EDITORIAL – Will the evolution of ‘local content’ be televised?

Who says Cayman doesn’t get “snow”? When it comes to government’s regulation of the country’s television market, the picture is full of static.

Recently, Premier Alden McLaughlin told members of the Legislative Assembly that regulators are aware cable providers are not meeting a licensing condition that requires them to provide one “free to air” channel, featuring at least 20 percent local content, but they are doing nothing about it.

According to the premier, the “Utility Regulation and Competition Office” (aka “OfReg”) has decided it’s “futile” to hold Digicel, C3, Flow and Logic – the four companies which hold “type 7” television broadcast licenses – to their obligations to provide “free to air channels.” They say it is not cost-effective to require such channels in Cayman’s small television market, where most people subscribe to cable television or streaming devices, anyway.

As for the companies’ requirement to air “local content,” the premier told legislators that was being honored “in spirit” – which seems to be a diplomatic way of admitting that’s also not being enforced.

For the record, yes, this is the same OfReg that plans to dive into the (heretofore private) business of installing fiber optic infrastructure in the more rural parts of Grand Cayman, taking responsibility for a requirement that local telecommunication companies have been unable to fulfill.

How can a regulator pick and choose which regulations (which, by the way, it negotiates when issuing licenses) it is going to enforce? We would argue that it shouldn’t.

No doubt, it is true that technological innovation has enabled more cost-effective ways to deliver local content to local consumers (YouTube, anyone?), than through specially created channels that can be picked up by “bunny ears” on TV sets.

The peril here is the existence of unenforced (or unenforceable) terms in governmental contracts or agreements.

In regard to permits and licenses, any latitude that government gives can just as easily be taken away. Whether we are talking about police action, planning permits, immigration approvals or utilities regulation, governmental “discretion” is a code word for “danger.”

Importantly, the issue of “free to air channels” is distinct from the perceived need for “local content.”

We support the creative and entrepreneurial efforts of local content producers, who launched their ventures with the belief – now shown to be mistaken – that they were providing to local TV broadcasters a service required by law.

(After all, we at the Compass are “local content producers” as well, just in another medium.) That being said, in the absence of a mandate from government, it is questionable whether, or how much, the production of local content for TV can be commercially viable.

A similar disparity between what the free market can support, and what government thinks consumers need, is what led OfReg to require telecommunication companies to establish fiber optic networks in the eastern half of Grand Cayman (and, on paper at least, the Sister Islands).

Adding on to the interference, government has created its own channel, CIGTV, which broadcasts public meetings and fills out the other 20-plus hours of the day with, well, basically whatever it can find. If officials are going to insist upon the dissemination of local content for television, perhaps they should “open up” their own airwaves via a “public access” model.

Better yet, when regulators are coming up with new ideas on how to mandate that TV broadcasters provide local content, they should do what we all do when an obsolete electronic device isn’t working: Pull the plug.

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