The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has issued an order that all five Canadian national news channels (CBC News Network, RDI, LCN, CTV News Channel and Sun News Network) must be carried by all Canadian television distributors as of March 14, 2014.
The order requires the channels be made available, though not necessarily on the basic service. They will also need to be available on a stand-alone basis (i.e. individually) as of May 20 (or May 19, there’s a discrepancy between the languages).
The decision is a big win for Sun News, which has been arguing that carriage problems are the big reason the channel has not been successful. Now, with an order requiring that every cable company offer the channel to subscribers, and without having to buy other channels, they can’t really make this argument any more.
Sun News is already carried by most Canadian distributors. Telus and MTS are the biggest holdouts. But this decision gives it a bargaining chip during negotiations, which will help it push for a higher wholesale subscription fee.
The decision also requires distributors to put each channel in “the best available discretionary package consistent with its genre and programming, unless the parties agree otherwise.” This is open to interpretation, but if distributors create a popular news package, it must include all five Canadian national news channels.
But the biggest win is that it applies to all licensed distributors (some very small distributors with fewer than 20,000 subscribers are exempt from regulation, so this wouldn’t affect them). Though the decision does not discuss it, this appears to apply to analog cable as well, where Sun News currently has no carriage. Though analog cable is now a minority of subscribers nationally, Sun argued that its channel skews toward older Canadians, who are more likely to be on analog cable.
If this is the case (I’ve asked the CRTC to confirm my interpretation), then it will be annoying for distributors who are trying to move to digital cable. Now they’ll have to find a bandwidth-hogging analog channel for Sun News, and if they don’t already distribute LCN and CTV that way, those channels too.
This isn’t a win on all levels for Sun. It doesn’t give the channel what it had originally asked for — mandatory distribution to all Canadians on basic. It also doesn’t regulate channel placement (Sun News had wanted to require distributors to put its channel next to other news channels on the dial), though it establishes guidelines for “news neighbourhoods”, effectively saying that if distributors redo their lineups to put like services together, it should include all five Canadian national news channels near each other. It suggested that failure to do this could result in an undue preference complaint.
Distributors who don’t have their own national news channels (i.e. everyone but Bell and Quebecor) argued that to give these channels this privilege, there must be more stringent criteria for licensing new channels, otherwise there could be an explosion of such channels as everyone starts out of the gate with guaranteed access rights. The CRTC didn’t set new criteria, but because the order only applies to the five services currently in operation, a new service would need a separate decision to get the same rights.
The CRTC says it will look at what criteria it should set for licensing new national news services during its wide-ranging review of the television regulation model. Until it does (the process is expected to take most of 2014), it will not process new applications for national news channels under the “Category C” framework that the five existing ones are subject to.
The decision also doesn’t completely level the playing field. It does not require that news channels on basic be removed from it. So if your provider has CBC News Network, RDI and CTV News Channel on basic, they’re not required to add LCN and Sun News to it as well. It just needs to make those two available.
Quebecor welcomed the decision in a statement: “Sun News will move forward in 2014 by negotiating new cable and satellite agreements that are in alignment with the new policy framework to ensure that Sun News is treated in a substantially similar fashion to other all news channels.”