The National Post
Saturday, April 24, 1999

Ottawa's Satellite War

The RCMP's crackdown on satellite dish sellers marks a new offensive in the war to keep U.S. signals away from Canadian viewers. But these broadcasting safeguards aren't necessary, and don't work.

by George Bragues

The defenders of Canadian content regulations don't like admitting the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is trying to dictate the public's viewing habits. Cultural nationalists have democratic consciences to soothe, after all, and so they ritually point to all the polls showing that strong majorities favour Cancon. They repeatedly insist Cancon is about adding Canadian voices to an already sizable menu of American television fare.

A recent RCMP press release takes the veil off the coercive face of Cancon and makes these rationalizations harder to swallow. Now, more than ever, it is evident that Cancon must be abolished.

On March 11, the RCMP launched a campaign against satellite systems receiving encrypted signals without CRTC approval, cracking down on the older, larger C-band systems, as well as the so-called "grey market" in smaller, 18-inch U.S. satellites. Both systems pick up stations such as ESPN, MTV, and HBO that are not available on Canadian cable and satellite services. The RCMP is targeting those who sell the dishes, not the 700,000 to 800,000 Canadians who have invested thousands of dollars to sidestep CRTC rules. Still, the RCMP may charge Canadians if it spies an illicit system in someone's home while on other police business.

Until recently, after numerous police raids, judges sided with U.S. dish owners and dealers. But this changed in November, 1997 with a Federal Court of Appeals decision, the basis of the RCMP's campaign. The court decided the Radio Communications Act prohibited reception of encrypted signals from any distributor not licensed by the CRTC. Only ExpressVu (entirely owned by Bell Canada Enterprises) and Star Choice (which is about to go into the hands of WIC International, Shaw Communications and Rogers Communications) have licences.

In its ruling, the court acknowledged the satellite issue's enormous implications. Allowing U.S. satellites to operate freely here would flood Canadian airwaves with foreign television programming, effectively nullifying Canada's broadcasting policy. The choice is between an open market and RCMP-enforced Cancon.

Cultural nationalists believe popular shows transmitted over U.S. satellites would take viewers away from shows on Canadian stations, leaving less ad revenue for Canadian stations, and therefore less money for CRTC-mandated Canadian programming. Canadian stations would either be put out of business or become U.S. network affiliates. Our kids would be deprived of listening to our stories. Stripped of a distinctive national identity, we could eventually become the 51st state.

Little evidence exists that ending Cancon is tantamount to cultural and national suicide. American programming has inundated Canadians, either through radio or television, for 80 years. The movies Canadians attend are almost all American. Foreign books and magazines enter the country virtually unimpeded. Yet here we are, still surviving, having developed distinctive political and economic institutions. More than enough differences remain between our character and that of Americans to provide writing material for scholars like Seymour Martin Lipset. Regional differences persist in the U.S., though all Americans are exposed to the same television shows.

It is human nature to prefer our own bailiwick. People like to follow the home team, watch the local news, and hear about their country's political events. Not coincidentally, profit-minded Canadian broadcasters, having co-opted the CRTC, fulfill most of their Cancon requirements with a mix of sports, news and public affairs, freeing the rest of their schedules for popular American comedies and dramas. This makes their prime-time offerings largely indistinguishable from those of the major U.S. networks. Foreign services subject to market forces would be no different. We would just have more channels. And with an open marketplace, broadcasters would no longer earn monopoly profits under the cover of patriotism. In the battle against U.S. satellites, the RCMP is defending not the nation's cultural wellbeing but the crass economic interests of a few corporations, something that would normally offend the leftist sympathies of most cultural nationalists.

Most objectionable of all, Cancon violates the Charter's free speech guarantee, which the Supreme Court has ruled includes the right of access to content that contributes to the pursuit of truth and self-fulfilment. Governments that follow the principles of a free and democratic society can limit this right only where there is a compelling purpose. Their means must be rationally connected and proportional to that purpose.

Let's assume that fostering national identity is a compelling purpose. The government has the burden of proving that Cancon actually promotes that identity -- a burden it has never met. David Colville, the CRTC Vice-Chairman, conceded 18 months ago that he knew of no relevant studies. The CRTC defines programming as Canadian not by its subject matter, but by the nationality of those who produce it. That's consistent with a make-work program for the domestic television industry, not the advancement of a Canadian consciousness. Proportionality requires that governments use means that least restrict our rights. Ottawa could promote Cancon by substantially increasing funding to the CBC and production companies, without prohibiting foreign satellite services.

Why don't cultural nationalists simply support increased subsidies? Deep down, they know the public won't readily make any real sacrifices for Cancon. They'd much rather offer import protection to private broadcasters in exchange for money and programming commitments than convince the public that Canadian programming deserves more government support.

Let the cultural nationalists make that case, instead of letting the RCMP do their dirty work.

George Bragues is an economics and philosophy instructor at Toronto's Humber College.

Copyright © 1999 by The National Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.