What’s the Frequency, CanCon?
BY Terence Dick
Illustration by Jenna Marie Wakani
How the West Was Won could just as easily have been called How the West Was Lost, for the conquest of every new land inevitably involves losers as well as winners. Satellite radio is Canada’s latest electronic frontier about to be liberated, or colonized, depending on whose side you’re on. Working much like satellite TV, satellite radio (a.k.a. subscription radio) broadcasts a slew of niche market programming—all Elvis, all ’80s music, all baseball, etc.—to anyone in the world with the right receiver. There is already a so-called “grey market” for such services in Canada for tech-savvy radioheads to subscribe to US stations, but the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CTRC) June 16 licensing of three subscriber services brings satellite radio officially to Canada. And with it comes yet another battle for Canadian cultural sovereignty.
Shortly after the CRTC’s announcement, a petition drafted by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and a coalition of arts organizations demanded that the federal government reconsider the Commission’s decision. Canadian content (CanCon) regulations were being relaxed, and that could only lead down the slippery slope to relinquishing our currency, erasing the 49th parallel and selling the Mounties to Disney! Everyone from the actors’ union ACTRA and the Directors Guild of Canada to musical copyright group SOCAN and the National Campus and Community Radio Association cried foul. Two of the three licences granted were far too lenient in their allowances for foreign content. They had to go!
The third proposal, put forth by CHUM Limited in association with Astral Media Radio, Inc. (both Canadian businesses), was not challenged since their offer adhered to conventional CanCon standards. All 50 channels they propose to offer will be produced in Canada and provide the standard 35 percent domestic content. But, as the CRTC pointed out in its announcement, “Canada has no satellite facility capable of distributing digital satellite radio broadcasting and is unlikely to have such a facility in the future.” In other words, the CHUM/Astral proposal is not actually for a satellite service. They plan, instead, to broadcast from transmission towers that will initially serve only large cities.
The two disputed licensees manage to access genuine satellite services by partnering with American companies. One, SIRIUS Canada, goes south to bring SIRIUS Satellite Radio Inc. together with the CBC and Standard Radio Inc. The other, Canadian Satellite Radio Inc., is owned by Canadian John Bitove but will program channels from the US-based XM Satellite Radio Inc. While such cross-border alliances are a necessary evil, their content ratios are far too lenient for the aforesaid supporters of Canadian culture.
SIRIUS and CSR need only make available a minimum of eight Canadian channels and can offer no more than nine foreign channels for each domestic production. While their homegrown stations are required to provide 85 percent Canadian content with 35 percent of the channels in French and 50 percent of the music by new or emerging artists, they represent only a tenth of the entire programming offered.
By eliminating CanCon regulations for these essentially American broadcasts, the CRTC endangers both the commercial viability of the CHUM/Astral proposal (advertising dollars will go to the American programming that everyone purportedly really wants) and the cultural protections provided by the Canadian Broadcast Act. In exchange for their freedom from Canadian content, SIRIUS and CSR must direct 5 percent of their gross annual revenues to the development of domestic talent (CHUM/Astral will contribute 2 percent). For some, this investment, along with the possibility of greater exposure for Canadian music in outer space, is worth the sacrifice. For others, it is a precedent for the erosion of our cultural heritage.
Are we about to enter a new age of radio with an endless variety of programming, easier access and more freedom of choice than ever before? Yes. Are our cultural institutions jeopardized by the onslaught of American entertainment? Yes. Does the CRTC have any power against such developments? Less and less. When sound quality is not sacrificed to distance and national borders are ignored by satellites and websites, the sheriffs of yore have limited power. The frequency fences and broadcast ranges that kept conventional radio waves from being exploited are gone. SIRIUS and CSR could simply reject the CRTC’s conditions and do their business with Canadians from the States, while grey markets, satellite dishes and online media essentially undermine the authority of any regulator.
What we need is a radical rethink of how Canada can empower, not simply preserve, its culture on the open plains. Rather than divide up our media by decreed quotas, the government needs to put real money (perhaps the cash cut from SIRIUS and CSR’s profits?) toward promoting a sense of entitlement to what is ours: our musicians, our filmmakers, our artists. The CRTC still has a role in promulgating CanCon, but, as a regulatory body in an increasingly flat world, can only do so much. Canadian citizens need to be convinced to defend their cultural sovereignty… simply by enjoying it. If not, they will lose it.