At the time this article was published
Robert Anderson was a film producer and media consultant. He was Special
Advisor to the President of the Privy Council leading to the broadcasting of
In Canada, we have had House of Commons
debates on television for eight years. Our installation has served as a model
for many countries which have sent representatives to Ottawa to see how we do
it. It has been a success but the cameras have been too restricted in their
coverage, resulting in a distorted view of what is going on in the most
important room in the nation. The work of the committees of the House has been
almost entirely neglected, even though the original motion to broadcast
included the committees.
The McGrath Committee on Reform of the House
of Commons has recommended a review of the television coverage of the debates
and the televising of committees. There is a larger question which has not vet
been addressed: what i. to be done about the Parliamentary television network.
Except when the House is in session, it sits there unused.
Concern also exists about the audience for
Parliamentary television. Short excerpts are used on network newscasts and
Question Period gets a good play, but the full coverage of House debates, which
is what the Parliamentary network consists of, is available only on cable. The
cable systems are not required by the Canadian-Radio Television and
Telecommunications Commission to carry any of it. One can argue that Parliament
should be available anywhere in the country where there is a cable system with
the channel capacity.
First, we are going to have to decide to
whom the "CBC Parliamentary Television Network" belongs. The CBC pays
for it and in fiscal year 1984 it cost the CBC three million dollars for the
two satellite channels, one English, one French. The commentator introductions,
which require studios and staff, last year cost the CBC $665,000. That is heavy
going for a national broadcasting service which is already having to cope with
cuts imposed by, a cost-conscious government. The CBC pays for the network but
has no control whatsoever over it. This was made quite clear to them when they
announced recently that to save money, they were going to do away with one of
the satellite channels and would use only one commentator doing the
introductions in both languages. The shouts of Members of Parliament about
interference with Parliament's network made the CBC reconsider.
With few exceptions, efforts of the CBC to
put the unused time on this network to use have been discouraged by the CRTC
which appears to be suspicious that CBC is trying to sneak in CBCII, a second
network on cable that CRTC refused to license several years ago. With such formidable
opposition, what is CBC to do? One thing they could do to save money is to
leave the filming of the Parliamentary commentators to Parliament's own
television service. They could take this on quite easily and much less
expensively. Parliament owns and operates all the broadcasting facilities
within its buildings. The network begins when the signal leaves the buildings,
where CBC takes it over and gets it via satellite to those cable systems that
have ground reception facilities.
If the Parliamentary television network is
to be put to further use as a public affairs network, who would programme it
and where would the money come from? In the United States, an enterprising
entrepreneur, Brian Lamb, having access to the newly available gavel to gavel coverage
of the House of Representatives and to the hearings of congressional
committees, persuaded a group of cable companies to pay the costs of a cable
network. He named it C-SPAN, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, a 24
hour service of public affairs and congressional coverage.
The cable systems pay C-SPAN three cents a
month per subscriber for the service, which operates on a very slender budget.
They claim to have over twenty million subscribers.
In Canada there is not a chance of the cable
systems volunteering financial support. The CRTC could require cable systems to
carry the Parliamentary network and even to pay something for it, perhaps by
allowing nominal rate increases to the cable systems. It appears that CBC will
have to go on footing the bill to get the signal up to the satellite and down
to the cable systems. Even if this is the case, adding public affairs
programmes to the network would cost money that CBC does not have. It is
difficult to see how a private organization could find the money, even if it
could keep costs down the way C-SPAN does. A private organization here might be
able to offer the same kind of programming as C-SPAN, but it is doubtful
whether the CBC would want to. C-SPAN claims to operate on a budget of five and
half million dollars a year. They broadcast 8,760 hour a year, which is as many
hours as there are in a year. The House of Representatives and congressional
hearings coverage takes up about 1,440 of those hours. The rest is filled with
public affairs programmes. In Canada, even with the added coverage of
committees of the House, we will have about the same excess time on the network
as C-SPAN fills. Parliament cannot become a programmer, except for the
inevitable expansion of introductory and explanatory commentary to make the
House and committee coverage more understandable to the audience.
We need a public affairs network
incorporated into the Parliamentary television network and it will have to be
run either by the CBC or by some new body like C-SPAN's non-profit corporation.
The CBC could expect rough weather from the direction of Parliament, some of
whose Members might again take umbrage at what they would probably regard as
another attempt to invade "Parliament's" network. Relations between CBC
and Parliament have never been very chummy. It would probably need some
intermediary influence to keep the peace.
For a private organization working as C-SPAN
does, it would take extraordinary ingenuity, particularly to find the money to
run the operation. Canadian public affairs material is there to be covered and
the value to Canadians indisputable.
C-SPAN is, with CRTC approval, available to
Canadian cable systems and already at least one system in the Toronto area
carries it. It is time we made use of our own cable network for Canadian