At the time this article was published
Pierre Menard was a freelance television producer and writer. He was under contract
with the CBC's Parliamentary Television Network since 1981.
In a sky a-glitter with communications
satellites, it is time for Canadians and their Parliament to make better use of
their parliamentary television network.
Since 1977, the Canadian Broadcasting
Corporation's Parliamentary Television Network has provided millions of
Canadians the daily opportunity, to watch the live proceedings of the House of
Commons. By agreement with the Speaker, the House's Broadcast Service provides
live television pictures and sound from the Commons Chamber to the CBC. Under
the authority of a national television network licence issued by the Canadian
Radio Television Commission, the broadcast is then beamed by the CBC via
satellite to Canadian companies free of charge.
For viewers who may not understand the
intricacies, rules and procedures of Parliament, the hosts (John Warren in
English and Gilles deLalonde in French) provide explanatory material at the
beginning of each day's broadcast, setting the scene and describing the matters
that are to be taken up in the House that day. They also provide a wrap-up at
the end of the day, reviewing what has taken place and informing viewers of
what is scheduled for the next day. They must be ready, at a moment's notice,
to fill in during breaks in the activity as in the case of a vote being called
or Royal Assent.
For viewers, the highlight of daily
proceedings is Question Period. This 45-minute segment and Members' Statements
(the 15 minutes that precede Question Period) are taped and rebroadcast at the
end of each sitting day.
In the interest of making television more
accessible to the hearing impaired, live sign language interpretation of
Question Period is provided. The interpreter, Mrs. Christine Wilson, holds one
of the highest qualifications in the field of interpretation for the deaf; the
Comprehensive Skills Certificate of the American Registry of Interpreters for
the Deaf. Mrs. Micheline Martineau, who is herself deaf provides French sign
language interpretation by, watching Mrs. Wilson on a television monitor and
interpreting the English sign language into French. (The CBC is considering
publishing a booklet of new political sign language symbols developed by Mrs.
The CBC's Parliamentary Television Network
has grown into a unique broadcast vehicle. It is distributed to some 4.8
million homes (13.7 million Canadians) by, approximately 200 out of Canada's
453 cable companies. This has tremendous potential for increasing public
interest and awareness of Parliament among viewers across the country. Viewer
growth and concern is reflected in audience mail content and quantity, feedback
from Members of Parliament themselves and their staffs, media representations,
especially from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and cable company inquiries
for information to pass on to their subscribers.
In the past two years alone 45 more cable
companies have offered the CBC's Parliamentary Television Network for the first
time, representing two million new potential viewers. Now that the network is
successfully established and no longer experimental, the time has come for some
re-examination and evaluation.
An average day in the House lasts 6-1/2
hours adjourning at 18:30 eastern time. This leaves 17-1/2 hours of very
valuable satellite time which is paid for but unused each day the House sits,
plus the "dead air" during 17 weeks of annual recesses and weekends.
The satellite has always been leased as a 24-hour facility, costing Canadians
approximately $250,000 per month. It must not be wasted. It reaches 13.7
million people and distribution is still growing quickly.
Parliament and the CBC have had ongoing
consultations regarding the Parliamentary Network and how best to use the
portions of satellite time when the House is not sitting. Though Canadians are
offered complete live coverage of the daily proceedings of the House of Commons
it is during week-day daytime hours while a huge potential audience is at work
or school. People know Parliament is televised but they are rarely home to watch
it. Even the replay, of Question Period is too early for many Canadians since
there is no delay for western time zones. The network is only available on
cable television and not all cable companies carry the service. Most who do,
offer it on a channel that requires the viewer to own a converter.
The Committee on Reform of the House of
Commons heard several representations from groups that feel cable companies
should carry this service as a requirement for licence. Many cable companies
switch off the satellite network every day and throughout the parliamentary
recess because the satellite channels only display a message stating when
proceedings of the House of Commons will resume.
Of the minority of people home during the
day, an estimated 100,000 follow the proceedings each week. To make the
proceedings truly available to the vast majority, a simple replay of the entire
sitting would be a significant step. It would immediately provide a much more
effective medium for public participation in our democratic process. There is
time to replay the entire proceedings twice a day, by, making lull use of the
existing satellite facility.
Many different topics and issues are covered
even, sitting day, each with its own interested public. The spontaneous nature
of the live proceedings makes it difficult to predict when a particular issue
is to come up. Few interest groups and individuals can monitor proceedings all
day long to determine what is said on a subject of special concern to them.
Once the House has adjourned for the day,
however, in accurate viewer guide to the replay becomes available. If 20 topics
are raised one day, 20 publics can be advised when to tune in for debate on
their own areas of concern. Canadians would, first of all, be home to watch and
secondly. they would have prior knowledge as to what subjects were coming up
and at what specific time. Viewers could record portions of special interest to
Teachers who use the Parliamentary Network
as a teaching aid could do so much more effectively. More schools might begin
to use such a valuable resource. Though Parliament Hill is one of the best
known sights in Canada, far less is known of the process that takes place
Beyond the proceedings of the House of
Commons, there are many other uses for such a network. Over the past five years
while the House was in recess, the CBC's Parliamentary Television Network has
offered Canadians certain other programs including CRTC Pay TV Hearings, NASA
Space Probe Saturn Flypast, the meetings of the Special Joint Committee of the
Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution of Canada, the First
Ministers and Native Leaders' Constitutional Conference on Aboriginal Rights,
the National Leadership Debate and the Papal Visit. The most recent and most
popular additional use of the network (partially due to expanded household
distribution) was the ten-day live broadcast of NASA's Challenger space shuttle
mission with Canada's first astronaut aboard.
It is exciting to think of other
applications for this satellite facility. For example, the Reform Committee
recommended the broadcasting of parliamentary committees to reach all Canadians
rather than the few spectators who can observe their activities in person.
Coverage of committee hearings would provide
an opportunity to see the House of Commons at work. News media rarely, if ever,
provide extensive coverage of debates. In an age of communications and
information, journalists are forced to condense parliamentary news or drop it
entirely from daily news story line-ups. Canadians must now rely upon the
media's editing for information and opinion. As witnesses to the only televised
committee to date (the Special joint Committee of the Senate and the House of
Commons on the Constitution of Canada), Canadians could see that it is before
Parliamentary committees that the citizens of Canada come face-to-face with
their Parliament. Canadians could see other Canadians, ordinary people,
suddenly becoming a very real part of their own democratic institution,
illuminating and strengthening the Canadian spirit in the process.
The satellite facility might be extended to
the Governor General. She has expressed the desire to see the Canadian Bravery
Awards televised in their entirety, not just one or two minute highlights. This
is a ceremony that generates much human emotion (as did the Constitutional
Committee hearings). Canadians want to see their legitimate heroes and to hear
There are many important things going on in
Canada that are too often bypassed or condensed by the usual network programs.
The Parliamentary Network could continue to offer public hearings, major
conferences, and special Canadian event coverage. Further good use of satellite
time would be weekend replays of highlights in House proceedings – Question
Period, budget speeches, Throne Speeches, debates, private member speeches and
Televised information on the network could
take the simple form of printed material much like existing billboard type
cable channels. This might include:
- an introduction to every MP and what he/she does;
- how to reach your MP;
- committee schedules;
- federal information services;
- seating plans and House calendars;
- lists of ministers, critics, etc.
There are many pay television and speciality
channels available to Canadians but none more devoted to live Canadian
information programming, with 100% Canadian content. A fully used television
network would be very cost-effective in terms of dollars spent per potential
viewer and especially, in terms of increased public interest and awareness.
With its magical ten-metre dish and huge
nation-wide signal, the CBC's Parliamentary Television Network can become a
most effective vehicle for relating Parliament to all Canadians.