Tag Archives: fee-for-carriage

CRTC has decided: It’s time to pay for free TV

So, it’s over. The Local TV Matters folks won. And we, the television consumers, will be the ones who end up paying for it.

OK, it’s not so simple. First, the CRTC’s decision on fee for carriage (I’m sorry, “negotiation for value”, which will mean a fee that we don’t call a fee for some reason) is being referred to a federal court to see if the commission even has the authority to impose it.

And it only applies to the English networks (CTV, Canwest and Rogers), though it will probably be imposed in a similar way for TVA and V.

And the CBC totally got the shaft, which they’re really angry about because they were counting on the CRTC deciding that Canadians should pay for something they’ve already paid for – and includes advertising on top of that.

And if the government isn’t happy with the ruling, it can just override it and impose its own will.

Rogers, like the other cable and satellite companies not named Videotron, is also mad, saying “Canadians lose” in this decision. Cogeco has similar arguments against the decision.

Other, more independent opinions include Don Martin, Andrew Coyne and John Doyle in the “agree” column, and L. Ian Macdonald in the “don’t agree” column.

You can read the full decision here.

How it works

Though not a complete victory for conventional television broadcasters, they have a lot to like from this decision. There are some minor changes to Canadian content requirements, more flexibility to transfer funding between conventional and specialty television assets, and the ability to add commercials to video on demand. But the big power the TV networks will have is the power to pull their signals and the programs they have rights to from cable and satellite networks that don’t offer them enough money.

In a system that somewhat mirrors what happens in the U.S., Canadian broadcasters (so far just the big anglo ones, though it’s expected the francophone ones will have a similar system) will have the choice between two options, which they’ll have to stick with for three years at a time:

  1. The status quo: No charge for carrying signals, and they keep all the benefits, including simultaneous signal substitution, guaranteed carriage, and preferred spots on the dial
  2. Negotiation. If they choose this route, no matter what is negotiated, they lose the benefits, including simultaneous substitution, which alone might be a big reason for stations to choose Option 1.

The key bargaining chip the CRTC throws in to give the broadcasters an edge in the negotiation process is the ability to force cable and satellite companies to block out U.S. programming they own exclusive rights to.

So, for example, if Global Montreal (CKMI) decides that Videotron isn’t paying enough, it can demand not only that Videotron not allow its subscribers to watch Global, but it can demand that Videotron black out House, Heroes, 24, Family Guy and a bunch of other shows on U.S. stations. Ditto CFCF for Grey’s Anatomy or CSI.

Ever try to watch a hockey game on Rogers Sportsnet and get a black screen? Expect to see a lot of that if there’s a fee dispute.

This kind of thing happens in the U.S., though usually it doesn’t last that long as consumers raise bloody hell once their stations go black. Expect no difference here.

As for how much it will cost, that’s up to the broadcasters and cable companies. Some have said $1 a month per station. But it could be anything. It might not even be a fee, but some other form of non-monetary compensation. In the end, assuming the TV networks decide to go the fee route, it will be whatever the market decides.

One thing to note is that another right the broadcasters lose if they decide to demand a fee is the right to mandatory carriage. Ideally, that could mean that individual consumers would be given the right to choose whether or not they want to pay for a certain station. But the requirement to block out U.S. programming probably means that won’t be an option – or at least would make it impractical.

So, instead of being a truly market-based solution (and one which would favour original programming over the import and resale of U.S. shows), the price for local TV will be whatever your cable or satellite company think you’d be willing to pay for hit U.S. shows. And you’ll probably be forced to pay every penny of it, tacked on to your television service bill in big red letters.

What about free TV?

If the broadcasters decide to go the blockout-and-blackout method, the question will inevitably come up: Won’t people just go to their website and stream the videos online, or hook up a pair of rabbit ears and watch their station for free over the airwaves?

Here, my mistrust of the big broadcasters leads to some speculative theories. For one thing, since most people with both cable TV and Internet get the two from the same company, the broadcasters could choose to restrict online access. If Videotron won’t pay the fee for CFCF, then CTV.ca could refuse to stream shows to Videotron Internet customers. Or, they could do what Rogers is doing with its on-demand website, and force people to authenticate subscriptions before they have access to online programming.

The CRTC has been hands-off on the Internet (and for good reason), so there’s nothing preventing the broadcasters from doing this.

As for getting programming over the air, a fee dispute would provide ample incentive for broadcasters to cripple or disable their transmitters. CFCF could find itself having sudden “technical difficulties” at its transmitter in the event of a dispute. Global’s CKMI is already putting out so little power as to be difficult to receive even in the Montreal area.

What this could do, though, is boost over-the-air reception for U.S. border stations. If enough Canadians get fed up of their broadcasters trying to bleed them dry, they could install an antenna big (or high) enough to capture U.S. stations.

But, of course, it’s unlikely to get that far. Because, as we all know, television providers and television broadcasters work together for the common good.

More awards shows, by decree

Another aspect of the CRTC decision concerns what’s called “priority programming”. This was a provision that required the big broadcasters to devote eight hours a week to expensive dramas, comedies and other scripted programs instead of wasting it on celebrity gossip shows and cheap news.

The CRTC has replaced that with a provision for “programs of national interest”, which include dramas and scripted comedies, but also documentaries and Canadian awards shows.

Yes, awards shows. The CRTC apparently believes that this is a type of programming so in danger that it requires a special status.

The other important part of this change is that instead of being time-based, it’s now revenue-based. They’ll be required to spend 30% of revenues on Canadian programming, and 5% on “programs of national interest”. Because this will be a percentage of revenues instead of a percentage of airtime (though Canadian content in general still has time-based minimums), hopefully this will mean more effort producing better-quality Canadian programming instead of just putting together the cheapest hour of television they can.

On the other hand, it might mean pooling all their money into whatever Toronto-based cop drama they can most easily sell to CBS.

Digital TV continues, mostly

Finally, the CRTC has decreed (with one notable dissenting opinion) that the digital TV transition should continue as scheduled, at least in all major markets. So analog television transmitters in markets of over 300,000 people and provincial and territorial capitals and any market with more than one television station will all have to transition to digital by Aug. 31, 2011.

In its call for comments, the CRTC acknowledged that many Canadians would be adversely affected by this and would need to buy digital converter boxes. But they don’t seem to really care.

I’ve already argued that this is an unnecessary move and will be unnecessarily expensive for both broadcasters and consumers. The reason is simple: The reason for doing this is to liberate TV channels above 52, and conversion to digital is unnecessary to accomplish this goal, because no Canadian market has more than two dozen television stations (including U.S. border stations), which could be reassigned to a lower channel if they’re currently above 52.

But instead of acknowledging that there’s nothing wrong with the way we’ve been broadcasting television since the 1950s, we’re willing to ditch a half-century-old technology and make a lot of people buy a lot of expensive equipment because some regulators think it looks cool.

What if we stopped subsidizing local TV?

One of the arguments used against conventional television broadcasters in Canada – CTVglobemedia and my corporate overlord Canwest especially – in this whole fee-for-carriage debate is that they’re both giant megacorporations and own a slew of cash-cow specialty television channels.

The broadcasters counter that they can’t take profits from one part of the business and subsidize another.

As much as the knee-jerk consumer reaction might be that this is exactly what they should do, they’re right. It makes no business sense for a profit-generating enterprise to not be generating profit. If conventional television doesn’t make money, then subsidy or no subsidy, it will eventually be shut down.

CTV and Canwest purchased their specialty arsenals knowing the conventional model was going down the toilet. If it came down to it, neither would have any trouble shutting down their entire conventional network and moving completely to specialty channels. But conventional TV is still making money (only just) and they’re betting on a fee-for-carriage solution to get them more.

But as much as the broadcasters are arguing against subsidizing their own operations, they have no trouble demanding exactly that from cable and satellite broadcast distribution companies. Not only do they benefit directly from the new Local Programming Improvement Fund in small markets, but their expensive Canadian dramas and comedies get large subsidies from the Canadian Media Fund, formerly the Canadian Television Fund. Both of these funds get their income from cable and satellite companies.

And cross-subsidization is what the conventional broadcasters do for local programming. In fact, even though they constantly whine that the “model is broken”, the basic premise of using profits from reselling U.S. programming to fund Canadian and local programming remains. This isn’t done because CTV and Global have hearts of gold and see the value in homegrown television, it’s because the CRTC forces them to air this kind of programming as conditions of license.

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Grab the popcorn, the real local TV debate is about to begin

On Monday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will finally get down to meeting about the future of conventional broadcast television, and through a series of hearings lasting at least a week, will hear arguments from broadcasters, cable and satellite companies, unions, producers, and maybe even a few television watchers, about whether those who freely transmit television signals over the airwaves should be paid a fee by cable and satellite companies currently mandated to distribute that signal. If it does, it will then have to decide who pays for it, how much it will be (or how it’s negotiated) and where the money will go.

To prepare for it, TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin has a long panel discussion with four experts: the uncomfortably smiley Ian Morrison of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (who supports fee for carriage), the knowledgeable but detached Grant Robertson of the Globe and Mail, the nerdy Michael Geist (who, like Andrew Coyne, supports deregulation and increased consumer choice), and Norm Bolen, who represents producers (and supports fee for carriage) as president of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association.

In the Globe and Mail, the story is told through the eyes of two former Canwest E! network stations: CHCH Hamilton, which was bought by Channel Zero and is trying to build a business model around being an all-news station during the day (70 hours a week of local news), and CHCA Red Deer, which it seems hasn’t been missed much since it was shut down on Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, even though the deadline for public comments has passed, both the Local TV Matters people and the Stop the TV Tax people are still running ads. The former has created a new one, which as usual vastly oversimplifies the issue.

CBC fee-for-carriage solution isn’t really one

The fee-for-carriage/local TV debate is over. The CBC has solved it. In was a stroke of absolute brilliance, the Mother Corp. has come up with a system that makes local broadcasters happy, reduces cable costs for consumers, and provides a fair system that doesn’t threaten cable companies’ profits.

Oh, and they solved the digital TV transition problem too.

Haha, just kidding. Their proposal does nothing of the sort.

On Tuesday, the CBC heralded a submission it made to the CRTC that “offers a solution to the issue of the affordability should a compensation regime for the value of local television signals be implemented.”

I asked the CBC for a copy of this submission, and they kindly forwarded it to me. I’ve uploaded it here for you to read (PDF).

Here is the key part of the CBC’s proposal (emphasis mine):

The CRTC should require cable and satellite companies to offer consumers a small, all Canadian basic package which would include all local television stations plus a few other licensed services.  The rate for this small basic package would not exceed a maximum rate established by the CRTC.  This would ensure the affordability of television service for all Canadians.

Consumers would be free to purchase – but would not be required to purchase – any additional services they may want that are not included in the small basic package.  The cable and satellite companies would negotiate with broadcasters to determine the compensation payable for the services they distribute – including the local television services in the basic package.  The CRTC would act as arbitrator in any situations where the parties could not agree.

The CBC explains how this would work in its “straightforward” three-step process:

First, the Commission would need to determine the services to be included in the streamlined basic package.

Second, the cable and satellite BDUs would have to negotiate wholesale rates with the programming services included in the new basic package – including the local television stations.  Commission arbitration would be available if the parties could not reach an agreement.

Third, the Commission would approve the proposed rate to be charged for this basic package.

Wait, hold on a second. Wasn’t the entire point of “negotiation for value” that consumers would have the choice of what local television stations they would carry on cable? The CBC’s proposal does away with that (what a surprise) and goes back to forcing the cable companies to carry their stations. It mentions that they would “negotiate wholesale rates”, but what kind of negotiation can you have when the only response the cable and satellite companies can give is “yes”?

So this would go to “arbitration” in front of the CRTC. Which means the CRTC would simply set the rate for carrying local stations.

In other words, this is fee for carriage.

In fact, it goes beyond fee for carriage. Now the CRTC would set the price for basic cable as well, and say what channels can and can’t be carried on it:

Cable and satellite BDUs would not be permitted to include any additional services in the basic package beyond those required by the Commission.

Surely they could throw in some freebies (like advertising channels) and nobody would get hurt.

The CBC’s argument includes a lot of charts and data showing that cable and satellite companies are rolling in cash while broadcasters face certain doom. These things, of course, we knew already. It also brings up all the “save local TV” talking points, like how taxes aren’t taxes:

It has become all too common in the Canadian communications environment for cable and satellite companies to disguise items on their consumers’ bills as government imposed retail taxes when they are not (e.g., “system access fee”, “government regulatory recovery fee”, “LPIF tax”, “CRTC LPIF Fee”).

While fee-for-carriage is still up in the air, the LPIF fee is a tax as much as the GST is. It’s a mandatory percentage fee added to the total price of a service that’s taken by the government. The fact that the CRTC says the cable companies should pay it instead of consumers is semantics at best.

It’s not that I oppose the LPIF, or even fee-for-carriage, but don’t get all bent out of shape because we call a tax a tax.

Cheap cable solves digital TV?

The submission also pretends to offer a solution to the digital TV transition. In addition to requiring many people across the country to modify or replace television sets that are up to half a century old, the transition will mean many Canadians in remote regions won’t have access to free, over-the-air TV, because the broadcasters are too poor/cheap to replace the analog transmitters with digital ones.

I’ve already argued that this digital transition is completely unnecessary, and that goes double for remote areas with few television stations. But the CRTC is going ahead with it anyway, and in August 2011 will create a problem where none existed.

So what is the CBC proposing? Well, their argument is that cheap cable can replace free television:

While not everyone would choose to subscribe to such a service, those who did not would not be deciding on the basis of affordability.

If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Bell thought up the same thing with cheap satellite. Both seem to ignore the fact that cheap is not free. Though it’s unclear how much basic cable would cost under CBC’s plan (I’m willing to guess it won’t be much cheaper than it is now), it will still be infinitely larger than zero.

There’s also another problem with this idea: The CRTC setting the rate for basic cable tips the economic scales, and reduces the incentive for entrepreneurs to enter the cable market, especially in remote areas where the economies of scale don’t work out as well in their favour.

Perhaps the CRTC would set a different rate for big-market and small-market cable, but then it starts to get more complicated.

What is basic?

The CBC’s submission is based on the premise that basic packages contain a bunch of channels that Canadians don’t want and are being forced to pay for. It doesn’t list them, nor does it list the channels it would want to keep.

To get some context, I looked at the channels that are included in my basic (digital) service through Videotron:

  • 10 broadcast stations:
    • CBFT (2, Radio-Canada)
    • CBMT (6, CBC)
    • CJOH (8, CTV Ottawa’s retransmitter in Cornwall)
    • CFTM (10, TVA)
    • CFCF (12, CTV Montreal)
    • CIVM (17, Télé-Québec)
    • CFTU (29, Canal Savoir)
    • CFJP (35, V, ex-TQS)
    • CKMI (46 Global)
    • CJNT (62)
  • Three parliamentary channels:
    • Assemblée Nationale
    • CPAC (French)
    • CPAC (English)
  • Eight must-carry specialty networks
    • CBC News Network
    • RDI
    • The Accessible Channel
    • Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network
    • The Weather Network
    • MétéoMédia
    • Avis de recherche
    • TV5
  • Télé Achats (an advertising network that would be silly to demand subscriber fees)
  • VOX, Videotron’s public access channel
  • Cable barkers, including the Canal Info Videotron (Channel 1), the video on demand barker channel and the Viewer’s Choice / Canal Indigo barkers
  • GameTV
  • Local radio stations, Galaxie and other audio-only services

With the exception of GameTV and the advertising channels (which we’re not charged for), these are all part of the basic service because the CRTC requires it to carry them.

So which of these channels would the CBC make discretionary? Surely not the parliamentary channels, nor the cable access channel, nor its own all-news channel.

Maybe I’m on the wrong track. For one thing, Videotron forces its customers to choose a package (either a theme package or an a-la-carte channel package) in addition to the basic service. This would stop under the CBC proposal.

On the satellite side, there’s Bell TV, whose digital basic package includes, besides broadcast television stations and must-carry networks, the following:

  • Treehouse
  • W Network
  • CTV News Channel
  • Vision TV
  • Teletoon Retro
  • MTV Canada
  • The Shopping Channel

These would also be pulled from the basic package under the CRTC proposal.

There is also, of course, analog cable, in which everyone gets the same service. That includes more channels, including:

  • Vision TV
  • YTV
  • MuchMusic
  • TSN
  • CMT
  • MusiquePlus
  • RDS
  • Showcase
  • Bravo
  • Discovery Channel
  • W Network
  • Canal Vie
  • MusiMax
  • Canal D

But analog cable doesn’t provide for discretionary channels, at least not on the level of digital.

Despite my criticisms, there’s some merit to some of the CBC’s proposal, specifically the creation of a basic package, whether on satellite, digital cable or analog cable. The practice of forcing people using digital services to add packages to basic lineups needs to stop.

But what the CBC is proposing is fee for carriage, and that’s a tax. And it would do nothing to stop the cable and satellite oligopolies from further solidifying their hold on the market.

CTV wants the right to prevent you from watching Grey’s Anatomy

As we all know, CTV – and its growing “Local TV Matters” coalition of conventional television broadcasters not owned by telecom companies – doesn’t want the CRTC to impose fees on cable and satellite companies, but wants the power to negotiate fair rates for their signals. In a new TV ad (yes, they made even more of them), CTV literally brings out a table and two chairs and says “we just want to talk”.

In my last blog post on the subject, I was a bit skeptical of this idea. Cable companies have little incentive to carry local stations, and aren’t about to pay for them. Consumers also wouldn’t miss much if those stations disappeared. Most of their programming comes from the United States, and nothing outside of the newscasts is locally produced. And even then, local news and crappy Canadian programming are increasingly available online, where CTV doesn’t charge Canadians directly to watch. (I can only assume from the “Local TV Matters” logic that I am stealing CTV’s programming from its own website).

I pointed out why I don’t think local stations would have much of a bargaining chip at this table, even with the right to pull their signals:

Unless blocking U.S. channels is part of this plan, Canadians could tune into stations from Burlington, and all we’d miss aside from local news are shows like So You Think You Can Dance Canada.

Well, it turns out that’s exactly what CTV has in mind. This is what they told the Calgary Herald:

“We need a hammer,” says Sparkes.

For instance, broadcasters say they should have the right, as a negotiating ploy, to pull their signals from cable along with the rights to shows they own in their local markets, such as the popular series House — without cable simply importing the show from an American broadcaster.

In other words, if Videotron and CKMI can’t agree on a fee, CKMI would have the right to demand that Videotron not only be barred from distributing CKMI’s feed, but be forced to black out U.S. stations that carry programming CKMI has rights to, like House, Entertainment Tonight, The Office, 90210 and Family Guy.

This proposition is a scary one for consumers. Canadian broadcasters want the right to block out U.S. broadcasters from cable.

Blackouts are common in cable these days, but they’re never imposed by the CRTC. Instead, they’re usually done because of demands from major sporting leagues who have broadcast agreements with different broadcasters in different markets. In each case, it’s the broadcaster that wants to be blacked out to comply with that agreement.

But this is different. And aside from the unbelievable public outrage CTV’s idea would cause if it was ever invoked, and the dangerous precedent it would set, here’s why I think the CRTC should turn them down on this point:

Canadian rights to U.S. shows are set by contract between the Canadian networks and U.S. networks. The CRTC is in no way involved in these deals, nor should they be. But giving Canadian networks the power to block U.S. stations based on these private contracts means that the CRTC (and cable and satellite companies) would be bound by agreements made between private commercial companies. That’s simply unreasonable.

But then, reason wasn’t a part of this from the beginning, was it?

Polish woman wants to save local Canadian TV

Continuing my research into the origin of stock photos, I should point out that CTV’s Local TV Matters site makes generous use of microstock.

This woman with a bullhorn, which used to adorn its splash page, is from a stock photographer based in Poland.

And that giant “on air” sign is from a 3D animator. It even comes with an off-air version, or one that says “vacancy”. There’s no French version, though, which forced CTV to kind of awkwardly photoshop their own.

Save local TV!

A dose of reality in the TV debate

Half-page ads from Global Montreal appearing in The Gazette

Half-page ads from Global Montreal appearing in The Gazette

CKMI, Global Montreal (formerly Global Quebec) has been heavily advertising the fact that it’s now finally on the Bell TV (formerly Bell ExpressVu) network, on channel 234.

Station manager Karen Macdonald says that after 12 years on the air, CKMI finally got added to the dial in late August. CFCF and CBMT have enjoyed places on the dial for years now, and this absence has always been a sticking point for the station. So, she says, “we are very happy.”

The reason is obvious: Quebec has a large number of satellite TV subscribers, and this move will give the station a much broader reach, which would translate into higher advertising revenues.

Bell TV isn’t paying them a dime to “sell” their signal. They’re stealing it. And Global couldn’t be happier.

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CTV owes its viewers an apology

Dave Carroll, the guy who did the United Breaks Guitars video, produces a song about the evil cable companies paid for by CTV. It has aired in full (without explanation) at the end of local newscasts across the CTV network for two days in a row, as if reinforcing the idea that local stations have little say in local programming. You can download the video here.

At 11:30 a.m. Thursday, CTV held a 45-minute news conference in Toronto to make its case for “saving” local television by getting Canadians to support them and support their request (now with CBC and Global) before the CRTC. The complete video is on CTV’s website. It started off by using CKX-TV Brandon as an example, making me wonder if proving a point in this campaign wasn’t a big reason that CTV decided to pull the plug on the station so quickly. It also included the presentation of two new commercial spots (both of which are comically bad), and ended with the Dave Carroll video above.

Scanning through the TV channels, I found it covered live on only one. It wasn’t CPAC, of course, it was CTV News Channel, which cut away from Dan Matheson’s show for almost 25 minutes to air these talking heads live. Matheson cut it off just before noon only so he could finally throw to commercials. Before he did, there were three questions from the audience – all from television broadcasters with clear interests here (one was from CityTV, which isn’t part of the coalition only because its owner Rogers is more interested in protecting cable revenue than television revenue – the videographer asked if this is a political campaign by broadcasters, and got them to admit that yes, it was).

When CTV News Channel returned, there was no discussion of the topic, no response from cable and satellite companies, and no attempt was made to provide the other side of the debate (even though it’s being clearly stated). This despite the fact that the 25-minute presentation included facts that are clearly in dispute, included two commercials (which were not shot by a CTV cameraman pointing at a screen, but fed directly to air), and an admission from CTV itself that this was a political campaign.

It was only at 1 p.m., an hour and a half after the press conference began, that Dan Matheson brought in Phil Lind of Rogers and grilled him for five minutes on the cable company’s response. A 25-minute news conference with embedded advertising presented without question versus a five-minute interview with a skeptical news anchor is apparently considered balanced to CTV.

Just after noon on CFCF’s local newscast, a brief about the news conference was presented by anchor Todd van der Heyden. Again, CTV’s statements were presented without question, no attempt was made to present the other side of the debate, and viewers were encouraged to visit CTV’s Local TV Matters website as if it was some reliable source for more information instead of a propaganda campaign by the corporate office.

CTV started by airing one-sided ads on its networks, then holding “open houses” and leveraging local TV personalities to amass large crowds to pretend there’s some huge support for their political cause. They aired one-sided reports from local journalists scaring people into supporting them. Now, it seems, they’re presenting a news conference (at which nothing new was said) as if it’s breaking news.

CTV is continuing to abuse the public trust, and using its power over journalists it employs to get them to ignore journalistic ethics and bias themselves in favour of their employer.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with CTV’s campaign, or with fee for carriage, or that local TV is in trouble, or that cable and satellite companies are making too much money. CTV News has a duty to present a fair picture to its viewers, and it is intentionally failing to do so.

This is what you want us to save?

UPDATE: Bell and Rogers respond with a press release saying they give plenty of money to Canadian television.

Battle of the fee-for-carriage misinformation campaigns

The battle for “fee for carriage” – forcing cable and satellite TV providers to hand over money to over-the-air broadcasters – is getting ugly.

A few weeks after CTV got Global and the CBC to join its “Save Local TV” campaign (now rebranded “Local TV Matters“), Bell (which owns the largest satellite TV provider) and Rogers (which owns Rogers Cable) have launched the counter-campaign Stop the TV Tax. Both websites feature “facts” pages with incredibly misleading arguments and statistics about the business model of television, and both are racing against the clock to get people to support their side in upcoming CRTC hearings on the fee for carriage issue.

Notably absent from either side is Quebecor, which owns the TVA television network (and Sun TV station in Toronto) but also the Videotron cable service. CityTV, the other notable absence on the broadcaster side, is owned by Rogers, which has clearly picked the other side in this debate.

The “TV tax” website has prompted CTVGlobeMedia to respond by calling it “misinformation”, while in the same release saying that cable companies are charging Canadians for conventional television, which is demonstrably false.

While CTV et al’s claims are suspect, the Rogers and Bell throw up some doozies of their own, including fantom quotes saying incorrectly that this is a “one time” fee. Except nobody said fee for carriage would be a one-time fee, and the website provides no source for this supposed quote. They also claim that conventional broadcasters had profits of $400 million last year, but the CRTC put that number at only $8 million (down from over $100 million) when it released statistical data in February. (UPDATE Oct. 6: I asked the Stop the TV Tax people about this, and they pointed to a Canwest quarterly report and an opinion piece about CTV, neither of which break down profit by conventional vs. specialty channels, and on Global’s side the operating profit for its non-Alliance-Atlantis TV network – which still includes a half-dozen cable channels like MovieTime and TVtropolis – was about $40 million)

When it comes to choosing between greedy broadcasters and greedy cable and satellite companies, most informed Canadians would prefer to choose neither. These slick (and expensive) lobbying campaigns – just think of how much they’re spending to lobby the CRTC directly if they’re spending this much on us – only reinforces the fact that both sides have plenty of money to spare.

Global, CBC join CTV’s “Save Local TV” campaign

A few months into its campaign to “Save Local Television”, CTV has managed to get its competitors CBC and Global to join its rebranded campaign “Local TV Matters” (there’s even a Twitter account!), trying to get public support for CRTC regulatory changes that would allow conventional television stations to charge cable and satellite companies for distribution of their signals.

The website’s FAQ lists PR-generated counter-arguments to some common complaints, but seems to ignore the history of conventional television and why it’s free in the first place.

Decades ago, before there was cable, conventional television was all there is. Most stations were locally-owned and had powerful transmitters to reach as many homes as possible. Revenue came from advertising, which was fine because everyone watched TV in primetime, and everyone watched the local news.

In the early days of cable, the specialty channels were low-budget affairs and highly specialized. Music videos on MuchMusic, live sports on TSN, non-stop weather updates on the Weather Network. Quality primetime programming came from the conventional networks like CTV, which was back then a cooperative of local stations. Local programming gave way to network (Canadian and U.S.) shows in primetime, but mornings and early evenings were still largely local affairs.

Canadian television network breakdown

The proliferation of specialty channels is a large part of why conventional television isn’t what it used to be. The audience is fragmented, and the conventional networks’ piece of the pie has diminished, along with advertising.

Specialty networks don’t have to provide local programming, though on the other hand they cannot accept local advertising and they cannot transmit over the air.

Now that more than 90% of Canadians have cable or satellite service, the advantage of over-the-air transmitters is outweighed by their cost. And because most advertising is national in scope, and targetted to specific demographics that specialty channels are better at reaching, that advantage too has disappeared.

What’s left to give conventional television stations an advantage is the programming itself. But while many people still watch the news, it’s not enough to pay for it. In very few markets does local news attract enough advertising revenue to pay for itself. So those newscasts (especially in smaller markets) have been drastically cut. Local news has been replaced by more pre-packaged news packages from the networks. Programming outside of the local newscasts has been all but eliminated.

So what can we do about this? Should we just shut down the conventional networks? Obviously the networks don’t agree with that idea, because conventional television is still making them money.

How about a government bailout? Consumers would be opposed to that, and it creates all sorts of problems (should broadcasters be paid equally, or based on the ratings of their newscasts?). Besides, there already is one in the form of the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a 1.5% tax on cable and satellite companies’ revenues that goes to help programming in small-market stations.

What CTV et al are proposing is that broadcasters and distributors negotiate a fair market value for carrying their stations. It’s not entirely clear what the details are, such as whether consumers would be able to choose which conventional television stations they would pay for (they could pay for none of them and just hook up the rabbit ears to get them free), or whether they would be forced to pay for them like we’re forced to pay for CBC Newsworld and CPAC whether we want to or not (such mandatory carriage would leave cable and satellite companies without a bargaining chip, making negotiation difficult).

It’s the economics, stupid

The networks’ prime argument in launching this campaign is this:

One of the campaign’s concerns is that cable and satellite providers continue to charge viewers for our services, yet they pay nothing to local television stations. However, Canadian cable companies pay U.S. cable channels in excess of $300 million a year for their services, and these cable channels are not required to produce any Canadian content. The campaign members are standing up to change this system because they believe local stations deserve fairness so viewers can continue to enjoy local television programming now and in the years to come.

The argument about channels like Spike and CNN not producing Canadian content is valid. Of course, the CRTC takes this into consideration when approving a U.S. channel for distribution here. U.S. networks aren’t allowed to compete with Canadian ones on (basic) cable, which is why we didn’t have MTV to compete with MuchMusic or HBO to compete with the Movie Network until Canadian versions of those channels launched recently.

But the comparison to conventional television is based on a faulty assumption. People don’t pay for conventional television stations as part of their cable bills. People get cable because they want CNN and Spike, not the local news. The bills for basic service cover the physical cable service as well as CRTC-mandated specialty channels like Newsworld and CPAC. Cable and satellite companies don’t charge consumers to give them local television stations, because you can’t charge people for something they already get for free.

The big irony of the argument is that the CRTC mandates that cable and satellite companies distribute local television stations as part of their basic service at the request of those television stations. In cable’s infancy, local TV wanted to be on cable to reach larger markets and get more advertising revenue. They even got the CRTC to guarantee they’d get the lowest spots on the dial, which back then were considered prime electronic real estate.

But I understand times change. Things are different now, the model is broken.

At least, they say the model is broken. CTV and Global haven’t released detailed financial reports showing how much money they’re losing on conventional television (or if they’re losing any at all). We have only their self-serving word to go on here.

The CRTC will be debating the future of local television in November.

Comments enabled

A side note about the “Local TV Matters” campaign: the website (which is WordPress-based) has open comments on its posts, and there’s already a lot of them from incredulous consumers asking why they’re being asked to pay more when their local programming is being cut to the bone. I’m a bit surprised the comments are still up there, and wonder what it will take for them to shut down dissenting consumer opinion.

Rogers et al pissed at CTV “Save Local Television” campaign

One-sided ad from CTV Atlantic

One-sided ad from CTV Atlantic

If you haven’t caught CTV’s “Save Local Television” ads recently, you haven’t been watching television. CTV has blanketed its stations, the A television network as well as specialty channels like the Comedy Network and Space with these advertisements that predict a doomsday scenario for local television and demonize the cable and satellite companies for “taking our programming” and “giving nothing in return” (as if this arrangement benefits solely the cable companies at the expense of local broadcasters, and as if the cable companies are selling DVDs of Corner Gas).

The cable and satellite companies have responded with a giant STFU, and issued a press release saying they’re complaining to the CRTC that CTV is breaching the public trust with this one-sided campaign that is a “blatant violation of journalistic principles.” (More coverage from CTV-owned Globe and Mail, Canwest/Global-owned Financial Post, CBC-owned CBC.ca and non-profit cooperative Canadian Press)

You see, not only is CTV running these ads all over the place, it’s enlisting the help of its journalists to spread its message. Ridiculously one-sided news reports from CTV Atlantic, CTV Winnipeg, CTV Toronto and A Barrie simply throw journalism out the window. In all but the one case, no attempt whatsoever is made to get comment from cable and satellite companies. The exception, in the CTV Atlantic report, includes a 10-second clip in a two-and-a-half-minute report whose bias is evident when the reporter talks about broadcasters wanting “equal treatment”.

CP24 (which is owned by CTV) has a fluff interview with CTV Executive Vice-President of Corporate Affairs Paul Sparkes in which he crosses the line from misleading to outright lie, saying cable and satellite companies are “taking our programs, repackaging them, selling them to the consumer, making a profit, and paying us nothing.” Local television feeds are not “repackaged”, but passed through directly to consumers. Sparkes also dismisses an actual question about fee for carriage lobbed at him from his reporter.

This report from Graham Richardson is a bit more balanced, in that he actually talked to a Rogers VP without systematically picking apart everything he says. It is the exception, unfortunately.

CTV Montreal enlisted the help of the premier, although Jean Charest doesn’t specifically state that he supports a mandatory fee for carriage. (He also talks of how important local television is to his home town of Sherbrooke, even though it has no local anglo television station.)

Right of response

In response to the complaint, CTV issued a press release blasting Rogers as “underhanded” (at the same time arguing that discussions shouldn’t happen via press release).

Its only comment about the attacks on its journalistic integrity came from this paragraph:

Indeed, consistent with CTV’s efforts to provide balanced coverage of the issues surrounding the crisis in local television, CTV once again invites representatives from Rogers, Bell, TELUS, Cogeco, Eastlink and the CCSA to participate in tomorrow’s nationwide events.

I can only assume this means CTV reporters will only talk to cable and satellite companies about this issue if they send a representative to CTV’s political rallies on a Saturday to be heckled by a public that has only been told one side of an issue. That doesn’t sound particularly “balanced” to me.

Despite this, Shaw once again called CTV’s bluff, and Ken Stein, the senior vice president of corporate and regulatory affairs at Shaw Cable, agreed to an interview with CTV NewsNet’s Jacqueline Milczarek. Milczarek argued with him (politely) for more than six minutes, a huge contrast from the softball questions given to CTV executives.

Stein also appeared opposite CTV’s David Goldstein to debate the issue on an Alberta program, which went on for a respectable 14 minutes. Sadly, the debaters weren’t as respectable, accusing the other of misleading people. In short, Shaw says it produces local programming through cable access channels, while CTV argues (correctly) that those channels are financed entirely out of a CRTC-mandated fund. CTV argues that Shaw et al are stealing their programming and pirating it to viewers, and incredulously accuses Shaw of using “scare tactics” in this campaign (you know, the one in which CTV is using a heart monitor metaphor to say local TV will “disappear forever” if fee for carriage isn’t enacted).

The network also finally got some smart analysts on. Eamon Hoey looked at the larger picture, taking a dim view of fee for carriage, and got hounded by Milczarek. Carleton University’s Christopher Waddell also pointed out how CTV isn’t telling all sides of this story, and also got treated with skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong, these interviews with Milczarek are what journalists are supposed to be doing: getting people to answer tough questions. But compared to the fluff interviews about open houses with CTV executives, it seems clear that CTV is using its journalists to advocate for a cause, being soft on their bosses and tough on their competition.

Breach of trust

CTV is grossly abusing its public trust by forcing its journalists to participate in what is essentially a political campaign. Television viewers have the right to be fully informed about all sides to this issue and CTV is systematically denying them that right.

Of course, the fact that local CTV stations are owned by a giant conglomerate that puts profit above everything else and is pretending to care about local television to manipulate the public is the problem in the first place, isn’t it?

What’s even sadder is that it takes another group of giant corporate conglomerates protecting their own bottom lines to bring this problem to light. If a solution was proposed that benefitted both private broadcasters and cable and satellite companies at the expense of television viewers, who would be there to look out for us?

I’m going to CTV Montreal’s open house today. I’m pessimistic about their chances of convincing me to accept their corporate manifesto, but it’s a good chance to explore the station.

Bell solves TV crisis (not)

OK, someone’s going to need to explain this one to me, because it doesn’t make any sense.

Conventional television broadcasters (CTV, Global, TVA, TQS and CBC/Radio-Canada) are pleading with MPs and the CRTC for the ability to charge cable and satellite distributors for fees to carry their channels. Their argument is that the advertising model has failed them, and they require a second revenue source to pay for all those local news stations and transmitters. They also say it’s unfair that specialty cable channels get subscriber fees. (Why am I paying money to networks that air non-stop Seinfeld reruns packed with ads anyway?)

Since the distributors would undoubtedly pass these fees onto their customers (despite their billions of dollars in profits), this would effectively mean that Canadians would be forced to pay for television channels that are broadcast for free over the air.

On Wednesday, Bell, whose Bell TV is one of two direct-to-home satellite services legally operating in Canada, announced it had come up with an “innovative” solution to this problem, that wouldn’t cost consumers extra, would help broadcasters and more importantly not hurt its own bottom line.

That solution is “freesat”, a system where some over-the-air television channels would be beamed to homes via satellite for free. Bell would be happy to provide this service if it meant they didn’t have to do this fee-for-carriage stuff. (It’s also easier to convince people to sign up for paid satellite service when they already have the equipment.)

So there you go, a win-win-win solution. Right?

Oh wait, not right, because this doesn’t solve anything.

Bell seems to believe that the financial problem of television stations is their upcoming transition to digital transmission. While the purchase of digital transmitters is a nontrivial problem – the CRTC’s estimate is that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – and it has led to the decision to shut down many retransmitters, that’s not what the broadcasters are complaining about. Their argument is that the cost of local newsrooms and local programming is too high to be paid for with advertising alone. Bell’s idea would not solve this problem.

Its financial uselessness isn’t the only flaw in Bell’s Freesat plan, as Digital Home also points out. Among the others:

  • Freesat would require users to purchase satellite dishes and decoders from Bell, at a cost much higher than a simple over-the-air digital-to-analog converter. One of the main reasons people don’t have cable or satellite is cost, so the people who would need this are also the people least likely to afford it.
  • Not everyone has a home that can accommodate a satellite installation.
  • Bell’s satellite service doesn’t carry all local conventional television channels (like, for instance, Global Quebec). This wouldn’t change under Freesat. So viewers would actually lose channels. Not to mention that the decision of what channels we’d have free access to would be Bell’s alone.
  • This proposal ignores the fact that there’s a second satellite provider in Canada. How would StarChoice fit into this? Would it also have to provide free channels?

I have my issues with the transition to digital. I’ve already argued against it, and still believe that there’s plenty of room to move existing stations out of the higher channels (say, 50-69) and auction off those frequencies. Digital television would make a technology that’s been used for more than half a century obsolete unnecessarily.

Freesat is worse. The equipment is bulkier and more expensive, and it doesn’t give all local channels. It’s the worst of two worlds.

Oh by the way, if “Freesat” sounds familiar, it could be because it’s the name of a real free-to-air satellite TV service in the U.K., or because Bell is recycling this exact same idea from a year ago.

Nice try, Bell.

CRTC roundup: Deciding the future of TV

The CRTC continues to dominate be a footnote in the headlines as conventional television operators appear in two hearings – one for the CRTC itself in Gatineau to discuss license renewals, and another for a House committee in Ottawa to discuss the future of local television. And those discussions are heating up.

Last week, CTV and Global pressed their fee-for-carriage idea, where cable and satellite providers would be required to pay broadcasters to carry stations that already transmit their signals over the air for free. This would give broadcasters a $350-million lifeline, which is why they’re continuing to press for it even after having gotten rejected twice. They say local news simply can’t pay for itself, and it needs to be subsidized.

Even TQS jumped on board, despite the fact that it doesn’t produce local news.

Rogers, which owns CityTV and OMNI but gets much more of its revenue from its cable distributor, argued in front of MPs that CTV and Global were exaggerating their financial troubles to get a handout.

This week, Rogers repeated the accusation to the CRTC, saying the networks want money for local stations but also want to shut down small stations that don’t rake in money. It tempered that by saying that if the CRTC approves such an idea, it should be temporary until the recession goes away and a revenue goes back up. It also said fee-for-carriage means they shouldn’t be required to distribute conventional TV channels if broadcasters demand fees that are too high.

(This brings up an issue: Isn’t Rogers in a conflict of interest here? On one hand, OMNI and Citytv would benefit from additional fees, but Rogers is silencing those voices because the corporate parent has decided it would have more to lose from these fees through its cable provider than it would gain through its television stations. The same applies to Quebecor, which owns the TVA network and Videotron. In all, distributors showed revenues of $10 billion in 2008, with over $2 billion in profit.)

Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who speaks on behalf of TVA and Videotron, gave a more nuanced, have-your-cake-and-subsidize-it-too answer to MPs, saying fee-for-carriage should be allowed, but that the rates should be subject to negotiation between broadcaster and provider (no doubt the negotiations between TVA and Videotron would go amicably).

Leonard Asper of Canwest argued the problem is a regulatory system that allows distributors to flourish while broadcasters falter. He said debt and the recession are problems too, but they’re not the whole answer.

Ivan Fecan of CTVglobemedia said the Local Programming Improvement Fund, a special fund setup by the CRTC to subsidize local television stations in small markets, would need to be tripled, and that even then this would only protect the status quo and would not result in any increase in local programming. That angered Rogers and CRTC members.

CTV and Canwest also pointed out that cable and satellite providers are constantly increasing their rates without the “revolt” that the providers say would happen with a fee-for-carriage.

The Globe and Mail’s Grant Robertson, who has been covering this issue better than anyone, has a list of some of the issues that may come up in discussions about the future of television in Canada.

Why not just shut them down?

An interesting point was made in discussions of license renewals: If CTV and Global are so jealous of specialty television channels, why don’t they just become specialty channels?

It’s not quite so simple, but with 90% of Canadian television viewers having cable or satellite service, the added expense of setting up transmitters and local news stations isn’t worth the added viewership and ad revenue that comes with it. (Not to mention the cost of transitioning to digital television, which has caused broadcasters to decide to shut down dozens of retransmitters across the country.)

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finkenstein asked if CTV would prefer the specialty channel model to the conventional TV model. Conventional stations require a certain amount of local programming, while specialty channels are required to spend a certain percentage of their revenues on creating original programming. CTV suggested it would prefer the latter, though it wanted some recognition that having local stations is much more expensive than rerunning old Seinfeld episodes.

CRTC wants more transparency from big guns

The CRTC is seeking comment on new rules that would require large broadcasters and distributors to disclose more information about their finances than they currently do.

Currently, the CRTC collects lots of information but only releases “aggregate information” to the public. So we know how much all broadcasters spend on U.S. programming, but we don’t know how that breaks down per broadcaster or broadcasting unit.

Since broadcasters are arguing that they need more money because their business model is broken (and the distributors are arguing that the can’t spare fee-for-carriage payments without raising prices), it makes sense that they should let us see their books.

The CEP labour union certainly agrees with that reasoning.

Broadcasters want changes on the air too

In addition to fee-for-carriage, television broadcasters are asking for a relaxing of regulations about how much Canadian content they have to air and what kind of programming they must create. One of the proposed changes is to include reality programming in the list of “priority programming” (scripted comedies and drama shows) that the CRTC gives special attention to because it costs more to produce. This would go against the entire point of distinguishing expensive from cheap programming, and encourage private broadcasters to cancel expensive dramas in favour of cheaper reality shows.

Meanwhile, Bill Brioux wonders if CTV and Global will be reducing their big-budget U.S. programming purchases in light of their apparent financial woes.

StarChoice really dislikes CBC Regina

Last year, the CBC got all up in StarChoice’s face because of a decision by the satellite distributor to remove CBC Regina (CBKT) from its channel lineup. The CBC complained to the CRTC, saying that the removal meant StarChoice had more CTV channels than CBC channels, and this represented a violation of one of its conditions of license.

In November, the CRTC ruled that CTV’s main network and its A Channel network should be considered separately for the purposes of this rule, and that StarChoice was still in compliance. It dismissed the complaint.

But the CBC pressed on with its case, arguing that the CRTC got the numbers wrong and that even excluding the A Channel network, StarChoice has more CTV-owned stations than CBC-owned stations. These include CTV-branded stations as well as CJCH in Halifax (formerly ATV, rebranded as CTV Atlantic) and MCTV’s CICI (rebranded as CTV Northern Ontario).

What followed was a war of words betwen CBC and StarChoice, with the latter accusing the former of using incendiary language.

Now, StarChoice is asking for an exception to be made to its license to allow it to continue not distributing CBC Regina but still distribute all its CTV stations (including CTV Regina). I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the CBC will oppose this request.

In other news

CRTC Roundup: The American retransmission consent model

Another term to add to the zeitgeist of CRTC talks about conventional television funding is the “American retransmission consent model,” thanks to a comment from Rogers during hearings this week on whether conventional television broadcasters should be allowed to collect fees from cable and satellite companies for retransmission of their channels.

Asked by the commission a House committee whether Rogers would approve of a U.S.-style system in which cable companies have to seek permission (and therefore pay fees) to carry conventional television stations, Rogers said it would, provided carriage was optional.

CTVglobemedia pounced on this, issuing a press release in which it praised Rogers for agreeing to fee-for-carriage in an “industry-to-industry solution” that follows the “American retransmission consent model.”

I personally think this is a better idea and could live with this kind of compromise. If broadcasters choose to demand fees that are too high for carrying their signals, the cable and satellite companies (or better, the consumers themselves) could decide it’s not worth it and use their rabbit ears instead to get the channels for free.

Not that I think the CRTC and all the players involved would support such a system.

Michael Geist also weighs in on this issue.

Conventional television pros and cons

For those who want to keep track, here are the various pros and cons to running a conventional television station instead of a cable specialty channel:


  • Over-the-air reception: This used to be a no-brainer, but with only 10% of Canadian TV viewers still using antennas (and most of them probably not watching TV all that much), this incentive becomes a lot less powerful than it once was.
  • Simultaneous substitution: Hated by most Canadian TV viewers, it’s the practice of replacing U.S. feeds with Canadian ones when both are running the same programming, in order to ensure that only Canadian commercials are watched (and Canadian networks get all the ad money). The problem is that it’s not done properly a lot of the time (especially during live events) and can end up cutting off programming. Still, it’s a huge cash cow to have a monopoly on the Canadian ad money when you air a new episode of House.
  • Spot on the dial: It’s mentioned often, though I think its effects are trivial. The CRTC requires that conventional television stations have low spots on the cable dial (channels 3, 4, 5 etc.). Perhaps there’s a minor psychological effect, but my TV viewing patterns are the same whether it’s channel 3 or channel 125.
  • Mandated carriage: Simply put, the cable companies must include these channels as part of their basic packages. This means there are no homes in a local area that don’t have access to these channels. (Well, almost. Satellite carriers don’t have to carry all channels, and Bell still doesn’t carry Global Quebec.)


  • Cost of transmitters: This is serious because of the mandated switch to digital television. It’s not an issue so much in major centres like Toronto and Montreal, but small markets don’t have enough size to justify such huge capital expenditures. A recently-released report puts the cost of converting all stations in the country to digital at between $200 million and $400 million.
  • Cost of local production: The CRTC mandates a minimum amount of local production, usually in the form of local newscasts. Even with huge cuts to newsrooms and increased use of technology to reduce the need for technical jobs, broadcasters say being forced to produce local programming is hurting their bottom line. With some exceptions, local newscasts are money-losing operations.
  • Lack of subscriber income: Ironically, even while being forced to spend more on programming, conventional television doesn’t get access to subscriber fees from cable and satellite companies, having to rely on advertising alone for income. Before the explosion of cable and the Internet, that wasn’t a problem. Now it is.

A plea for local TV

Richard Therrien in Le Soleil asks what purpose the CRTC serves, which is kind of a misleading title because his article advocates stronger regulation of private broadcasters. He argues that TVA is abandoning Quebec City, asking the CRTC to reduce its local programming requirements and producing generic non-regional shows out of its Quebec City studios.

Journalistic Independence is here (kinda)

Global TV, TVA and Sun TV have received final approval from the CRTC to suspend parts of their licenses relating to cross-media ownership (Canwest and Quebecor also own newspaper properties) and replace it with a standard policy called the Journalistic Independence Code. The code provides for an independent body (half controlled by the industry it’s regulating) to adjudicate complaints related to independence of co-owned media outlets. The outlets are to have completely independent news management, but there are no restrictions on news gathering, which means corporate management is free to force as much convergence as it likes, provided editorial boards are separate.

The CRTC mentioned it got complaints from concerned citizens who were up in arms over these firewalls being taken down, but the commission essentially argued (as I have) that these complaints should have been brought up when the Journalistic Independence Code was discussed in the first place.

Minority-language communities are well-served

The Governor-in-Council has issued a report about minority-language broadcasting in Canada (English programming in Quebec and French programming outside Quebec). The report, which is in no way binding, concludes that in general, language minorities have sufficient access to programming, mainly due to the CBC, national specialty channels and the Internet.

It does, however, also bring up a few suggestions for strengthening access to French-language programming in English areas. Among them:

  • Requiring Ontario cable companies to distribute both CBC French-language stations in the province (CBOFT in Ottawa and CBLFT in Toronto)
  • Encouraging cable and satellite companies in English-language areas to provide the option of a single package of all francophone services to subscribers
  • Encouraging negotiations between the CBC and CTV/Rogers/TQS consortium regarding distribution of French-language Olympics programming to minority French communities outside Quebec using CBC transmitters. (The consortium has already said it would air all programming on RDS and allow cable and satellite providers to distribute the station for free during the Games)
  • Requiring that TFO be distributed as part of the basic service on all cable and satellite services.
  • Consider expansion of CBC Radio Two to serve minority linguistic areas
  • Find a way to support funding of minority-language community radio stations
  • Find ways of increasing spectrum available for radio stations, either by reassigning TV channels 5 and 6 (which sit just below the FM broadcast band) or by encouraging the adoption of digital radio

None of these are binding, and most aren’t even formal suggestions. But they might come up in more formal contexts at the CRTC in the coming months and years.

As for the flip side – English programming in Quebec – the report concludes that anglo Quebecers have ample access to English-language programming.

Fox Business coming to Canada

The CRTC has approved a request from Rogers to add Fox Business Network to the list of foreign channels eligible for rebroadcast on Canadian cable and satellite services. This means that Rogers Cable and others can add FBN as an option on digital cable or satellite (assuming they can negotiate a reasonable price for carriage).

Fox Business Network is a competitor to CNBC (and a really bad one at that if you look at the ratings). CTV argued to the CRTC that it would also be a competitor to its Business News Network (formerly Report on Business Television). The CRTC determined that this was not the case because BNN focuses on Canadian business and there is no programming common to both networks.

Besides, they’d already approved CNBC, which is a far more formidable competitor than Fox Business will be.

Specialty channels raking in the dough

The CRTC has released financial figures for specialty, pay and video-on-demand services. It shows increases in both revenues and profits, but no increase in the number of people employed (in fact, it went down by six people). The headliner was that for the first time ever, spending on Canadian programming by these services topped $1 billion.

Community TV station in Laval?

Télévision régionale de Laval has asked for a license for a low-power (50W) television station serving the Laval area, on which it would air programming it is currently producing for Videotron’s Vox TV.

The station, which currently has a budget of about $400,000 a year and is affiliated with local media and the city of Laval, would broadcast on Channel 4, which would cause interference problems with CBOT (CBC) Ottawa and CFCM (TVA) Quebec City, both on the same channel (not to mention analog cable reception of Radio-Canada’s CBFT for homes very close to the transmitter).

The main motivation for this move, according to TRL, is that Vox isn’t giving its programming enough play, especially during prime time viewing hours.

It’s an ambitious move, and one wonders if the small group behind it would be up to the task of keeping such a station running (they’ve already asked for an exemption from a 100% closed-captioning requirement). But it’s nice to see some people still think locally-produced over-the-air television is worth something.

Al-Jazeera trying again

Though the CRTC hasn’t issued a call for public comment yet, news about Al-Jazeera English’s bid for CRTC approval is making its way around. It started in the Globe and Mail back in February, and has since hit the Toronto Star, Sun Media, LCN and Cyberpresse.

Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language network is authorized for distribution in Canada, but with unique special requirements that put the onus on distributors to monitor its content. That made it too difficult (read: expensive) for cable and satelllite operators to abide by, so none have picked up the channel.

Al-Jazeera is trying to clean up its image as a radical jihadist network, launching an online campaign and even lobbying the Canadian Jewish Congress, which says it’s on the fence about supporting the network’s bid. Despite its reputation (many of its critics have never even watched the network), it is based in a relatively pro-U.S. country (Qatar), employs Western journalists for its English network, and reports on a lot outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even PBS affiliates have used some of its reports (though that caused a kerfuffle).

Canadians will have their say when the CRTC opens the application for comments. The issue probably won’t be whether the network is approved, but whether the same onerous restrictions will be placed on its carriage.

General changes to broadcasting laws

The CRTC is asking for comments about a list of minor but general changes to its broadcasting laws, which provide for:

  • Cable and satellite companies inserting targetted ads into programming (with the agreement of the broadcaster)
  • Establishing the Local Programming Improvement Fund, which will be funded by a 1% tax from broadcasters to help small-market stations
  • Prohibiting networks from withholding programming from cable and satellite companies during a dispute
  • Removing the distinction between small cable companie (fewer than 20,000 subscribers) and large ones when it comes to minimum financing rules for community television initiatives (such as Videotron’s Vox network).

In other news

And on the telecom side

The CRTC has approved changes to the National Do-Not-Call List so that numbers added to the list stay for five years instead of three. It also clarified that independent politicians (who are not connected to political parties) are also exempt from the do-not-call rules. Arguments for these decisions are here.

The commission has also launched a public consultation on ISP traffic management, namely asking whether Internet providers should have the right to use traffic shaping during high-usage times to slow down peer-to-peer file sharing so that regular users have a chance to use more bandwidth. This comes at the same time Bell says it will charge independent providers metered rates instead of flat ones, effectively ending the idea of unlimited Internet access.

Rogers missing the point

Rogers, which appeared in front of the CRTC today to tell them it’s a bad idea to make crazy-profitable cable companies give money to on-the-brink TV broadcasters, says the whole CanCon problem is moot because it’s developing a Canadian version of Hulu which will feature CanCon.

There’s only one hitch: You have to be a Rogers cable subscriber to use it.

Perhaps CBC got it wrong, or Rogers executives are using a stretched analogy, but they seem to be talking about video on demand over digital cable, not online video.

UPDATE: This post makes it clearer: Rogers wants to setup online video in a walled garden format where you’d have password-protected access to programming based on what you’ve subscribed to on their cable system.

People in Quebec who have Videotron Illico digital TV get lots of video on demand. Plenty of TV shows can be viewed for free on the service, provided those TV shows are owned by Quebecor. Quebecor owns Videotron and TVA, so you only see TVA shows on the service.

That doesn’t sound to me like it’s solving the new media problem.