Canada's broadcasters face firm spending requirements for Canadian content as a result of the national broadcast regulator's latest licensing decisions.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced Wednesday it has renewed the licences of English-language private television broadcasters Bell Media, Corus Entertainment and Shaw Media until 2016.

The regulator has removed a requirement of eight hours of priority Canadian programming a week in prime time and replaced it with a demand that each broadcast company spend 30 per cent of its revenues on Canadian content.

It will allow the media companies more flexibility to move Canadian programming among their channels under its new group-based approach to licensing for broadcasters. 

This creates the possibility of Global or CTV airing less daytime Canadian programming and shifting part of their required Canadian content to the specialty channels held by their parent companies.

Sets spending requirements

CRTC commissioner Rita Cugini said the shift to financial minimums, instead of prime-time obligations, is a return to policy that existed before 1999 when the eight-hour weekly limit was introduced.

The CRTC sees the move as is a bid to address years of criticism that broadcasters were not spending enough money on Canadian fare, she said..

"The allegation was that broadcasters quite honestly were spending way too much money in Hollywood," she explained. "They were spending way too much money on American programming and weren't dedicating enough of their resources to Canadian content."

Even though they are no longer required to air Canadian shows between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., she says conventional networks would still be obligated to air 50 per cent Canadian content between 6 p.m. and midnight.

"I think this is an example of the CRTC doing its job," said Ian Morrison of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a watchdog for Canadian programming on TV.

"About 10 years ago they moved away from requiring minimum expenditures on programming because the broadcasters said 'Trust us.' That hasn't worked. They're returned to 30 per cent of gross revenues spent on Canadian programs. That is a good thing."

In a statement released later Wednesday, actors union ACTRA said it was relieved the regulator had resisted calls from the broadcast groups to further water down group-licence requirements.

The CRTC rejected ACTRA's request to require conventional broadcasters to air at least two hours of programs of national interest — meaning drama, comedy, documentaries or award shows for a national audience — in prime time each week. Instead, at least five per cent of their program spending must go toward these kinds of programs.

"It's not enough to just fund Canadian programming," said ACTRA national president Ferne Downey. "You also have to put it where the most eyeballs are, and that's on the conventional television networks. We agree that broadcasters need flexibility, but ghettoizing Canadian drama on specialty stations would not be the answer."

Shift Canadian shows to sister channels

The new rules allow specialty channels to move a portion or all of their Canadian programming to another channel within the same company. The conventional broadcast networks, such as Global and CTV, would have the flexibility to shift up to 25 per cent of their Canadian content to sister channels.

The greater flexibility is part of the CRTC's new approach to licensing, which is based on ownership groups instead of individual stations, the regulator said. The Canadian broadcast landscape has been reshaped in recent years with Shaw's purchase of Canwest Global, Bell Media buying CTV and Rogers taking control of Citytv.

Specialty and pay services have also become highly profitable while conventional stations struggle with declining revenue, the CRTC said in a news release.

Rogers gets a different regime

The CRTC renewed the licences of all Rogers Media broadcast interests for a shorter period — to 2014 — and imposed a lower spending requirement for Canadian programming, just 23 per cent of general revenues.

Rogers was given a lower spending requirement because it owns fewer specialty stations and would have less flexibility in shifting its programming, the CRTC said.

The CRTC said it estimated private broadcasters would be required to spend $774 million in the coming year on Canadian programming, up from $696.3 million in 2010.

The broadcast companies appeared before the CRTC for their licence renewal hearings in April.

The CBC's licence renewal hearings were originally scheduled for the fall but have been postponed until next June.

Corrections

  • Canadian content could be cut on daytime television as a result of the national broadcast regulator's latest licensing decisions. An earlier version of this story said the cuts could be in prime time.
With files from The Canadian Press