Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Shaw + Corus = limited gay access to TV?

CRTC asked to push for more diverse programming

UPDATE 20 Feb 4:09am – An Ontario court approved Shaw Communications’  bid to take over the assets of floundering media giant Canwest Global on Feb 19. The deal must still be approved by the CRTC, a group of Canwest creditors and US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

19 FEB – Members of the gay community are questioning why two interconnected, conservative broadcasting companies are wielding so much power in Canada over what gay and sexual images make it on the air.

Questions surfaced after Corus Entertainment decided to pull SexTV off the air and rebrand it as a women’s movie channel effective Mar 1.

Corus is a spin-off of Shaw Communications, a company well known for its years of limiting OutTV’s access to the dial. The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled in 2008 that Shaw had violated regulations by failing to market the gay and lesbian digital channel equitably along with similar channels.

Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra, owns a minority share in OutTV.

Calgary-based Shaw announced it was spinning off Corus Entertainment Inc as an independently operated, publicly traded company in September 1999.

While both companies claim to be independent, Shaw family members sit on both boards.

JR Shaw, 75, sits on the Shaw board as executive chairman while son Jim, 52, is the CEO. Bradley S Shaw sits as executive vice president.

On the Corus board, Heather Shaw is the executive chair while Julie Shaw is the vice-chair.

According to the Corus website, Julie Shaw is also vice president, facilities, design and management for Shaw Communications Inc and CEO of the Shaw Family Group.

Shaw and Corus are family-operated companies, agrees Shaw Communications president Peter Bissonnette. But, he says, there are enough independent board members to ensure each company’s independence.

On Feb 12, Shaw also bid to buy a 20 percent stake in Canwest for an 80 percent voting interest in that company. The sale is contingent on court approval in Ontario.

Canwest operates the Global TV network, a number of specialty cable channels and one of Canada’s largest newspaper chains.

OutTV chief operating officer Brad Danks says cable companies like Shaw and Corus should be instructed to put diverse programming ahead of their commercial interests. “There has to be core channels that represent the diversity of Canadian voices,” he says.

He would like the CRTC to enforce such a shift but is well aware that the order would have to come from Parliament.

Janine Fuller says cable monopolies and their associated companies need to be better regulated to preserve minority voices.

“We have to be fireproofing Canadian content,” the manager of Little Sister’s bookstore says, comparing the power cable companies wield to that of big-box book retailers, which are squeezing independent booksellers and publishers — and the voices they represent — out of the market.

Channels such as SexTV and OutTV are at risk of vanishing if they are shifted into digital oblivion or repackaged as other offerings, Danks says.

“At the end of the day, whose system is it?” he asks. “It should be the peoples’ system.”

Bissonnette takes issue with that.

He says Shaw is committed to ensuring a diversity of voices is heard in the Canadian cable universe.

Moreover, he adds, the internet (Shaw has 1.5 million internet subscribers, he says) adds an infinite diversity of voices outside the TV realm.

“One of the beauties of voices is now, with the internet, there are so many avenues of expression,” Bissonnette says. “We’re very supportive of having as many voices as possible. That’s what makes life so fulfilling — having as many perspectives on life as possible out there.”

Despite repeated attempts, Corus would not answer Xtra’s questions on the matter.

In an earlier statement, Corus said SexTV had no audience and the new channel would offer a broader focus. “W Movies will be the latest addition to Corus Entertainment’s portfolio of women-focused services. The channel will be a rebranding of SexTV and the programming will shift to focus on offering audiences entertaining, relationship-based films targeted to women,” it said.

“We have a big interest in improving and solidifying our position in [TV channels aimed at] women,” president John Cassaday told the Globe and Mail in September.

If a channel remains within its conditions of licence, it does not need to inform the CRTC of a rebranding.

Danks wonders why another US-style channel is needed in the form of W Movies. “This was a Canadian service,” he says of SexTV. “Now it’s turning into an American service. Is that good for Canadian programming?”

Bissonnette disagrees. “It’s another voice,” he says. “It’s what Corus sees as a women’s voice.”

Danks concedes that Corus may have a commercially sound reason for rebranding SexTV. It “has never done well. It’s always been a dog,” he says.

According to CRTC financial statements, SexTV had an operating income of $868,000 on $3.5 million revenue in 2008. Its programming included the Sex Files, reruns of the Sunday Night Sex Show with Sue Johanson, the gay travelogue Pink Planet and retro late-night soft-core blue movies.

Corus bought SexTV for $16 million from CTV last July, along with a channel known as Drive-In Classics for $24 million, according to CRTC records. The CRTC approved the sale in November 2009.

In its submission to the CRTC for the transfer, Corus said SexTV and Drive-In Classics would be folded into its specialty television group and would fit well with its other specialty services, complementing in particular those that target women and movie service customers.

Corus further submitted that the channels would be able to access management and creative expertise, growth capital and programming enhancements.

Corus now points to its CosmoTV as a sex-positive option for viewers.

Danks doubts Stephen Harper’s Conservative government will give the CRTC any more power to push for more diverse content.

Fuller doubts the Conservatives care much about edgy Canadian content.

“Let us not forget that this is the Parliament that gave us Bill C-10,” she says.

That piece of legislation would have given the federal heritage minister the power to deny tax credits to controversial films.

Lesbian filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman is more blunt. She says the situation is not only censorship on the altar of the dollar, but also a blow to public discourse in a civil society.

As for any change from Ottawa and a government she considers less and less accountable to Canadians, Weissman says, “Good luck. Let’s not hold our collective breath on that. We’re dealing with a puritanical view of sexuality.”

The Conservatives may be a minority government, she adds, but the party is using its power to stack boards such as the CRTC with social conservatives.

Danks says the CRTC is doing a difficult job in shifting sands. It has to balance both Canadian values and business interests, he acknowledges.

“There are no clear answers here,” he says.