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Comparison of public and private broadcasting Networks in Canada

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    Media systems in Canada: an introduction

    Canada is largely perceived as a country that is built on communications and communication technology which it depends on a great deal to date 10. It has a media sector that is well developed and which can reach practically every Canadian thereby making it an essential component of Canadian life. The mass media of Canada includes television, magazines, newspapers, books, internet, radio and films which serve several functions such as the provision of information, entertainment, education and advertising. BBG communications (2008) documents that in the broadcasting industry, Canada has a total of 130 VHF and UHF television stations, broadcasting on 1,456 transmitters in the entire country and which are owned both publicly and privately. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a public network which operates in both English and French. Besides CBC, four other private networks also broadcast bilingually.

    The exclusive English broadcasters are CTV and Global who are available in the entire country whereas TVA and TQS broadcast in French and are mainly aired in Quebec. However, TVA can be accessed throughout Canada by use of Cable television. Canada also has a national network, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) which programs mainly from the First Nations. It is treated as a part of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Network. In the greater part of Canada, however, it is aired on Cable television only. The official national networks are CBC, APTN, Radio- Canada and TVA while TQS is considered a provincial network for Quebec. CTV and Global are legally considered to be television services but they operate as television networks. Most of these stations are owned by the network themselves but may have affiliates that are owned differently 2. The public and private broadcasting systems in Canada both serve under different mandates.

    Historical development and social context of Canadian media systems

    The history of Canadian broadcasting goes back to May 20, 1920 when the first broadcast was held by the XWA station under the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, after successful experimental transmissions towards the end of 1919. The radio broadcast – or wireless telephony as it was referred to in those days- was that of a concert by Dorothy Lutton, a female vocalist. The Canadian telegraph industry which was a major means of communication then was under private ownership and by the end of the nineteenth century; the Great North Western Telegraph Company which was linked to the Western Union together with the Canadian Pacific Railway Telegraphs commanded the Canadian market. Despite private ownership however, the Canadian telegraph companies were chartered by the government which also regulated them 11

    The Electric Telegraph Companies act of 1852 was the first legislation to regulate wireless telephony. It allowed the government to have a minimum supervision of privately owned telegraph companies. In 1881, another act was passed which gave the federal government a minimum responsibility over telegraph communication. The Department of marine and fisheries originally created the radio branch but in 1913, it was transferred to the Department of the Naval Service so as to facilitate naval communication. By 1920, several other shore stations had come up in the East and West Coast and these were owned as well as operated by the Radio branch 11.

    It is worth noting that by late 1920, there were almost six hundred licensed amateurs in Canada who helped make radio popular and attracted the first audience of broadcasting. In total, there were 610 licensed Canadian radio- telegraph stations and of these, six were public commercial while twelve were private commercial. 581 were amateur experimental and eleven were experimental. After the XWA broadcast, interest in radio became more pronounced and even Canadian newspapers begun launching their own broadcasting stations. By 1922, the licensed broadcasting stations 11.

    Examples of other early stations include CJNC and CJCG in Winnipeg, CJBC and CKAC in Montreal, CJCA in Edmonton and CJCE in Vancouver. 1949, Canada authorized the first television service which began its operations in 1952. As the broadcasting industry developed, several regulations were put in place by the government to control it. In 1929, the Aird commission which was looking into radio broadcasting recommended that all broadcasting stations become state owned and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation became a big force. However, commercial broadcasting still continued. In 1932, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act was passed thereby leading to the creation of the Canadian Broadcasting Commission 3. Thus Canadian broadcasting networks initially started as private companies which were regulated by the government but after the proposal of the Aird commission to nationalize all broadcasting, there were attempts to develop state owned radio broadcasting such as the CBC but private ownership continued to persist. Currently, the broadcasting system of Canada is a mix of public and private networks, all of which have a particular mandate that they are expected to serve. The following section analyzes the public and private Canadian broadcasting systems with reference to specific public and private stations.

    Public broadcasting systems in Canada: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

    Public broadcasting was initially proposed in 1929 by the Aird commission which felt that private broadcasting was too commercial and market oriented with program content that was mostly foreign. In 1932, these same sentiments were echoed by then Prime Minister R.B Bennett as he introduced the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act. There was emphasis on the need to have a broadcasting network that would foster national consciousness and unity. Thus under this act, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was set up as the first national broadcasting service of Canada and which continues to serve as a national public broadcaster to date 1.The mandate that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is intended to serve is spelt out in the 1991 broadcasting act as follows:

    “…the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the national public broadcaster, should provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains;

    …the programming provided by the Corporation should:

    be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,
    reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions,
    actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,
    be in English and in French, reflecting the different needs and circumstances of each official language community, including the particular needs and circumstances of English and French linguistic minorities,
    strive to be of equivalent quality in English and French,
    contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,
    be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose, and
    Reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.” 5.

    Private broadcasting networks in Canada:

    Even though the Aird commission had advocated for the establishment of a single public broadcasting system, the private stations still persisted and continued to service the local markets. They even made agreements of affiliation with the CBC which enabled them to extend CBC coverage throughout Canada. Thus it became increasingly apparent that CBC actually required the private stations in order to be able to expand coverage especially at a time when adequate broadcasting coverage was “perhaps the most expensive and the most difficult in the world” 1.  Thus the influence of private broadcasters continued to take root in Canada and when CBC faced a funding crisis in the 1950s when television was being organized, they threatened the authority of the CBC as the chief regulator of broadcasting.

    The private broadcasting industry of Canada consists of national networks, regional as well as individual networks. The programming content of the private broadcasting industry is regulated by the Canadian Radio- television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) under the broadcasting act of 1991 which spells out the terms under which the Canadian broadcasting system is meant to operate 7. Under the 1991 broadcasting act, the mandate under which any Canadian broadcasting system should operate is as follows:

    “All persons who are licensed to carry on broadcasting undertakings have a responsibility for the programs they broadcast;

    …the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should

    (i) be varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests and tastes,

    (ii) be drawn from local, regional, national and international sources,

    (iii) include educational and community programs,

    (iv) provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern, and

    (v) Include a significant contribution from the Canadian independent production sector;

    (j) Educational programming, particularly where provided through the facilities of an independent educational authority, is an integral part of the Canadian broadcasting system;

    (k) a range of broadcasting services in English and in French shall be extended to all Canadians as resources become available;” 5.

    Comparison of the public and private broadcasting systems

    The public and private broadcasting systems in Canada differ primarily in their mandate. While the Canadian Broadcasting corporation is supposed to “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian” and “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity”, the private broadcasting industry is expected to be “varied and comprehensive, providing a balance of information, enlightenment and entertainment for men, women and children of all ages, interests and tastes” and “be drawn from local, regional, national and international sources” 5. Thus as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation continues to focus mostly on program content that is distinctively Canadian, the private broadcasters have filled their program content with foreign material that is mostly from the United States. The influence of the private broadcasters has been increasing steadily such that by the end of the 1980s, the share of television audience by CBC had fallen to 20% in English programs and 30% in French programs 9. The influence of American culture on the Canadian media has always been a bone of contention in the Canadian broadcasting industry. When television initially began, it was placed under the authority of CBC because it was felt that the private broadcasters had a low standard for their programs and neglected their obligation to the national system, focusing mainly on foreign American content. The CRTC tried to put a stop to this “Americanization” of the Canadian television by ruling that Canadian content should be 60% but this did not exactly work 6. The chart below is a visual presentation of how Canadian and foreign programs are viewed.

    The chart above is from a research carried out on how Canadians viewed Canadian and foreign programs for the 1996 to 1997 broadcast years. It can be observed that during prime time viewing, English Canada viewed mainly foreign programs with drama being the most viewed. On the other hand in the all French TV, Canadian programs were the most viewed, with News and Public Affairs forming the most popular segment. Thus it can be observed that Canadian programs are mainly viewed on the French television networks while the English networks continue to be dominated by foreign American content. The French sector seems to have succeeded in remaining distinctively Canadian and promoting a national identity while English Canada remains Americanized. This calls for innovativeness to ensure that English Canada also develops a distinct Canadian identity 4.


    Communication remains an integral part of Canadian life. For this reason, it is highly entrenched in promoting Canadian cultural values. The Canadian public broadcasting system is mandated with this responsibility of promoting that which is truly nationalistic to ensure that Canadian values are not lost. On the other hand, the private broadcasting networks have focused mainly on American content to such an extent that it was feared that Canadians may lose their identity and become Americanized. For this reason, the broadcast act was set up so as to address the cultural and nationalistic goals of broadcasting. However, the private broadcasters still focuses more on foreign content as opposed to local content. This calls for an innovative solution that will allow for “Canadianization” of these stations 12.

    The requirements of the Canadian Radio- television and Telecommunications Commission are that all Canadian broadcasting programs should adhere to the rule of a 60% Canadian program content. They should ensure that this rule is strictly adhered to with serious repercussions for those who flout such regulations. However, care should be taken to ensure that important information from international sources is not locked out in the name of promoting Canadianization. Care should also be taken to ensure that the choice of the audience is not tampered with through over- regulation of program content. At the end of the day, the public and private corporations all serve the same function which is to entertain, inform and educate. Thus they should ideally serve under the same mandate but serving under different mandates promotes competition and widens consumer choice.


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