The Commission's Overall Policy on Balance
The Commission's policy on balance within the Canadian broadcasting system is based on subsection 3(d) of the Broadcasting Act (the Act) which states that:
the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system ... should provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.
The Commission has interpreted this requirement on several occasions. In the "Air of Death" Public Announcement dated 9 July 1970, the Commission indicated that it was not necessary that every program describe all sides of an issue provided that controversial issues are dealt with fairly and honestly within the total programming offered by a licensee.
In the Public Announcement "Miles For Millions" dated 28 March 1972, the Commission stated that the determination as to whether a breach of a broadcaster's duty to provide balance in its programming has occurred would depend on the circumstances of each case.
The Commission again addressed the balance issue in 1976 and 1977 in response to complaints concerning a campaign conducted by Montreal radio station CFCF opposing Quebec's proposed Official Languages Act, known as Bill 22. In a public announcement dated 24 February 1977, the Commission indicated that each licensee must in its own programming provide balanced treatment of matters of public concern. The announcement also stated that the right to freedom of expression must not supercede the public's right to hear differing views, that providing balance is the broadcaster's responsibility subject to possible public evaluation by the Commission, and that the need by broadcasters to provide balance is greatest when very controversial issues are addressed.
In its 1983 notice on religious broadcasting (Public Notice CRTC 1983-112 dated 2 June 1983), the Commission reiterated its position that the most effective way of ensuring balance in programming that is controversial in nature is to require that balance be attained by each individual station in the programming it broadcasts.
Finally, the Commission has affirmed that the requirement to provide balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern is not applicable to the case of abusive comments toward racial and other identifiable groups. Such remarks are contrary to the Commission's regulations and should not be broadcast at all (Public Notices CRTC 1983-187 dated 17 August 1983, 1985-236 dated 4 November 1985, 1987-196 dated 1 September 1987 and 1988-121 dated 29 July 1988).
In summary, the Commission considers that each licensee has a duty to discuss a wide variety of issues in its programming, including matters of public concern, since it considers that members of the public should be placed in a position to form their own opinions on controversial issues through the presentation of various points of view on such issues.
In the Commission's view, the balance requirement is satisfied in the following manner:
a) Each undertaking must comply with the requirement of the Act regarding balance in its own programming.
b) Not all programming need be balanced, only that relating to matters of public concern.
c) In general, balance need not be attained in each program or series of programs but rather in the overall programming offered by each undertaking over a reasonable period of time.
d) To attain balance, equal time need not necessarily be given for each point of view. Rather, it is expected that a variety of points of view will be made available in the programming offered by the undertaking to a reasonably consistent viewer or listener over a reasonable period of time.
The Commission considers that it is the licensee's responsibility to decide whether an issue is a matter of public concern and to determine the manner in which balance is to be achieved. However, the Commission may subsequently review a licensee's handling of controversial matters, whether in response to a complaint or otherwise.
Community Access Licensees and Balance
In the past, in applying its policy on balance, the Commission has made no distinction between conventional broadcasters and those who base their programming on community access. Questions about balance and access programming have, however, recently been raised, particularly in the context of two licensees.
At the licence renewal hearing for CFRO-FM, a community FM station serving Vancouver, an intervention was presented suggesting that the station was not providing balance in its programming dealing with matters of public concern. In response the licensee stated that it viewed its role as providing "a voice for the voiceless" by offering programming not generally available through other broadcast media. It argued that, by adopting this role, CFRO-FM in effect balanced the points of view presented by other broadcasters by providing listeners with otherwise unavailable perspectives.
In Decision CRTC 88-694 issued today, the Commission has renewed CFRO-FM's licence from 1 October 1988 to 31 August 1991 and has required the licensee to submit a report within three months outlining in detail how it intends to meet its obligation to provide balance in its prohramming during its new licence term.
In 1987 the Commission received a complaint from Helen Smolack of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association (the Association) in connection with an interview distributed on the community channel of Rogers Cable T.V. Limited (Rogers) with the son-in-law of John Demjanjuk about Mr. Demjanjuk's trial. In responding to the Commission's investigation of this complaint, Rogers expressed the opinion that it had discharged its responsibility to provide balance by offering an opportunity to the Association to express its view - an opportunity that it rejected. The Commission informed Rogers that further efforts to find an alternative viewpoint would have to be made. In response, the licensee stated that if it is to be held responsible for making such efforts, it would have to adjust its access policy significantly.
Subsequently, on 12 April 1988, the Canadian Cable Television Association (CCTA) wrote to the Commission to express its concern about the implications of the balance requirement with respect to access programming. The CCTA submitted that the Commission's cable policy for the community channel, articulated in policy statements in 1971 and 1975, assigned a significantly different role to the community channel than to over-the-air broadcasters. It argued that the fundamental premise underlying the Commission's policies for the community channel was the provision of access to the broadcasting system by the residents of a community served by a cable licensee.
The CCTA pointed out that the requirement for access often means that the persons presenting points of view on matters of public concern are "volunteers" or persons who have requested access to the facilities in order to express their views, whereas for over-the-air stations the on-air personnel are usually employees. It, therefore, suggested "that it would be both reasonable and appropriate for the CRTC, in the exercise of its supervisory role, to apply to community programming a slightly less onerous interpretation of the words of subsection 3(d) of the Act relating to balanced programming than it applies to programming produced by, or for the account of, over-the-air broadcasters".
The Role of Community Access Media
The Commission has specific policy expectations for community and student radio stations and community programming channels on cable systems. In the case of community radio, the Commission enunciated its policy in Public Notice CRTC 1985-194 "The Review of Community Radio" dated 26 August 1985. The definition of a community radio station in that document states, in part:
Its programming should be based on community access and should reflect the interests and special needs of the listeners it is licensed to serve.
In discussing the role and mandate of these stations, the Commission went on to say that it expected them to develop innovative and alternative programming which adds to the diversity and variety of radio services available in their communities.
Many community stations make a special effort to seek out community groups and invite them to address issues that affect them. Because of this policy, community stations tend to address a greater number of controversial issues than most conventional broadcasters and thus must seek out differing views more frequently even though they often operate with limited resources. Student radio stations are also expected to devote significant amounts of time to programs produced by members of the community they serve.
With respect to the community channel on cable systems, in its 1975 document entitled "Policies Respecting Broadcasting Receiving Undertakings (Cable Television)" dated 16 December 1975, the Commission stated:
While licensees are responsible for programs carried on the community channel, and must provide reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern, licensees should encourage the use of the channel for unusual ideas and opinions on the broadest range of subjects and give the community the widest opportunity for self-expression.
The Commission will continue to interpret subsection 3(d) of the Act as placing an equal and identical responsibility on all broadcasting licensees, including licensees of cable television undertakings offering community programming and those of community and student radio stations. In the Commission's view, to do otherwise would be inequitable in that this responsibility is clearly imposed on all licensees by the Act; and is therefore accepted by them in the course of the licensing process. As stated previously, balanced treatment need not be given to all issues, only to those of "public concern".
The Commission acknowledges that, in their programming, community and student radio stations and cable community channels often include discussions of controversial issues that are not addressed in the programming of other licensees. It also recognizes that the special mandate of community and student radio and of cable television licensees to provide access to groups and individuals from the community can make the provision of balance on matters of public concern more difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, while not wishing in any way to discourage access to the broadcasting system by a wide variety of community groups and individuals, the Commission wishes to stress that it expects these licensees to continue to play an important role in providing a forum for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.
Possible Mechanisms for Satisfying the Balance Requirement
Licensees, especially those who provide significant access opportunities to members of the communities they serve, have sometimes found it difficult to satisfy the requirement for balance. The Commission has, therefore, decided to suggest a number of mechanisms to assist licensees in satisfying the Act's requirement concerning the provision of reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern. Although they are designed primarily for licensees who base their programming on community access, they may be of use to other broadcasters dealing with controversial matters in their programming.
In the first instance, it is the licensee's responsibility, where possible, to identify issues of public concern within its programming and to develop appropriate programming to ensure, in advance, a balanced treatment of the issue. The Commission recognizes, however, that it is possible for a licensee to be unaware that one of its programs deals with a matter of public concern in an unbalanced manner until so informed by the Commission, by a complaint from a member of the public or by some other means after the program has been aired.
The following procedures or mechanisms are possible means of ensuring that balance is maintained. However, none of these mechanisms, taken separately, is totally sufficient to discharge a licensee's responsibility in this regard. They should be viewed as examples or suggestions and, depending on the particular circumstances of each licensee, further action or measures might be required to ensure that the balance requirement is met.
A licensee may choose to provide regular reminders to the public regarding the access role played by the station or channel through announcements indicating its responsibility to provide access to members of the community, and the procedures and terms under which listeners can be participants in programming. Such announcements should be scheduled for broadcast during times when audiences are like ly to be present in significant numbers.
"Soap Box" Program
The licensee could schedule on a regular basis a "soap box" or "listener reaction" program that would offer listeners or viewers an opportunity to express differing opinions on controversial issues dealt with in the context of the licensee's other programming.
In this way, groups or individuals would be provided with a forum for debate on matters of public concern without the licensee having to commit the resources to prepare or acquire programming to address a specific issue. At the same time, licensees are reminded that they would be responsible for the content of their programming and should, therefore, develop appropriate access criteria. If listeners or viewers do not take advantage of this forum to express their opinions, however, the licensee's obligation to provide balance is not discharged and the licensee must find another means of providing balance.
Access for a complainant
Although not obliged to provide time to complainants, a licensee may choose to satisfy the balance requirement by offering a complainant the opportunity to present a differing viewpoint within the broadcast schedule. In such cases, the complainant should be offered a reasonable opportunity to outline his or her opinion in a time period that would allow the audience a reasonable opportunity to hear this point of view. If a complainant refuses the offer, however, the licensee's obligation to provide balance is not discharged and the licensee must find another means of providing balance.
Searching out alternative points of view
If an issue is of public concern, it will usually not be difficult to identify groups or individuals who hold views different from those expressed by the program in question. One method of attempting to provide balance would be to offer one or more of them an opportunity to express their viewpoint.
Production of a program
In the very few cases where the provision of access under the preceding mechanisms does not result in balance on a particular issue, it may be necessary for the licensee to use its own resources to produce or acquire programming in order to satisfy the balance requirement.
The Commission notes that its expectations as to the quality of programs in such circumstances would, of necessity, take into consideration the resources available to the particular licensee. In conclusion, the Commission reminds licensees, including those of community and student radio stations and cable television operators who offer community programming, of the importance of providing reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern. In the Commission's view, it remains the duty of each licensee to provide a lively forum for the discussion of such issues in a manner that will provide their audiences with an opportunity to hear a wide range of views.
Fernand Bélisle Secretary General
Doc. #: AVI88-161