A Disturbing Heritage.

More questions than answers on why CBC really needs another Toronto FM Licence.

The recent action taken by the Department of Canadian Heritage (intervening on behalf of the CBC) threatened to abort the Toronto and Montreal FM licence application processes.  This represents one of the more significant precedents in the history of Canadian Broadcasting.  Among other things, it could have rendered the primary licensing authority, the CRTC, virtually impotent.  Now is the time to examine the facts surrounding this important issue.

Let's look at what has happened to date.  The CRTC asked that broadcasters register notice of application to obtain the remaining FM frequencies in Toronto and Montreal.  There are approximately 17 applicants for the frequency in Toronto and eight for the frequency in Montreal.  so far, so good.  Each applicant proceeded to spend up to $500,000 on the market analyses, technical briefs, etc. required for their bids.  That is par for the course.

What happened next was that the rules changed.  Legally speaking, it may be within the rights of the Canadian Heritage Minister to exercise her power by directing that the FM frequencies be reserved for the CBC.  This would pre-empt private broadcasters from participating in the process.  The Ministry suggested just that, forcing the CRTC to stay the two public hearings pending a cabinet direction.  Why did Sheila Copps and her protégés wait until late in the process to raise this issue?  If this was to be the reaction to recommendations contained in the Juneau Report, why was it not tabled in a timely manner?  Why was the CRTC not informed?  One might suggest that it bid for the frequency in an open competition.

Let's examine the CBC's reasons for desiring the new FM dial positions.  Essentially, the CBC wishes to transfer its AM programming to FM.  The states reason is the desire for a better signal with improved coverage.  The CBC is troubled by the fact that AM signal is blocked by office towers.  In fact, Toronto's 740AM ahs one of the best AM signal patterns available.  The CBC AM hours tuned are well over double those of the FM.  In Montreal, the AM also out performs the FM by almost 2 to 1.

It seems clear that a negative message about the AM band is being sent out by the government.  Such a position is wholly inappropriate.  AM talk stations continue to thrive across North America.  CFRB in Toronto (one of Canada's most listened to radio stations) delivers an outstanding audience with a signal inferior to that of 740AM.  CJAD in Montreal continues to deliver sizeable audiences.  The fact is that talk does not benefit from the frequencies above 10kHz that FM would deliver (since the human voice doesn't use those high frequencies).  In that CBC AM is predominantly talk, assigning an FM band would appear to be a waste.

Given that the industry is in the process of upgrading all analog signals (AM and FM ) to digital, it is a mystery as to why CBC would bear huge capital expenditures replacing AM transmitters with FM facilities which then must shortly be replaced by digital facilities.

Not surprisingly, broadcasters reacted with outrage.  Michael McCabe (president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters) officially states his grave concern's over the government's position.  Angry applicants considered law suits if their lobbying against Heritage Canada's position died not succeed.

Private broadcasters who generate jobs and bolster the economy are becoming impatient with the favoritism shown the CBC.  In Toronto alone, the CBC currently boasts seven media outlets (English and French).  Is this not sufficient?  Certainly no private broadcaster would be permitted that kind of ownership.

After a substantial amount of lobbying and extensive press coverage, the federal Cabinet put the whole process back in the arena of the CRTC.  It would seem that the heat that has been generated left politicians unwilling to back the position taken by Heritage Canada.  The date for final submissions was pushed back to facilitate, among other things, the preparation of CBC's application.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters and licence applicants have expressed relieve.  Still, this unsettling affair has left broadcasting in Canada with a dubious precedent, the specter of future intervention, and one might say, a disturbing heritage.