Challenged Broadcasts of the “Save Local TV” Campaign Did Not Violate Broadcast Codes, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, June 16, 2010 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning challenged examples of the “Save Local TV” campaign conducted by CTV-owned stations in May 2009.  The CBSC’s Atlantic and Ontario Regional Panels issued a joint decision and concluded that the promotional spots and news reports related to the campaign did not violate any Code provisions.

In the lead-up to hearings by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on the issue of fee-for-carriage, Canadian conventional broadcasters launched a public awareness campaign entitled “Save Local TV”, while the Broadcasting Distribution Undertakings (BDUs, namely, cable and satellite television companies) launched a corresponding campaign entitled “Stop the TV Tax”.  A consortium of BDUs then complained to the CRTC that CTV-owned stations were using their programming to promote their view; the complaint was forwarded to the CBSC since it related to a content issue rather than the actual question of implementing a fee-for-carriage regime.  The BDUs’ complaint alleged that the coverage of the fee-for-carriage issue on CTV-owned stations had been biased and unbalanced.  The CBSC also received a complaint from an individual viewer in the Atlantic region who shared this view of CTV’s television campaign.

Combined, the two complaints identified broadcasts on CJCH-TV (CTV Atlantic Halifax), CKCW-TV (CTV Atlantic Moncton), ASN (‘A’ Atlantic), CJOH-TV (CTV Ottawa), CKCO-TV (CTV Southwestern Ontario), CFTO-TV (CTV Toronto) and CKVR-TV (‘A’ Barrie).  The Atlantic and Ontario Panels examined the complaints and broadcasts for their respective regions under the clauses of the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada’s (RTNDA – The Association of Electronic Journalists) and Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Codes of Ethics that relate to fairness, bias and the presentation of controversial public issues.  The Panels both concluded that none of the broadcasts violated either of those Codes.

First, the Panels found that many of the segments identified by the BDUs were promotional spots or commercials that one would expect would attempt to “sell” the conventional broadcasters’ position and be supportive of local television.  That these spots used station personalities, including news anchors and reporters, as their “pitchmen” did not violate any broadcast standards.

Those broadcasts that are promos or commercials are by definition selling something, whether a good, a service, or an idea.  It cannot be expected that such pitches will be objective, unbiased, detached, or laid back.  In reviewing all of the broadcast segments complained of, the Panels dealt with the promos with that weighted expectation.

Second, the Panels observed that many of the news reports and information segments were focussed on the role of local television in communities and made no mention whatsoever of the touchy, contentious or controversial issue of fee-for-carriage.  The Panels had no illusion about “either the terminology or the motivation for the emphasis of those stations on their community role.  It was of course intended to build grassroots support for local television.”  The Panels added:

Neither the motivation for, nor the execution of, the “Save Local Television” campaign is at all lost on the Panels.  But that is not the issue the Panels need to resolve.  The question is whether that self-serving, patting-themselves-on-the-back broadcast content was in any codified-standards sense problematic.  The Panels conclude that it is not.  The rationale is straightforward: the promoting of the value of local television, without reference to the contentious issue of fee-for-carriage, breached [none of the codified standards] in the sense that the “save local television” issue was not itself a “controversial public issue”, and that would be critical to any finding of breach of those Clauses.  Had the reference to local television been per se controversial, the Panels’ views might well have been different.  It was not.  News was not selected to further one side of a controversial issue.  There was no need to treat a non-controversial issue in a fair or balanced way.

Third, the Panels examined the few broadcasts that did actually mention fee-for-carriage and the debate between conventional television stations and BDUs.  The Panels found that, for the most part, the identified news reports had stuck to the factual issues regarding the debate; “there was no actual argument over the rights and wrongs.”  In two instances, CTV stations broadcast interviews with CTV executives who expressed their partisan views on the matter.  The Panels acknowledged that all interviewees, regardless of subject, are, after all, “chosen for their knowledge, expertise or perspective [and] will have a point of view.”  The Panels pointed out, however, that “when […] the interviewee may be chosen to support the very interests of the broadcaster airing the interview, more caution will be expected of that broadcaster in the achieving of fair treatment of both sides of that controversial issue.”  That said, the Panels found that there were very few newscasts identified by the BDUs during which the controversial issue of fee-for-carriage was even raised.  And, to balance these, the stations had aired the opposing perspectives of the BDUs on numerous occasions.  Evidence of those pointed countervailing comments, principally by important BDU executives, was provided to the CBSC by CTV as supplementary material.

The Panels reminded CTV that any balancing content must be aired on the same station, not just on other stations owned by the same corporate group, but CTV had met this requirement.  Due to “the multiple inclusions of the BDUs’ position as well as direct quotations from their representatives”, the CTV stations provided sufficient balance and therefore did not violate the Codes.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 735 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab