Jean-Pierre Blais says CRTC is on ‘courageous’ path

The CRTC chairman puts forward his regulatory agenda, dismissing critics in a populist speech delivered at an event in Toronto yesterday.

Copied from Playback - JeanPierreBlais-1Peppering his speech yesterday with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Pierre Blais spoke before a gathering of about 160 people, making a case for the longevity of good, investigative journalism, rewarding those who are marching to the challenge of Let’s Talk TV decisions and shaming those who dissent.

The CRTC chairman’s speech delivered as the keynote address of a Rogers Media-sponsored event hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto at the Sheraton Centre, highlighted a belief in the power of good content and focused on reiterating the points established through the Let’s Talk TV process. It is time to listen to the views of ordinary Canadians, Blais stated, and respond to the ways in which they consume content.

Although Blais did not reveal the CRTC’s decision on the recently closed week-long hearing into the future of Canadian local and community TV, during which it analyzed alternative funding models brought to the table by Canadian media companies, he noted that “local TV is failing us.” Referring to four points that determine the foundational strength of local TV’s offering, Blais suggested that local TV did not require government support since news reporting and government subsidies make “stranger bedfellows” than capitalism and journalism.

In referencing those hearings, Blais also singled out big broadcasters as wolves in sheep’s clothing: “I listened as Canadians spoke with intelligence and passion to many of the issues I just described, while corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies.”

Meanwhile, Ottawa is taking note of a series of recent newsroom closures across Canada. A parliamentary motion passed on Tuesday that will see heritage committee chair, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, leading a federal study on the state of news media and how it is consumed through air, print and online. While it is certainly not the first review of its kind, the move has been applauded by industry insiders like Unifor, the private-sector union that represents 15,000 media workers, with 5,000 journalists among them.

At the Canadian Club luncheon, Blais suggested that cable and satellite companies see the changes in Canadian consumption as their moment to shine rather than as a threat to their financial standings. Canadian corporate  executives, he noted, shouldn’t “bury their heads in the sand.” The era of simsub is over (an indication that no changes to that decision can be expected in the forthcoming comments stage of the process) and broadcasters can no longer “squeeze every last drop of profit” out of  “made-in-America content.”

But while Blais made some strong observations about the importance of the fourth estate and the need for depth and substance in news content being produced (no surprise that he is an Emerson fan), his speech fell short on providing answers to the more serious business questions of the day. For one thing, he suggested that broadcasters convince marketers that TV is a viable and strong advertising medium. Specifically, he stated: “Tell those marketers they are misguided.”

He also pointed to La Presse and The Toronto Star as examples for the industry given that they are both moving with the times. Blais did not crunch the Star’s tablet numbers but he pointed to La Presse+‘s 63% market share among 25- to 54-year-olds and its daily readership numbers (243,000) as evidence of its success.

Quebec, however, is a unique market where La Presse had its feet firmly planted. It also cannot be compared to English Canada. Moreover, the verdict on the Star‘s investment on its tablet edition is as yet unclear.

He also noted that Vice and BuzzFeed are too young and immature as media companies to do quality investigative journalism and the public needs the legacy media to maintain its value. Both publications have, in fact, done quality investigative journalism. A Poynter story published this week shows how Buzzfeed has invested in building a digitally-savvy investigative team out of young journalists, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning former newspaper journalists. And a Vice investigative series on HBO goes behind-the-scenes to take viewers into worlds hitherto unknown.

Ultimately, however, Blais had a case to make against capitalism, a point that he returned to from time to time in his speech.

In his closing remarks he noted, “We’re giving [Canadians] back control over their communication system by setting a regulatory course that supports public, not private, wealth.”