Personally, I think this is good news. Competition for viewers will do good things, like bring Montreal Impact games to the TV screen. And the CRTC has determined that sports channels – currently the most profitable format – are healthy enough that they shouldn’t be restricted from competition. (Not healthy enough for Radio-Canada and Rogers to jump in the fray, but still healthy).
But you can’t get TVA Sports if you’re a subscriber to Bell TV. And it’s not clear if you’ll be able to get RDS2 if you subscribe to Videotron (it has deals with only Bell and Shaw so far). That may change (RDS2 is most likely doomed to failure if it can’t get Videotron carriage), but even if it’s just a delay, this is yet another example of two companies whose affiliated television distribution services are giving undue preference to their affiliated specialty channels.
Another example in the sports sphere is TSN Habs, a part-time regional offshoot of the TSN channel that has regional English-language broadcast rights to some Canadiens games. It’s available on Bell TV, but not on Videotron, despite Videotron’s huge subscriber base in Quebec, where I understand the Canadiens are popular – even among anglophones.
Sports isn’t the only type of channel where this problem exists. In the past few years, broadcasters have applied for and received dozens of licenses for unregulated specialty channels – the so-called “Category 2” channels that aren’t protected from competition and have low requirements for Canadian and original content. In exchange for some liberties in programming, the channels have no guaranteed carriage, so cable and satellite companies can choose whether or not to include them in their lineups, and the broadcasters can choose to charge whatever they would like.
Quebecor has been particularly active in this field, launching a bunch of new channels (including TVA Sports), many of them in high definition. In all cases, those channels are immediately carried on Quebecor-owned Videotron’s cable system
, but few of them are on Bell TV.
To give you an idea of what’s going on here, I’ve compiled a table below of specialty channels owned by the big cable and satellite companies (Cogeco is included for reference, but doesn’t own any specialty channels). I’ve limited the list to those channels that are either Category 2 (unregulated, with no guaranteed carriage) or that have high-definition feeds available.
I’ve marked in bold where a service is offered by the affiliated distributor that is not offered by at least two of its competitors, suggesting undue preference. I’ve marked in red where the opposite is true, where a service is not offered by the affiliated company but is offered by at least one competitor.
|Channel||Owner||Bell TV||Videotron||Shaw Direct||Cogeco||Rogers Cable|
|Discovery||Bell Media (64%)||SD/HD||SD*||SD||SD||SD*|
|Much Vibe||Bell Media||SD||SD||X||SD(O)||SD|
|Comedy Gold||Bell Media||SD||SD||X||SD(O)||SD|
|Investigation Discovery||Bell Media||SD||SD||X||SD(O)||SD|
|Discovery World||Bell Media (64%)||HD||HD||HD||HD||HD|
|ESPN Classic||Bell Media (80%)||SD||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|NHL Network||Bell Media (17%)||SD||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|TSN2||Bell Media (80%)||SD/HD||SD/HD||SD/HD||SD/HD||SD/HD|
|TSN Habs||Bell Media (80%)||SD/HD||X||SD/HD||X||X|
|Prise 2||Groupe TVA||SD||SD||SD||SD(Q)||SD|
|Mlle||Groupe TVA||Dec. 15||SD/HD||SD||SD/HD(Q)||X|
|TVA Sports||Groupe TVA||Dec. 15||SD/HD||SD/HD||X||X|
|Sun News||Groupe TVA||Dec. 15**||SD/HD||SD||SD/HD(O)**||SD**|
|Yoopa||Groupe TVA||Dec. 15||SD/HD||SD||SD/HD(Q)||X|
|Showcase Diva||Shaw Media||SD||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|BBC Canada||Shaw Media (80%)||SD||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|DIY Network||Shaw Media (80%)||SD||SD||SD||SD(O)||SD|
|Fox Sports World Canada||Shaw Media (58%)||X||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|Global Reality||Shaw Media||X||X||X||X||SD|
|Food Network||Shaw Media||SD/HD||SD||SD||SD||SD|
|History Television||Shaw Media||SD/HD||SD||SD/HD||SD/HD(O)||SD/HD|
|HGTV Canada||Shaw Media||SD/HD||SD||SD/HD||SD||SD|
|Rogers Sportsnet One||Rogers||SD/HD||X||SD/HD||SD(O)/HD(O)||SD/HD|
(Q)/(O): Denotes channels that Cogeco carries in Quebec or Ontario only.
*Discovery World HD, a separately licensed channel, is available on Videotron.
**The situation with Sun News is complicated by the fact that a conventional TV station was broadcasting its content. Rogers, Cogeco and Bell carried the conventional signal, but Sun News asked Bell to pull the channel or start paying for it.
You can see in the chart 12 instances among the 37 channels where there is evidence of undue preference. This does not necessarily prove such a thing – there could be all sorts of reasons to choose whether or not to carry a channel – but it’s annoying nonetheless for customers who want a certain channel and can’t get it for no apparent reason other than it’s owned by the wrong cable company.
You’ll also see
four (UPDATE: five) instances where a service isn’t offered by the affiliated company. It’s worth noting that all of those services predate their ownership by the affiliated cable/satellite company.
The CRTC actually has a rule against this sort of thing. It’s called “undue preference”, and it is supposed to prevent just this sort of thing. The problem is that it’s hard to prove. Negotiations between broadcasters and distributors are secret, and we don’t know how much each distributor is paying for each channel.
Still, this may come to a head soon. Sun News has filed a complaint with the CRTC alleging undue preference on the part of Bell when it pulled the station’s signal and refused to pay for it.
Hopefully the CRTC will take a close look at this issue and do something about it before the flood of new channels makes the problem – and viewers’ frustrations – even worse.
Quebecor begins hypocritical outrage campaign
UPDATE (Sept. 20): QMI Agency has published a joke of a news article by Raphaël Gendron-Martin. It quotes only TVA’s Pierre Dion bashing Bell and Cogeco for not carrying TVA Sports, and makes no apparent attempt to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment. The hit piece appears in the Journal de Montréal (on the front page), 24 Heures, TVA Nouvelles and Argent (twice). Dion also appeared on LCN and TVA’s Salut Bonjour, where again no apparent attempt was made to contact Cogeco or Bell for comment, no mention was made of RDS2 or TSN’s Habs channel not being on Videotron, and Dion went unchallenged on anything he said. (In the case of Salut Bonjour, it’s clear host Gino Chouinard is being fed his questions and even refers to Dion as “boss” at the end.)
Despite what I am unfortunately forced to conclude (to use Dion’s logic) was an organized misinformation campaign from Quebecor that abused its media power, Cogeco did respond by way of an open letter (PDF) that was also published on Facebook. Cogeco said it was interested in carrying TVA Sports and even made an offer that TVA refused.
No (public) word yet from Bell.
I sent an email to Gendron-Martin asking him about his article. He responded by pointing to full-page piece in Tuesday’s paper by Danny Joncas, which quotes representatives of Bell and Cogeco. Gendron-Martin did not respond to questions about why he didn’t contact Bell or Cogeco before writing his piece, nor why he didn’t mention Videotron not carrying RDS2, nor whether he was ordered by his employer to write this article in this way.
Joncas’s reaction piece was not posted online, either by the Journal or by any other QMI website. The original article from Gendron-Martin still appears on those websites unaltered, with no indication that there has since been a response.
Joncas’s piece quotes both Bell and Cogeco saying these negotiations should be conducted privately instead of in the media, and that both are negotiating with TVA. It also says TVA rejected Cogeco’s offer because it wanted better placement in Cogeco’s specialty channel packages.
UPDATE (Sept. 23): The CRTC has released new rules concerning this issue (press release, decision, Globe and Mail story). It offers some specific rules (no mobile/Internet exclusivity deals for TV programs), but also includes a lot of rules barring things that are “unreasonable” or “excessive”, which leaves a lot of room for disagreement over what qualifies as unreasonable.
It also pushes off a lot of decisions until later, including whether cable and satellite companies should be required to offer à la carte subscriptions (though they seem to be moving in that direction).
Whether those new rules will change how these big telecom companies deal with each other is to be seen.