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If you are a Canadian of a certain older age, you might recall occasionally coming across free-time political party broadcasts on major broadcast networks during federal elections – time that could be used by any registered political party that ran candidates, no matter how obscure.
Even if you don't remember these broadcasts, perhaps you've come across some of the parodies of these messages that have aired over the years, like Greg Thomey's character "Jerry Boyle" of the fictional Newfoundland Separation Federation in early episodes of This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
You'd be forgiven for thinking these sorts of messages had disappeared entirely, but they haven't yet.
Section 345 of the Canada Elections Act still requires certain over-the-air radio and television networks to make airtime available, at no cost, to registered federal political parties during a national election. You can see the full list, as well as the time they've been allocated on various networks – roughly divided in proportion to their results in the last election, with a minimum amount of time per registered party – as of the 2021 federal election, on this page on the Elections Canada website (under Question 29).
However, various changes in the media landscape, which we'll go through below, mean that these sorts of broadcasts are not nearly as visible as they were in the past.
As things stand, only six networks – four TV networks, and two on radio – are required to air these broadcasts, none of which directly list their airtimes on published schedules. This is what we've been able to piece together:
- CBC Television – According to a statement that WCIW received from a CBC/Radio-Canada representative, the public English-language TV network will air free-time messages during the federal election on weekdays at approximately 12:00 noon local (we assume, based on usual CBC scheduling, this means 12:30 p.m. in the Newfoundland Time zone), which would be adjacent to a timeslot normally allotted for a CBC News Network simulcast; and at night after The National (which would place it at or shortly after 11:00 p.m. local / 11:30 p.m. NT, though that may not be accounting for late local newscasts).
On Saturdays and Sundays, these messages may air in the afternoons (that's as precise as they would say) and between 10:00 p.m. and midnight local time (based on how CBC TV's Saturday scheduling usually goes, we think that window may be slightly later in Atlantic Canada).
As of this writing, these messages have begun to air: we observed a short free-time message on August 27 just before 12:00 noon local, preceded by a text slide indicating it as such (though, on the Pacific Time feed we checked, it was interrupted mid-message to join a live news conference in progress).
- CBC Radio One – Per that same CBC statement, Radio One will be airing free-time messages weeknights just before 9:00 p.m. local (we again assume this means 9:30 NT) on weeknights, at the end of the Ideas timeslot; on Saturdays just before 11:00 p.m. (midnight Atlantic time, 12:30 a.m. NT), after Saturday Night Blues; and on Sunday evenings (precise timing not provided).
Note that these free-time availabilities are in addition to paid election ads at other times of day, which Radio One is required to accept under a separate provision of the Canada Elections Act (section 335), notwithstanding the CBC's radio services normally remaining commercial-free.
- Ici Radio-Canada Télé – CBC Television's French-language counterpart will air these messages weeknights shortly after the national edition of Le Téléjournal, between 11:00 p.m. and midnight local time (based on Radio-Canada's usual scheduling practices, we believe this would work out to be 12:00-1:00 a.m. AT, or 12:30-1:30 a.m. NT), again according to the CBC statement we received. In some cases, but not necessarily all, we've seen these listed in program guides under the title Périodes gratuites fédérales 2021.
- Ici Radio-Canada Première – Per the public broadcaster's statement, free-time messages may air on Radio One's Francophone counterpart anytime between 9:00 a.m. and noon local time, and between 10:00 p.m. and midnight local (we believe the same adjustments re Atlantic time would apply here as well).
- TVA – The top-rated French-language network normally has late-night dramas or movies weeknights at about 11:06 p.m. Eastern time (the network also offers a Pacific time feed to some west-coast TV providers). However, starting August 30, this is being pushed back, at least temporarily, to 11:08 p.m. Additionally, starting on September 4, the network's late weekend newscast that normally runs 30 minutes (which, depending on the night, could start anytime after 10:30 p.m.) will be getting a 33- or 34-minute timeslot.
So we think it's likely you'll some of TVA's allotment of free-time messages shortly after 11:00 p.m. ET/PT on weeknights, and at the end of the late news timeslot on weekends.
- Noovo – We have not yet seen any indication of when the number-three French-language broadcast network (previously known as V, and before that TQS) will be airing its free-time messages.
Again, this is the extent of the free-time messages these channels will be airing. The networks listed above have, and will continue to, air paid advertisements from the parties throughout the day in addition to these.
Why don't more channels air these free-time broadcasts?
Looking through the list above, you may notice that names commonly named among Canada's major TV networks, like CTV, Global, and Citytv, let alone prominent cable-only specialty channels like TSN or Showcase, are not listed as being required to run these messages. These channels are, of course, airing paid election ads from parties willing to pay for them, but they are not required to air free-time messages on the same basis as the networks listed above.
That's because the Elections Act only imposes free-time broadcasts on certain "network operators", which are narrowly defined as entities that have a network licence from Canada's broadcasting regulator, the CRTC, to link broadcast (i.e., over-the-air) stations. Section 345 further narrows it down to networks that reach the majority of Canadians that speak the language they broadcast in, and do not only carry a single type of program.
Specialty channels, which do not broadcast over public airwaves, are not considered networks for the purpose of this definition, while individual local TV and radio stations, even if part of a national operation, are exempt, unless they are part of a network as defined above.
CTV previously held a national network licence, and was required to make free airtime available up to and including the 2000 election. However, it chose not to renew its national network licence in 2001, around the time that most CTV-affiliated stations, which were previously owned by several different companies, were coming under common ownership with the CTV network and brand. Without going too much into regulatory minutiae, the upshot is that because there was now a CTV Inc. (now part of Bell Media) that controlled the programming of all these stations, a separately-licensed national network to link those stations became, in CTV's view, redundant.
The relatively newer Global and Citytv brands have always operated on a similar basis – brands composed of multiple local stations primarily owned by a single company (currently Corus and Rogers respectively), rather than "networks" – and hence they have never been required to carry free-time broadcasts of this type.
The effects of this restricted definition of "network" have been clear for many years – at least as far back as 2001, various Chief Electoral Officers have made recommendations to modernize the free-time broadcasts regime to increase the number of channels carrying such messages, while limiting the amount of time available per channel to 60 minutes – but despite other changes to the Elections Act in the time since, and likely due in part to opposition to such proposals by private broadcasters, the relevant section has remained essentially unchanged since at least 2003.
And of course, the number of media options has increased exponentially over those years – not only in terms of linear channels, but non-linear, on-demand services like YouTube, Netflix, and Prime Video, among many others.
While the Internet and social media platforms like YouTube have certainly increased the availability of their messages for those people deliberately seeking them out, the overall shift in viewing patterns towards on-demand streaming means it's much less likely that Canadians would encounter these sorts of free-time messages through casual TV watching.
Why don't these messages air at times when people would be more likely to watch or listen?
While other sections of the Elections Act related to paid election advertising mention making ad time available during "prime time" – defined as the hours between 6:00 p.m. and midnight when applied to TV channels – there is no such restriction placed on the free-time broadcasts, and no mandate to publicize when these broadcasts would air. Compare that with, say, the United Kingdom, where the main broadcast networks are required to air similar messages during "teatime", i.e. the early evening, but cannot air paid political ads.
The actual scheduling has varied over time, and by network, though it seems fair to say the networks have mostly avoided giving these messages a prominent timeslot at the expense of their other popular programs or paid advertisers. When CTV was last required to air these messages during the 2000 election, it aired many of them during a ninety-minute "Free Political Time" block in the middle of a Saturday afternoon about two weeks before election day. The CBC, meanwhile, has aired them more spread out between programs, rarely more than five minutes at a time, though it would not usually include these slots in program listings.
However, in the last few elections, some of the TV networks airing these messages have scheduled them for very late timeslots, in some cases after midnight – because, well, no one has been stopping them from doing so. And once again, in most cases these networks do not bother to include these broadcasts in their program listings.
So, unless you're staying tuned to one of the networks listed above all day long on a regular basis, you might never see these messages.
Does it really matter? Am I missing out on anything important?
Ultimately, it depends on what you'd be looking to get out of these messages. If you're already knowledgeable about a particular political party, though, in our view it's unlikely you'll get much out of them you don't already know.
Occasionally in past cycles, one or two of the major political parties would put together some sort of special extended-length message to air during a free-time slot – similar to the UK's party election broadcasts. But these days, the vast majority of these major parties' slots are compilations of their regular paid ads, sometimes repeated multiple times to fill out their allotment, or other content already available elsewhere.
For smaller parties with few or no seats in the House of Commons and limited ad budgets, and in some cases parties that are only active in specific regions, it's a bit more likely you'd hear something you hadn't heard before. Even so, especially for the smallest parties, it's common for the messages to be just the party's leader or another spokesperson speaking directly to the camera for the duration of the time they've been given.
Ultimately, if you don't catch these messages on TV, it's very likely you'll be able to access them on the parties' websites, YouTube channels or other social media pages. Of course, these are platforms that did not exist when the current free-time provisions came into being, and all of them provide essentially unlimited airtime for parties to make their case in whatever way they see fit.
So with all that said, are these sorts of free-time broadcasts still needed in Canada? We'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.