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Canuck regulator vows to speed decisions

TORONTO — Canada’s broadcast regulator has begun an internal overhaul after complaints from industry players that it has become ponderous and inefficient.

CRTC chairman Charles Dalfen made something of a mea culpa at the Canadian Assn. of Broadcasters’ annual convention in Ottawa in late November.

“One of my objectives when I arrived at the CRTC in 2002 was to improve the quality of decision-writing in order to ensure that our decisions are comprehensive, clear and authoritative,” he said. “In achieving that goal we have paid a price in terms of the timeliness of our decisions.”

Decisions and policy changes can take a year or more to make it down the pipe.

“I find that way too slow,” says one industry insider. “I’m sorry, but these are major transactions.”

She believes that Dalfen’s cautious style — he is a lawyer with a reputation for being careful and meticulous — is one reason, but added that the org can be “hamstrung by its own policies.”

The CRTC has been in the spotlight since two controversial decisions last summer.

The regulator created a public outcry when it yanked the broadcasting license of controversial Quebec radio station CHOI-FM after it failed to muzzle an on-air host who channels Howard Stern.

Many, including the premier of Quebec and two opposition parties, said the regulator had gone too far.

In another, it nixed an application from Italy’s RAI Intl. to broadcast in Canada while greenlighting Arab news service Al Jazeera on condition that its Canuck distributors censored programming.

The Canadian Cable Television Associates believes this will be a powerful disincentive for distribs to carry the channel, and it is unlikely to hit Canuck airwaves.

“First and foremost we’re looking at streamlining our own internal procedures; what can we do to speed things up,” CRTC executive director of broadcasting Marc O’Sullivan tells Variety. “Later we’ll be consulting the industry to see how we can alleviate some of the burden of how we do things now, and we’ll make changes.”

The push could be pre-emptive. In spring the government intends to respond to the Lincoln Report, an independent government committee that recommends that the CRTC and the legislation that governs the broadcast industry receive a major overhaul.

Although the governing Liberals are not obliged to implement any of the 1,000-page report’s 97 recommendations, it faces a strong opposition that is calling for the CRTC’s blood.

And while the feds have no plans to do away with the CRTC, they’ve made it clear that the regulator is due for some tinkering — something that might be dealt with more effectively through a series of smaller policy directives than a legislative overhaul.

Indeed, Heritage Minister Liza Frulla is rumored to have informally asked for suggestions on how improve the CRTC without opening the legislation.

Straightforward improvements will be rolled out by the CRTC without fanfare and as they come along, notes O’Sullivan, while larger ones will require consultation with industry players.

Dalfen believes even a streamlined CRTC is unlikely to please everyone.

“I expect that some of our decisions will continue to generate controversy, rooted in different perspectives on how to put Canada first.”

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