CRTC chair goes out with guns Blais-ing at Banff

BANFF, Alta. — Outgoing Canadian Radio television and Telecommunications Commission chair Jean-Pierre Blais ripped into his industry audience Tuesday at the Banff World Media Festival.

The speech –which at times sounded more like a scolding despite an even delivery — was vintage Blais. The long-serving civil servant, involved in many capacities in the culture sector, ends his five-year term as chair this Friday. So far, no successor has been named. Other key CRTC appointments, including the vice chair, go unfilled.

Blais made no effort to cozy up to the room on his way out the door.

“How many of you attended any of these public hearings?” he asked at one point, suggesting the CRTC’s “Let’s Talk TV” and other initiatives were mainly attended by civilians.

“It’s hard to ignite broadcasters’ passions for something as apparently dry as access to broadband,” Blair huffed. “Pity.”

There are rumours that the first couple of drafts of the chippy chair’s speech was even more incendiary. Although he denies requesting an extension, Blair may have expected to stay on as chair for another six months. He remarked towards the end of the address that the next CRTC chair’s term should be extended from five to at least seven years.

“Thinking in government and indeed in industry—in this room—is still flawed,” he said, not mincing words. “It’s focused all too much on traditional divisions between broadcasting and telecommunications. On the status quo as an operating principle.

“That’s not the future. Broadband is. Apps are. Quotas, tax credits and the way we all did business 20 years ago are not. They’re anachronisms. They’re as glaringly old-fashioned in today’s world as the steam engine or the horse-drawn carriage.”

“Them’s fightin’ words,” thought everybody in the room.

At one point, Blais quoted former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said, “any business today that embraces the status quo as an operating principle is going to be on a death march.”

“We’re in the midst of a sea change,” Blais continued, as the room got very quiet. “For just a moment, forget Telefilm. Forget the Canada Media Fund. Forget super-screen based agencies. Forget tax credits and co-production treaties with Belgium. They’re tools of a bygone era.”

There were many in the room who would argue we’re not quite there yet, and what do we do in the meantime? Blais compared that kind of thinking to the 19th century canal boat operators in the UK.

“They raced to replace the horses that drew their barges with steam engines that would change water travel forever,” he said. “They never imagined people would start building railways.

“I urge you: stop fussing over your canal boats. Stop arguing over this barnacle or that one that’s stuck to your hulls. Stop being those people who stubbornly insist that canal traffic is the way forward because that’s the medium you’ve always used. The status quo cannot continue to be your operating principle.”

Blais was more interested in talking about things he got right. He was a fierce champion of Net Neutrality, for one. “Innovate freely,” was his mantra. “The last thing any of us want is for ISP’s to become gate keepers … The Internet is too important to all of us to have for-profit companies influencing our choices and even selecting those ideas we see and those we do not.”

There was no mention, on the other hand, of Blais’ hard tackle of CTV over this US Super Bowl ads.

Blais made a point of saying “CBC must be accountable to the public” and hinted the public broadcaster should look to the funds realized from their sale of their stake in Sirius XM — $58.8M by his estimation — next time they go looking for revenues.

The chair suggested print journalism was dead, that quotas have become outdated and that wireless competition will drive innovation, although the CRTC might have to intervene on price.

His two final observations were as follows: he hopes Heritage minister Melanie Joly issues her long-awaited policy statement “very, very, very soon.” Evidently he didn’t get word of Joly’s announcement here Monday that the policy would be announced by September. Blais called it “bad governess” that the minister has dawdled for over a year, opening a window, as he sees it, “for endless lobbying.”

Blair argued that the next CRTC chair must be appointed “with far greater independence.” Clearly, Blais never got over those tweets sent out by Harper ministers shooting down any Netflix tax in the middle of CRTC hearings.

A last plea to “break the status quo” was accompanied by a screen shot of a fist going through several layers of wood or concrete.

Not wanting to leave anybody out, Blais took a parting shot at Canadian media companies, accusing them of living inside their own “echo chambers.” He wondered what broadcasters had to show taxpayers and subscribers for the $20B in revenues raked in over the past five years.

He grumbled again about getting picked on for policies perceived as leading to “the devastation of Canadian domestic television production” and then never feeling the love for raising a quarter of a billion dollars of direct investment in Canadian music, creators and artists.

Blais made his points, but all this waa-waa-waa is never going to play in this room. He ended by saying he was “not going to apologizing for speaking truth to power. That’s my job.” History will decide if it is also his legacy.

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