Blog by John Miller

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Say goodnight, CAB

So the Canadian Association of Broadcasters is disbanding. Should anyone care?

Anyone who cares about the accurate portrayal of visible minorities on television should care a lot. That’s because the CAB’s decision to throw in the towel after 84 years of attempting to represent Canada’s private broadcasters also puts an end to the country’s most interesting experiment in making media toe the line on fair portrayal.

In 2001, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission leaned on the CAB to develop an action plan to fulfill the responsibility that every broadcaster has under the Canadian Broadcasting Act – to reflect the multicultural nature of Canadian society in its programming and its employment. That is stated as a license condition in Section 3(1)(d)(iii) of the Act.

To its credit, the CAB formed a taskforce that recommended a series of "best practices" that all of its members endorsed in 2005. It committed the industry to improve the depiction and on-air presence of minorities in the news, to develop training and tracking programs to avoid the stereotyping or stigmatization of people by their racial origins, to communicate its diversity plans to its audiences, including schools of journalism, and to take steps to ensure that experts and on-air guests would represent a broad range of ethnocultural backgrounds.

It drew these "best practices" from an international survey of similar broadcasting initiatives, and an impressive content analysis of 330 hours of Canadian programming from 72 English and French language TV programs. That analysis showed that "experts" interviewed in the news were almost all white, there were few non-white hosts or reporters working in French TV, and Canadians of Asian or South Asian heritage – the country’s two largest visible minority groups – were almost invisible.

The CRTC was pleased, praising the recommendations of the taskforce report, Reflecting Canadians, as "tangible and concrete." But it didn’t let the CAB off the hook, pressing them anew to put meat on the bones of the recommendations and, to use just one example, take specific steps to address the acute under-representation of Asian-Canadians on the air.

It’s not hard to question the CAB’s sincerity in embracing diversity. The outreach to journalism schools never happened. No training programs were designed or put in place. Nothing is being measured to ensure progress. And although the CAB came up with a new Equitable Portrayal Code, it is voluntary and contains no penalties. Its language seems weasley, like it was drafted by nervous lawyers. One example: "TV and radio programming shall respect the principle of equitable portrayal of all individuals." How about doing it for real? There was no pledge to stop stereotyping, just to make sure programming did not contain any "unduly negative stereotypical material or comment." How much is unduly?

When the vague language in the code was criticized, CAB defended it by saying it would be administered fairly and toughly by the "independent" Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. In fact, the standards council is a creation of the CAB and there is still no word on whether it will die with it.

Who killed the CAB? Declining audiences, concentration of ownership and a bitter fight over cable television fees are being blamed for splitting the broadcasters apart. Once a powerful organization, the CAB largely sat on the sidelines as the CRTC grappled with whether to impose a new fee on cable companies carrying local television signals. That was proposed by big networks like CTV and CanWest but opposed by cable giants Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw as nothing more than a bailout for poor business decisions, like buying expensive U.S. programming. All were members of the CAB.

Now the CRTC is back to square one in its efforts to promote diversity on air. It has the CAB’s good plans on paper, but badly needs someone else to carry it out.