Sun News Network wants to take away your freedom to not pay for Sun News Network.
That's spin, of course, but it happens to be true. Quebecor's freedom-loving, CBC-criticizing network is one of 22 existing and yet-to-be-launched cable channels that are applying to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission asking for it to require all Canadian cable, satellite and IPTV providers to put their channels in their basic packages and require all subscribers to pay for them whether they want them or not.
On Monday, the commission announced a hearing April 23 in Gatineau to consider applications related to mandatory carriage, as well as licence renewals for independent television stations and specialty services.
Different specialty channels have different categories that have different rights and responsibilities. Most new channels are what's called Category B. Channels in those categories come with no requirement for cable or satellite companies to carry them. They have to negotiate carriage with each cable and satellite company, and agree on things like wholesale rates and packaging. Older specialty channels are Category A, which have genre protection, meaning that new channels can't compete directly with them. They also must be made available on all digital cable systems, but can be made discretionary (meaning the subscribers decide whether they want to pay for them). Mainstream news and sports channels are Category C, which are designed to maximize competition and remove genre-related protections.
What's important here is that some channels have more rights than others. But a few channels have the ultimate regulatory gift: an order requiring all television distributors to put the channel in their basic packages and charge for them at a rate set by the commission. These include:
- CBC News Network ($0.15/month) (French-language markets only)
- RDI (0.10/month) (English-language markets only)
- Avis de recherche ($0.06/month) (French-language markets only)
- The Weather Network/MétéoMédia ($0.23/month)
- TVA (free)
- Aboriginal Peoples Television Network ($0.25/month)
- CPAC ($
- AMI ($0.20/month) (English-language markets only)
- AMI Audio (audio only) ($0.04/month)
- Canal M (audio only) ($0.02/month)
Adding these together, it comes to $0.85 per month or $10.20 a year in French markets and $0.78 per month or $9.36 a year in English markets that goes on cable bills for mandatory channels.
The commission doesn't make this status easy to get. There has to be a compelling reason why all Canadians must have access to these services. Existing ones qualify because they provide essential news and information to minority-language communities (CBCNN, RDI and TVA), target underserved, disadvantaged minority communities (APTN, AMI, M), provide essential information on a non-profit basis (Avis de recherche and CPAC) or offer an essential service (The Weather Network/MétéoMédia, which got the status with a promise to become a national emergency broadcaster).
The official criteria for getting this status are more vague:
- makes an exceptional contribution to Canadian expression and reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity;
- contributes, in an exceptional manner, to the overall objectives for the digital basic service and specifically contributes to one or more objectives of the Act, such as Canadian identity and cultural sovereignty; ethno-cultural diversity, including the special place of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society; service to and the reflection and portrayal of persons with disabilities; or linguistic duality, including improved service to official language minority communities; and
- makes exceptional commitments to original, first-run Canadian programming in terms of exhibition and expenditures.
The key points here are that it has to be exceptional, and it has to be exceptionally Canadian. It will be up to the CRTC to decide if the new proposed services meet those criteria.
The applicants: Services yet to be launched
1. The Legislative Assemblies of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. The assemblies' request, which dates from at least 2009, differs from the others in that it will be fully funded by the territorial governments and so there is no request for a wholesale fee. Instead, the two legislatures are seeking this order in order to force Shaw and Bell to carry the channel on their direct-to-home satellite services so that residents who use satellite service can watch the activities of their territorial assemblies. The assemblies said they had approached both companies about carrying live feeds, but they refused claiming a lack of available bandwidth. The channels (which are not yet formally licenced by the CRTC) are already carried by local cable systems.
2. Described Video Guide (Evan Kosiner). This audio-only service would have a simple, limited purpose: providing information to visually impaired people about programming on other channels in described video. Many Canadian broadcasters are required to provide some programming in described video (i.e. an alternative audio feed that describes events happening on screen in addition to carrying dialogue), but it's still a minority of what's on TV.
An audio service makes sense to guide visually impaired cable subscribers to programming that's useful to them (the service promises that it would provide custom feeds for each provider with the proper channel numbers). But this also sounds like something the providers should be offering on their own. And in fact, as the CRTC points out, AMI TV, which airs descriptive video programming, already provides a descriptive video guide online and via a telephone service. Kosiner counters that the service is inadequate because it doesn't list channel numbers and isn't accessible directly through the TV.
Kosiner, who also has applications for a specialty channel and video-on-demand service devoted to conferences, is proposing a mandatory fee of $0.02 per month per subscriber, in anglophone markets or for satellite subscribers with English basic packages.
3. Canadian Punjabi Network. CPN looks like a third-language specialty channel, and it is. But it argues it deserves this status in markets with more than 5,000 Punjabi speakers (11 markets in all) because of its proposed higher Canadian content. It proposes 70% Canadian content through the day and 80% during primetime, with 50% of revenues going to Canadian programming. CPN is not requesting a wholesale fee (which makes you wonder why it wouldn't be able to get carriage in those markets), instead getting its projected revenue of up to $3 million a year entirely from local and national advertising. That's certainly nice to hear, but allowing them mandatory carriage would open up the gates to all the other Canadian third-language services.
4. ACCENTS (La corporation de la télévision francophonie canadienne/La Fondation canadienne pour le dialogue des cultures). This service is designed as a channel specifically targetting minority French-language communities in Canada (i.e. francophones outside of Quebec). It proposes a generalist service (so not a specialty channel per se) that would have no studios but fill most of its schedule with original independent programming, including children's programming in the morning and, for some reason, a weekly half-hour show called Hometown QC that focuses on the English-language minority in Quebec (which would be subtitled in French). A minimum of 70% of its schedule would be Canadian content, including 22 hours a week during the evenings.
To make this possible, ACCENTS is proposing a fee of $0.25 per subscriber per month, for all cable and satellite companies with more than 2,000 subscribers. This would give the company about $30 million a year, which would be almost its entire budget. It would not have any advertising, but some sponsorship adding up to $100,000 a year.
The group, which has representation from eight of 10 provinces, says it has the support of Radio-Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage, which has given it $600,000 for this project (it's unclear if that's for the application itself or if money would be returned if this application is rejected).
A service for French-language minorities certainly fits in with the criteria, so the question becomes whether this service is redundant. Radio-Canada, TFO, TVA and TV5 have some obligations related to French-language minorities outside Quebec. But TV5's main purpose is to expose Canadians to international French-language programming, and expose them to ours. TFO is an Ontario service and isn't mandated to represent francophones in other provinces. TVA has little programming of regional interest to non-Quebecers because it has no stations outside Quebec, even though its licence includes language that promises such programming in exchange for national carriage. That leaves Radio-Canada, which has local stations in French across the country but has been criticized for being too Quebec-focused in national programming.
ACCENTS says it would not be viable with a smaller fee and would not launch without mandatory carriage.
5. Fusion (Stornoway Communications). Fusion describes itself this way:
FUSION is a multi-platform, live interactive (between professionals and citizens) information (current affairs, reporting and actualities) television broadcasting service that deals with local, regional, national and international matters of interest to Canadians with a special focus on youth and local reflection.
Does that make sense to you? If not, you can read their 22,000-word supplementary brief. But I did so you don't have to. Even after reading all that, I'm not entirely clear on the concept. It seems like a news-like channel that focuses on interactivity with audiences. Its screen would be filled with various boxes (think CP24/CityNews style) and it would be mostly live.
The channel proposes having 20 independent producers and 210 "stringers" scattered all across the country (their map includes such small communities as Kuujjuaq, Salluit and Baie Comeau, but for some reason not places like Sherbrooke). The stringers would film "event video, local commentary, file field stories and produce live interviews for broadcast and FUSION.com." It's at this point that I'll mention that Fusion.com is owned by a U.S. company and has nothing to do with this project.
Like ACCENTS, Fusion is also promising a regular program produced by Quebec's English-language minority.
It also mentions "twenty-three ‘Skype’ technology units from coast to coast to coast. These centres will be local ‘gateways’ for underrepresented communities to engage and participate in the on-going national dialogue."
The application goes to great lengths to explain how Fusion is like nothing else out there, but it sounds more like buzz words than a business plan. It seems incredibly optimistic about the quality of user-generated content and the availability of independent productions. It talks about nationalizing local stories but it isn't clear how this would actually be done. It says they would maintain control over what goes on air, but suggests the content would be mainly controlled by viewers.
Stornoway, which also owns bpm.tv and iChannel, is asking for 32 cents per subscriber per month in English markets and 16 cents in French markets. This would give them about $40 million a year, of which more than $30 million would go to programming. Add about $5 million to $8 million for advertising.
Even setting aside the skepticism about the viability of such a format, there's the question of whether this really requires mandatory carriage and $40 million of free money from subscribers. A scaled-down version, launched as a specialty channel, might make more sense.
6. Maximum Television Canada (On Purpose TV). This proposal is actually for a general-interest video-on-demand service that would compete with the ones made available by television providers. They want a mandatory carriage order to open up those VOD services to competition. Competition sounds great, but if the CRTC decides that such competition is required, it's more likely going to make a policy change than issue an order that would benefit a single company. Expect this application to be rejected.
7. AMI-tv Français (Accessible Media). Simply put, this would be a French-language version of the existing AMI-tv service, which provides open video description for a variety of programming. The application is missing from the CRTC website, but the description says they're asking for a $0.30 per month per subscriber fee, to be imposed only in francophone markets.
8. Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel (Robert Lantos et al). Frustrated by the declining commitments of existing broadcasters toward Canadian films, Canadian filmmakers want to create their own channel. The Canadian Movie Channel would air 100% Canadian content, made up mostly of Canadian feature films, and most of the rest Canadian made-for-TV movies. These would include English movies and French ones with English subtitles.
The most impressive part of this application is its list of shareholders. It's headed by Norm Bolen, the former President and CEO of the Canadian Media Production Association. He and 11 filmmakers including Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Paul Gross and Denis Villeneuve will have 1% shares of the company.
Now comes the bad news: the cost. Starlight wants a fee of $0.45 per subscriber per month for cable subscribers in English markets and satellite subscribers with English or bilingual basic packages. That will give them $40 million a year or $300 million over seven years. Half that money will go into a fund to create new feature films (they're predicting 8-12 a year) that would have their first airing on the channel. "The Fund will also allocate no less than $1 million per year to non-profit organizations that support Canadian feature films."
The application comes with a survey that put the price at a more reasonable-sounding three cents a day and showed 70% of respondents still in favour of the channel.
There has indeed been a drop in commitments to airing Canadian movies. Citytv once had an obligation to run them, but that was removed at its last licence renewal. Channels like Showcase that aired Canadian movies to fulfill their CanCon requirements now prefer to make original series with recurring audiences. Same thing for The Movie Network and other pay TV services. CBC and Radio-Canada also air Canadian films, but not often enough.
A channel devoted to Canadian movies sounds like a good idea. But to make it mandatory with such a high fee, the folks behind Starlight will have to convince the CRTC that its benefits can't be derived in other ways.
The applicants: Existing services
9. EqualiTV (Takten Gyurmey Foundation). EqualiTV is a channel focused on people with disabilities, not just those who are blind or deaf. The channel has little carriage right now, and wants the same deal as APTN, which it argues targets an audience a quarter of the size. Like APTN, it wants $0.25 per subscriber per month.
10. Sun News Network (TVA). Go ahead, laugh at the king of freedom from government lining up for the government money trough. It's asking for $0.18 per month per subscriber, which it says is far below CBC News Network (though it compares it to the unregulated fee for CBCNN, not the much lower mandatory fee for French-language markets), until 2017.
Its main argument is that CBC News Network and CTV News Channel had mandatory carriage when they launched, which allowed them to build up an audience and get a head start. Sun wants mandatory carriage to catch up. It also goes after cable and satellite companies (presumably not including sister company Videotron) for packaging Sun News "like a third-rate foreign news service." It specifically cites Rogers Cable, which moved Sun News from Channel 15 when it shut down its over-the-air transmitters, and replaced it with CityNews Channel, which is owned by Rogers.
In addition to the mandatory fee, which would be applied to anglophone markets (plus $0.09 per month for French markets), Sun is asking for the CRTC to regulate its channel position on cable systems, something the CRTC had stopped doing.
The application gives us some information about Sun News's finances. And it isn't good. Sun is projected to lose $17 million in 2012. It gets 73% of its $5.8 million revenue from subscription fees (about 5 million paying about $0.10 a month on average), and the rest from advertising. It spends about $30 million a year.
Sun News points to its exceptional status, producing 96 hours of original programming a week, and airing 100% Canadian programming. Few other services come close to this.
The application includes survey data compiled by Abacus Data (Sun News's in-house pollster), showing that Canadians agree that new services should have the same "advantages" and "access" as existing ones, but being somewhat vague about what those are. None of the questions ask if Canadians would be willing to pay an extra couple of dollars a year to support such a service.
This isn't the first time Sun News tried to get preferential treatment. When it first applied to the CRTC, it sought status similar to Category A channels, which would have required all providers to carry the channel but allowed them to make it discretionary (only charging subscribers who want to buy it). This was misinterpreted by Sun opponents and some media as Sun forcing all Canadians to pay for the channel, and Sun backed down after the CRTC made it clear it wasn't handing out more Category A licences. Now Sun wants everyone to have to pay.
Sun does deserve some credit for its above-average original and Canadian programming. But the CRTC has already deregulated news services, and allowing this mandatory carriage would set a precedent that would make that deregulation moot.
Sun News also launched a website to promote this application, called canadiantvfirst.ca. It includes a video message from Ezra Levant (though even Liberal Warren Kinsella is on their side). They've also apparently gone to at least one interest group to push their case, asking for the anti-abortion lobby to write letters in support. And videos from Levant, Brian Lilley, Michael Coren and Gina Phillips promoting the cause.
Sun News, naturally, is got most of the early media attention. The Globe and Mail has a story (and a video), as does QMI Agency, Canadian Press, iPolitics, The Toronto Star, The Hollywood Reporter, Canada.com and La Presse. And here's a threat on Reddit.
On Day 2, comment pieces started appearing. One from Andrew Coyne pointing out Sun's hypocrisy. Another from Justin Ling defending the network from its critics. Another from the Globe's Simon Houpt saying we should support Sun.
Pierre Karl Péladeau also weighs in, making the case for Sun News's mandatory carriage.
11. All Points Bulletin. An English version of Avis de Recherche, which has this status in Quebec. It's seeking $0.06 per month per subscriber, arguing that advertising doesn't work on channels like these and cable and satellite providers have refused to carry the channel. This will give them between $5.5 million and $7.5 million in annual revenue through the next seven years.
12. TV5 Québec Canada. The channel devoted to the Francophonie is proposing to expand. In exchange for a $0.30 mandatory fee and mandatory carriage across the country, TV5 is proposing to split into two channels, one maintaining its current international focus and the other with a much more Canadian focus, and with much of that programming being original French-language programming produced outside Quebec.
Other goodies it proposes are at least one time-shifted feed for western Canada, three new bureaus (Atlantic, Prairies and B.C.), and a commitment to provide subtitles in English for 25% of its programming, for the benefit of people whose knowledge of French isn't that great and either want to learn or live with people who watch TV5. (It's not clear how the subtitles would work, but it sounds like they want to use a second closed-captioning channel for this, with the main one remaining in French.)
The $0.30 per subscriber per month fee would be for both channels as a package.
Journal columnist Guy Fournier has a column pointing out that Radio-Canada should be fulfilling this mandate already.
I should note that TV5 asked for mandatory distribution in 2007 and was denied.
13. Vision TV (Zoomer Media). The owner of Canada's mutli-faith channel are scared that distributors will yank them from their basic packages and package them with religious channels that no one will subscribe to. They qualify the drop in subscribers that would result as "catastrophic", with only 10% of viewers keeping the channel. In addition to its programming, it points to its particular interest among older and poorer Canadians. It says it wants to maintain the status quo, with a wholesale rate of $0.12 per subscriber per month, with a mandatory distribution order to prevent it from being pulled out of basic packages when its agreements with distributors come up for renewal this year.
Zoomer's apocalyptic vision of its own future notwithstanding, there's little in this application to suggest that Vision should be given preferential treatment over any other specialty channel that provides a decent amount of Canadian programming.
14. The Natural Resources Television Channel (IDRN-TV/IDNR-TV). This mining-related channel (with the cute slogan "Canadian to the core") has been struggling since it launched to get on a major distributor, even though it doesn't charge for carriage. That's right, they can't even give it away. It wants the CRTC to force distribution of the channel, still at no charge. It points to its independent nature and its unique purpose as reasons to ask for mandatory carriage.
It's hard to say no to something that's free, but this application looks like an attempt to get the CRTC to make up for a failed channel. There's no compelling case here that all Canadians must have access to it.
15. Dolobox TV (Education Through Media). This user-generated-content youth channel (where have I heard that before?), which has been struggling to get carriage, wants the CRTC to step in and force the issue. It's not clear what wholesale rate it's asking for, with $0.04, $0.06 and $0.08 being mentioned in its application. Though there's plenty of good stuff said about the channel in the application, there doesn't seem to be much of a serious case that Canadians must have access to this channel.
16. ARTV (Radio-Canada). This request is being separated from the larger renewal of CBC/Radio-Canada licenses. The public broadcaster is seeking an order requiring ARTV be offered by distributors in all anglophone markets. It is not requesting mandatory distribution to everyone, but is asking that all digital cable systems be required to at least offer it as an option. Certain cable networks owned by Shaw and Cogeco do not offer ARTV at all.
Some services that already have this mandatory carriage are applying to have it renewed as part of their licence renewal. They'll have to show that there's still a need for their special status. They are:
- 17. APTN, which is calling for its wholesale fee to jump from $0.25 per subscriber per month to $0.40 (it has a page here in support of its application)
- 18. Avis de recherche, which is asking its rate go up to $0.08 from $0.06
- 19. AMI-tv, which is asking to maintain its rate of $0.20 in English markets and free in French markets (but see No. 7 above)
- 20. AMI Audio, which is asking to maintain its fee of $0.04 in English markets and free in French markets
- 21. CPAC, which is asking to bump its fee from
$0.10$0.11 to $0.12 (for both languages combined)
- 22. Canal M, which is asking to increase its fee from $0.02 to $0.04
The hearing is also considering renewal applications for independent TV services that aren't asking for any mandatory carriage, but are asking for other amendments to their licences. These include Super Channel, Fairchild, iChannel, OUTtv, ONE, Travel + Escape, Bold, Salt and Light, GameTV, World Fishing Network, Fight Network, TLN en Español, AUX TV, Bite, EQHD, HiFi, Oasis HD, radX, Penthouse TV, Hustler TV and channels from the Ethnic Channels Group and South Asian Television.
Services up for renewal that aren't asking for amendments include OTN1, WildTV, DIY Network, Gol TV, Leafs TV, NBA TV, NHL Network and BPM TV.
And there are renewals for independent over-the-air TV stations owned by Newcap, Jim Pattison Group, Thunder Bay Electronics and CTS, plus CJON in St. John's, Télé-Mag in Quebec City, and a bunch of community stations.
That's 110 applications in all. Should make for a fun hearing, even if most of them won't require presentations.
Make your voice heard
If all these applications are approved, wholesale fees paid as part of the basic service would go up by more than $2 per subscriber per month. Cable and satellite companies would probably increase their retail rates for basic service by much more than that. The CRTC will be hearing from those cable and satellite companies, as well as from competitors and others with stakes in this game. But they want to hear from you, the average viewer, about what services you think are essential to Canadian broadcasting and which ones are just nice-to-haves.
To file a comment, go to the applications notice page and find the application number for the one you want to support, oppose or comment on. Then click here, choose Option 1 and choose which application(s) you want to comment on.
Remember that all comments are on the public record, including the contact information associated with them.
The deadline to submit comments
is Feb. 20 has been extended to Feb. 27.
The Globe and Mail also has a story listing the applications. TV Eh? also lists them and goes over some other TV-related items at the CRTC recently. Internet law columnist Michael Geist has a comment piece saying the CRTC should drop must-carry requirements altogether and instead ensure every service is available through every TV provider.
Conrad Black also weighs in, with a piece that is not so subtly biased in favour of Vision TV, which he happens to have a stake in with a show that would be in jeopardy if the application is denied.