BTLR’s 97 recommendations include an ad-free CBC in five years

The report's recommendations also include subjecting streaming services to spending obligations toward Canadian content, and collecting and publishing consumption data.
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The panel tasked with overseeing the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR) on Wednesday laid out a set of recommendations that included a plan for the CBC to go ad-free within five years, enhanced powers for the CRTC, more regulations on foreign-based streaming services and more.

“Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act” arrives hours ahead of the kick off to the 25th edition of CMPA Prime Time, where the domestic industry will have an abundance of big- and small-picture issues to discuss, digest and weigh in on.

An ad-free CBC

The report envisions a new role for Canada’s public broadcaster, recommending that CBC/Radio-Canada adopt a framework that would see it transform into a “public media institution with a singular focus on serving a public rather than a commercial purpose.” To do this, the report says the pubcaster should gradually eliminate advertising across all its platforms over the next five years, beginning with ads on its news content.

By reducing CBC/Radio-Canada’s reliance on a “dwindling pot of traditional advertising revenues,” the pubcaster would also create some “useful breathing space” for private broadcasters, noted the report. It should be noted also that the BTLR recommendation mirrors one the CBC itself put three years ago, when it said it would require approximately $400 million in order to move to an ad-free model.

As well, the report recommended that the CRTC’s role shift from licensing individual CBC services to take a more fulsome approach and oversee “all its content-related activities.” In addition, the CRTC would report to the Minister of Canadian Heritage every year on how the public broadcaster is meeting its mandate.

It should also be noted that CBC/Radio-Canada has a CRTC licence renewal hearing in May. It’s unclear exactly how the recommendations in this report will affect the renewal process, though it seems likely the Commission will take into account the proposals put forth by the BTLR panel.

Streamers urged to collect and publish consumption data

The Yale panel’s report was crystal clear in its determination that internet broadcasters such as Netflix should be regulated and subject to spending obligations to support Canadian content production. This needs to happen quickly, noted the document, which recommended a two-phase process for bringing internet broadcasters under domestic regulation.

Additionally, the Commission was also advised by the Yale panel to impose discoverability obligations on all audiovisual services, and to collect information and consumption data from all players operating in the space. That data, which has been closely guarded by Netflix and others up until now, should be published in aggregated form.

In addition, the panel recommended that the federal government require internet broadcasters to collect and remit GST/HST. However, the panel made clear that consumers should not have to foot the bill through higher subscription prices.

“It is more appropriate to establish a regime that requires such online streaming services that benefit from operating in Canada to invest in Canadian programming that they believe will attract and appeal to Canadians. This approach would ensure a meaningful contribution to Canadian cultural policy objectives and the production sector. It need not result in higher prices for consumers,” read the document.

What comes next? 

With the report now in the hands of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the question shifts to if, how and when the minority Liberal government will choose to implement the panel’s suggestions. In the case of the recommendation to make OTT platforms contribute to the funding of Cancon, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has already reiterated the government’s intention to act swiftly to bring streamers into the regulatory tent once the BTLR report is published.

The BTLR panel received more than 2,000 written submissions when its call for comments opened in the fall of 2018. The review of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts was first announced more than two years ago when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tabled his 2017 budget. The panel, headed up by Yale, the former EVP of Telus and president and CEO of the Canadian Cable Television Association, was appointed in July 2018.

A version of this story appears in Playback. For information on the recommendations affecting the Canadian production sector, read Playback’s coverage.