Big Canuck chill

Gov't bans H'wood pix from CBC primetime

MONTREAL — Canada’s TV regulator has banned all Hollywood movies from being shown in primetime on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. stations.

The decision, one in a set of strict new rules for the pubcaster, has sparked a war of words between the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the CBC over the future of the oldest public TV service in the Great White North.

Following a full-scale review of the CBC, the CRTC announced Thursday a number of tough conditions tied to the renewal of the CBC’s TV and radio licenses. The federal regulator told the CBC bosses to significantly increase their regional programming, reduce professional sports coverage, and, within three years, to eliminate Hollywood movies from the primetime schedule. Pro sports, notably the lucrative-in-Canada National Hockey League franchise, and Hollywood films are key revenue sources for the CBC.

The CRTC has renewed all of the CBC’s licenses for a seven-year period, including the licenses for the English and French TV networks, English and French radio services, and all-news outlets Newsworld and RDI. The main CBC network is a publicly funded web, but it runs advertising and is more commercially focused than a public TV service like the U.S. PBS system.

Swift reaction

New CBC president and CEO Robert Rabinovitch came out swinging, calling the CRTC ruling “fiscally irresponsible” and an unprecedented intrusion into the day-to-day management of the public network.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the CRTC ruling is the requirement that the CBC remove all Hollywood pics from the primetime schedules of both CBC and the French-language Radio-Canada network within three years. The CRTC gave CBC the three-year delay in order to allow the pubcaster to program any Hollywood pics it has already acquired.

The move is designed to allow CBC to showcase more homegrown Canuck films and foreign pics in primetime, and it will also free up more cash to pump into Canadian programming, said CRTC chairman Francoise Bertrand. The ban on Hollywood product will actually have the opposite effect, said Rabinovitch.

“The American films help us produce Canadian programming,” said the CBC topper. “We need those American films to generate funds. It gives us the funds to invest in programming. It’s a net cash flow to us. That’s what is insidious about the decision. It doesn’t look at the whole.”

Ruling too broad

Rabinovitch noted that the ban on Hollywood blockbusters is broad enough to preclude CBC from airing a pic like “The English Patient,” based on the novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje or Australian indie hit “Shine.” The CRTC defines a blockbuster as a non-Canadian film among the top 100 grossing pics of the year in the U.S.

The ruling will also make it difficult for the CBC to ink package deals with Hollywood studios that include both series and feature films. CBC has been Canadianizing its primetime schedule in recent years and has already eliminated most Hollywood programming. But Hollywood pics remain a key part of CBC programming, particularly during the summer months.

“They were quite successful with a fairly heavy movie-laden schedule in the summer, so I think they’ll have a more difficult time generating audiences in the summer,” said Doug Hoover, national vice president of programming at the rival Global Network. “So in terms of audience, it’s a plus for us. It will be something that will be difficult for them to replace.”

Network can appeal

At a news conference in Ottawa Thursday, Rabinovitch would not say what course of action the CBC will take in response to the groundbreaking CRTC decision. The network has the option of appealing the regulator’s decision to the federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who is responsible for the CBC. The CBC prexy made it clear he does not like the CRTC judgment.

“I am disturbed by the conditions of license of our two main television networks (English CBC and the French-language Radio-Canada network),” said Rabinovitch. “These conditions don’t take into account fiscal responsibility. The CBC’s budget is fixed and has been cut from C$1 billion ($673 million) to C$737.2 million ($505 million), and the budget is frozen. At the same time, costs are going up. These conditions will cost us an additional C$49.6 million ($34 million) each year, and they will also change the personality of the CBC. It represents an intrusion into how we program.”

The CRTC arrived at its decision following an extensive review of the CBC, which included holding public meetings across the country asking the public for their thoughts on the CBC.

Public consulted

Close to 5,000 Canadians took part in the review via letters and personal appearances at the meetings, and CRTC chair Bertrand said the decision reflects what Canadians want from the CBC. The web has the resources to make the changes, Bertrand said.

“We have confidence with the advertising revenue and the (government) subsidy that there is some flexibility for them to make these choices,” said Bertrand. “We feel it can be done by re-allocation. The last thing we want is to declare war. What we want is a good dialogue with the CBC so together we can both serve the Broadcast Act. We are praising their successes and counting on them for the future.”

The CRTC has told the CBC to add more regional programs (i.e. shows produced outside of Toronto) on the English network, reduce the total number of hours of sports programming, and provide regional newscasts on the weekend. The regulator has refused CBC’s request to broadcast messages from sponsors on the English and French radio networks, which currently have no advertising.

Fee increases have been approved for both all-news webs, the English Newsworld channel and the French-language RDI network. The monthly fee for RDI will be upped from 60 cents to 67 cents per subscriber, while the monthly Newsworld subscriber fee will increase from 37 cents to 42 cents per subscriber. The new fees come into effect on Sept. 1, 2000.

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