In Canada like the United States, television content is subject to review by regulatory bodies for a variety of reasons. In Canada, however, this material is subject to review for undesired political messaging.
Take a look at the following two produced-for-television spots from the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA):
On The Hill
It might surprise you to find out that the spots were canned by a regulatory body of private broadcasters called the Television Bureau of Canada (TVB). In the opinion of this self-regulatory body for networks such as CTV and Global, the content of the ads has been classified as “Issue and Opinion” by TVB. In fact, according to a letter obtained by this blogger (reproduced below), “the subject of renewable fuels being a hot topic these days makes it an opinion expressed.” Uh oh.
You might be thinking that opinion has never really been subject to censorship in Canada unless it crosses the line of hateful speech, decency or the promotion of unlawful activity. Of course, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association is doing nothing of the sort in these spots.
Here is the letter from TVB to the advertising agency for Canadian Renewable Fuels:
From: “Daniela Arismendi” [DArismendi@tvb.ca]
Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2007 17:27:04
To:[email@example.com],[firstname.lastname@example.org],[email@example.com],”Maureen Pellizzoni” [Maureen.Pellizzoni@mijo.ca]
Subject: CRFA – On The Hill
This final spot is fine but we will have to treat it as Issue and Opinion. The subject of renewable fuels being a hot topic these days makes it an opinion expressed.
The following must be revised or is needed for final approval:
1- The advertiser must clearly identify themselves by following one of these two examples:
The advertiser must be clearly identified in both the audio and video portions. The audio disclaimer and video super must be preceded by one of the following: “these are the opinions of”, “opinions expressed are those of”, “message brought to you by”, “brought to you by”, “sponsored by” or a similar statement.
The advertiser must be clearly identified in video only. The super must be on screen for at least 6 seconds and must occupy 1/3 of the screen in size. The super must also be preceded by one of the following statements listed above.
2- We also need an attestation letter from the advertiser stating that they have obtained the rights to Premier [sic] Harper’s footage from the station and his consent for his presence in the commercial.
Thank you for the already received indemnity letter.
Please send me the revised final and letter when ready.
Thanks and have a great day!
Television Bureau of Canada/Bureau de la Television du Canada
The “On the Hill” spot was deemed unairable for a couple of reasons. First, Canadians would not be protected, it seems from clandestine opinions to change their economic behaviour (in the advertising industry, this is called “9 to 5, 7 days a week, 365 days a year”). Because renewable fuels is a political “hot topic”, vulnerable Canadians might suffer if the source of the advertising is not “on screen for at least 6 seconds [occupying] 1/3 of the screen in size”. The closing tag “greenfuels.org” on the spot is too covert for the audience even though it is likely meant as a plug for a website on which the CRFA presumably wants the audience to visit.
And what’s this about an “attestation letter” to the rights to use footage of Harper and the claim that the PM’s personal permission to use electoral footage of himself is needed before CRFA can proceed? Did anyone else know that the use of footage of a political candidate is forbidden in this country without the express written permission of that individual?
My pal Kory Teneycke, executive director of the CRFA wrote to the Conservative Party to inquire about such a request and passed on the party’s response to me:
From: Mike Donison [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Saturday, January 20, 2007 5:34 PM
To: Kory Teneycke
Subject: Your e-mail request
Dear Mr. Teneycke:
This is in relation to the request from Telecaster which you indicate was sent to you late yesterday which you have forwarded us, in which they ask you to get permission to use a brief clip of a public statement by Stephen Harper made during the last election campaign which took place between November of 2005 and January of 2006.
I understand that the statement in your ad was made by Mr. Harper at a public event with unrestricted media access while he was publicly campaigning in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. I am not aware how the Party, or Mr. Harper for that matter, has anything to say- permitting, refusing, or otherwise- about the broadcast of a clip from a public event of the Leader. So far as I know, we have never been asked for such a thing before. I am frankly at a loss to understand why or what we are being asked at all.
Michael D. Donison
Executive Director-Directeur executif
Conservative Party of Canada
Parti conservateur du Canada
Armed with confimation of his common sense, Teneycke wrote to TVB and expressed his concern:
January 21, 2007
President and CEO Television Bureau of Canada (Telecaster Services)
160 Bloor Street East, Suite 1005
Toronto, ON M4W 1B9
Dear Mr. Patterson:
I am writing you to urgently consider the Telecaster policy giving public officials like the Prime Minister of Canada a de facto veto over the use of their public statements and commitments in advertising.
As you are aware, the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association (CRFA) intends to run a television advertising campaign starting today, January 22, 2007. Our campaign consists of two ads, one focuses on the benefits of ethanol and biodiesel and the second reminds Canadians of the commitment made by the Conservative Party to increase renewable fuel content in Canadian gasoline and diesel fuel.
Telecaster has reviewed these ads and has requested changes to the voice-over and video super of our logo at the end of the ad. These changes have been made and revised versions will be sent to you before noon tomorrow.
However, a more troubling requirement was brought forward with respect to our second ad. This commercial contains a brief clip of the Conservative Party Leader, Stephen Harper, speaking at a campaign event outside Chatham, Ontario on December 21, 2005. On Friday afternoon we were informed by Telecaster that we required consent from Stephen Harper for the use of the clip in question. Failure to obtain consent would result in the second ad not being aired.
It is our position that statements made by public officials at public events about public policy topics are not subject to copyright restrictions. As such, it is not for Telecaster to require consent from the public official in being clipped, nor is it for the public official in question to either grant or deny consent for a clip to be used.
For their part, the Conservative Party, in a letter to me yesterday, stated “I understand that the statement in your ad was made by Mr. Harper at a public event with unrestricted media access while he was publicly campaigning in his capacity as Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. I am not aware how the Party, or Mr. Harper for that matter, has anything to say- permitting, refusing, or otherwise- about the broadcast of a clip from a public event of the Leader.”
We believe there is an important point of principle at stake — the right of Canadians to use public statements made by elected officials, particularly those made during an election campaign, without first seeking their consent. The restriction you are asking for would limit public debate, free speech and political accountability. These are fundamental rights worth standing up for in a democracy. Moreover, they are rights that one would expect an organization funded by Canadian Broadcasters would fight to defend, rather than erode.
On behalf of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, I encourage you to revisit and reverse your decision without delay, and allow our second ad containing a clip of Stephen Harper to air without prior authorization of the Prime Minister.
I look forward to your response.
What is your opinion on the stifling of speech on the over-regulated medium that is television in this country? I can think of a few instances of the suppression of public debate in this country, but only via government bodies. This marks a particularly egregious example perpetrated by a private organization. Further, this case is yet another example of how YouTube is helping individuals/organizations get around the regulatory filters. And why was the use of Harper’s image in a commercial that actually compliments his environmental plan such a deal-breaker for the Television Bureau of Canada?
You can write Jim Patterson, the President of the Television Bureau of Canada (Telecaster, TVB) at email@example.com
UPDATE: CRFA mascot, Corncob Bob is on a Hunger Strike to protest the Television Bureau of Canada’s decision!
UPDATE: Gerry Nicholls, VP of the National Citizens Coalition and veteran of fighting censorship in advertising had the following to say when contacted for comment:
“Just another sad example of how we are regulating speech in this country and how we consistently underestimate the intelligence of Canadian consumers.”
UPDATE: Gerry also comments on his blog