lousy Americans, but pretty convincing Canadians. And when we act as we are, our so-called parochial concerns and styles can convey universal values the world will want to know about.

As the CBC showed us many years before, Canada has always had the talent to produce fine, unselfconsciously Canadian drama--as well as comedy, variety, and our trademark documentaries. Much of our best talent used to leave for greener U.S. and British pastures. Now, more and more, private broadcasters are also giving Canadian actors, writers, musicians, producers and others a chance, and a reason, to stay at home--or at least a chance to commute from time to time.

I think our private sector, like the CBC, still broadcasts too few fine Canadian shows. But the progress of say, CTV, in portraying Canada in drama is very encouraging. Doug Bassett's huge investment in Canadian history TV movies, for example, such as in Divided Loyalties, is a trail-blazing effort of enormous scope. Private radio also deserves applause for showcasing Canadian musical talent.

The CRTC will encourage such initiative in every way it can. And it will press some of the less public-spirited private networks and stations to contribute to Canada a lot more than taxes on profits made from U.S. sitcoms.

The third player, a growingly influential one, is the group of provincially funded educational TV networks--TV Ontario, Radio-Quebec, B.C.'s Knowledge Network, Access Alberta, and Saskatchewan's proposed educational cable service called SCN. This sector, I think, offers an incredibly unexploited potential. With modest funding, these networks render services to culture and education of immense worth, and will, as they cooperate more, be able to make a contribution of inestimable value. To do so, they, like the CBC, will have to be allowed to continue to project their unique personalities by being kept from the deforming pressures of commercialism.

The CRTC hopes to see much more inter-provincial and, indeed, international cooperation from these networks. We hope they can find the vision, resources and practical means to pull together more to give Canadians another alternative of high-quality TV.

To complete this quick tour of our broadcasting universe, I should mention the growing, and already very significant, contribution of cable. On one hand, it offers ordinary Canadians unparalleled access to TV production through community programming, including multicultural shows. Last week Maclean Hunter Cable in Ottawa initiated a $2.25 million program to provide closed-captioning decoders to the hearing-impaired--in effect making new programming available to some 10,000 new TV watchers in Ottawa.

On the other hand, cable makes possible the increasingly fine specialty services authorized by the CRTC in the past two years--for sports, weather, youth, family, news, and Moses Znaimer's wildly successful (and wildly creative) MuchMusic and MusiquePlus. I know he gets a little help from Allan Waters, too.

Those are the main players. They all have distinct roles to play, and the CRTC wants to support each in its special mandate. It wants to help each contribute in a unique way to the diversity of views and styles that mirrors and shapes the texture of Canada. We don't want to see half a dozen TV networks showing the same stuff, or hundreds of radio stations all playing the same music. Canadians want, and the CRTC wants to guarantee them, diversity. Not the lowest common denominator several times over, but the highest possible denominator in each original niche opportunity.

Balance Between the CRTC's Clientele:

The second set of balances defines the CRTC's clientele--the groups we serve, sometimes please, and sometimes displease, as we strive to respect their interests in equilibrium with others. These groups are: consumers, artists (or cultural creators), industry (or the economic creators), and the federal government.

First the consumers--and they should be first. Because in good democratic theory consumers should claim priority as taxpayers, citizens and public; and because, in good capitalist theory, the market--imaginatively and sensitively read--should drive much of our programming. Ordinary Canadians, the substance of our country, should always get a loud first hearing on broadcasting, whether the issue is programs, choice or costs. The CRTC must go out of its way to hear the public for another reason. Unlike smaller but wealthy interest groups, the public is divided, scattered and without strongly focused representation--notwithstanding heroic efforts by underfunded consumer and public-interest groups.

A second clientele we serve, albeit indirectly, is the artistic community. In the broadest sense, that covers all those who create TV and radio shows, including the many new Canadian movies we are seeing--writers, performers, actors, musicians, news-gatherers, and their producers and technical colleagues. The CRTC is, and will continue to be, a committed supporter of these creators and interpreters of Canada's culture. By our regulations and incentives and public pleadings, we intend to stay at bat for those who devote their lives, often in fragile financial circumstances, to telling us about ourselves.

If there were one standard by which I think a CRTC chairman should be judged, it is this: when he left, did he foster conditions that gave Canada more, and better, and more widely recognized creative people? Pierre Juneau did, and so did all his successors. I hope I can measure up too. And I know all my fellow-commissioners want to back the cultural creators as much as I do.

After the cultural creators, the economic creators--the entrepreneurs who make up what is loosely called "the industry." If I've left these people until now, it's not at all that I think them less important than the consumers and the artists. It's merely to lead up logically to the foundation role the private broadcasting industry plays in building, maintaining and developing an innovative, universally accessible broadcasting system. Without the entrepreneurs--the risk-takers--their capital, their intelligence, drive and imagination, our private broadcasting sector would not exist. Thousands of cultural creators would not work, and Canadian consumers would have the unsatisfactory choice of only public networks and U.S. ones.

This coming decade looks to be both exciting and uncertain for broadcast entrepreneurs. Some sectors--such as AM radio in many parts of Canada--face severe economic challenges. More broadly, many changes in technology--digital radio, high-definition TV, the so-called 100-channel TV universe, cable addressability, interactive cable TV, direct broadcast satellites, video-on-demand, among many others--will demand strong strategic planning and enormous tactical adroitness. The implications of new technologies are far from clear. But it is plain that they will lead to tougher competition, and to rising potentials and to demands for greater programming choices. Meeting these challenges will demand a lot of capital and elbow room, as well as judgment. It will also demand a stable, flexible, open and sympathetic regulatory system. The CRTC will, I'm sure, try as much as it can within the high standards of the Broadcasting Act to create conditions of security and freedom so that our economic creators can do their best for Canada and themselves.

I'm pleased to tell you that the first initiative I took when starting up last September--a move to streamline and lighten our procedures and reduce "regulatory lag"--was completed in March, and now some 17 practical improvements are being implemented.

I mentioned the private sector doing well for themselves. Personally, I'm a big fan of profits. For without profits there is no motivation to build, and no freedom to make good Canadian programs--programs that, as the CAB says, "Canadians want to watch."

The final clientele the CRTC deals with is the government. By that I mean Parliament, Cabinet and various sister organizations, especially the Department of Communications. The CRTC is an independent, arms-length agency, and you may have heard my predecessors and me making that point pretty pungently in recent years. As a renegade journalist and a guy who spent seven years as Commissioner of Cornflakes (an officer of Parliament), this independence suits me fine, and I intend to defend it strongly. But also with common sense and perspective. Although I've said my piece in committee about the risk of the CRTC becoming the monkey to the government's organ-grinder, I don't foresee any serious difficulty getting good work done in total independence from the people we deal with in the present government, or indeed those in opposition.

I believe it's not the CRTC, but Cabinet itself, which would come to rue the so-called "tandem powers" of direction and review. As virtually all segments of the industry have warned in defence of the CRTC's independence, overuse of these

powers would quickly discredit any government's commitment to a non-partisan, impartial process, and burden Cabinet with line-ups of unwelcome petitioners. In the end, and quite apart from reassuring public and industry that the system is honest, the CRTC protects any government from its friends.

Balance Between Canada and the World:

Finally, I want to say a word about balancing Canadian programming with programming from the outside world.

I've referred briefly to the success, in recent years, of Canadian programming. That's true and encouraging. But it's far from good enough. Too much of what we see is derivative of U.S. ideas and U.S. production styles. I think producers need to keep both eyes on Canada, and not one longingly and insecurely on Hollywood. Moreover, too much of what passes for Canadian content is the easy, almost automatic quota-filling of news, weather, sports and game shows.

This July, my fellow commissioners and I are going to give some fresh thought to our approach to Canadianizing the airwaves. I can't prejudge exactly what we'll come up with. But I can convey our initial thinking. We are concerned that quantity--i.e. Canadian content rules--may no longer be the only or best standard. We are beginning to believe that, while keeping the quantitative rules at least at their current level, we may need to put greater emphasis on quality. Don't worry. The CRTC is not silly or presumptuous enough to want to impose on the creative people its own ideas about what is good or bad programming. I'm just saying that, in consultation with industry and cultural creators, we may have to look for some imaginative, practical ways to recognize and reward initiative and investment in Canadian programming. Some of our priority areas will surely be finding ways to get more appealing drama and children's shows on the air.

I'm well aware that U.S. programming often serves as a cross-subsidy to Canadian shows. As realists, we have to leave private Canadian TV networks and stations reasonable access to saleable products that will assure them money to invest in Canadian programs. What is "reasonable access?" It's access which channels enough funding to make Canadian screens, as Peter Gzowski's contest-girl said, "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances."

I know there are people in this room--not to mention Gerry Caplan at the head table--who think the outlook for Canadian programming is pretty bleak. I'm sincerely glad Gerry thinks that, because he and others like him will keep prodding the CRTC to do what it's supposed to do for Canada.

But since meeting quite a few foreign counterparts on this job I've gained a bit more optimism. Countries as far apart as France and South Korea look on us as their model for defending their own culture on the airwaves. Two weeks ago I was asked by the French minister of Communications: "How is it that you Canadians have all those wonderful rules about defending your own culture in broadcasting? We're terribly worried about the Americans." I replied: "It's easy: our culture--young, fragile and right next door to the Americans--doesn't allow us the leisure you have to be too comfortable with identity. Our secret is healthy paranoia."

You can count on the CRTC to stay healthily paranoid about defending Canada's national personality. We'll do it thoughtfully and passionately--and we won't likely bankrupt anybody along the way.

I'm as aware as anybody that our American friends have developed an entertainment industry which has seduced the world. But all of us non-Americans can be seductive in our own way if we stay faithful to who we are. The French, of course, are seductive. So, in many ways, are South Koreans. Maybe Canadians can convince the world they're sort of like the Swiss, but with sex appeal.

After Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe, nobody this year ought to need a reminder about how powerful television is as an agent of social, economic, cultural and political change. I'd like to think that with the new many-channelled technologies coming along, we can help anchor the good things about Canada, and minimize the less good things, by opening Canadians' eyes a lot more to the whole globe.

I remember reading a book as a student called / Found Canada Abroad. In these days when we achingly need to find perspective on our country, I'm certain that redefining "foreign" broadcasting to mean not America, but the entire world, would help us remember what Canada is and must always be.

Canada is not a constitution. Canada is not a balance sheet. Canada is an ideal of civilization called tolerance. The tribe-torn world we see on our TV screens needs to see Canada succeed. And maybe we can see a better reason to succeed if we look at how badly the world needs Canada.

Those, then, are the balances of players, clientele and outlooks that the CRTC will be grappling with. In closing, I invite all those who animate broadcasting in Canada to think along with us and to give us your advice. Whether you make movies, music or just millions, I hope you will think hard about how you can use your great power to reinvent this Canada for our children's century.

What do we need to make Canadian broadcasting as great--and as ours--as it can be? Three things: confidence, creativity, and quite a bit of cash. To both the cultural and economic creators, I promise this: the CRTC--by cheerleading, and by making sensible rules, or by getting out of your hair--will try to steer your way as much as it can of all three.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Hershell Ezrin, Senior Vice President, Corporate and Public Affairs, The Molson Companies Limited; and a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Broadcasting in the Nineties: New Balances, New Perspectives

Some remarks about the CRTC and what it is like to work there. Some outside perceptions of the CRTC, and the speaker's job. Some balances which define: the players in the broadcasting universe, the clientele the regulator must please or displease with some rough justice, and the balance between Canadians' interlocking views of Canada and the world. Each of these areas of balance are discussed and explored in some detail. The players are four main families of broadcasters: the CBC, the private over-the-air broadcasters, the educational TV sector, and cable, each with their own distinct roles. The CRTC's clientele consist of several groups: consumers, artists (or cultural creators), industry (or the economic creators), and the federal government. Each are discussed in some detail. Balancing Canadian programming with programming from the outside world. Approaches to "Canadianizing" the airwaves. The healthy paranoia of the CRTC with regard to defending Canada's national personality. Opening Canadians' eyes to the whole globe. Redefining "foreign" broadcasting. Canada as an ideal of civilization called tolerance. What we need to made Canadian broadcasting as great as it can be.