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Give consumers choice, Quebecor urges Add to ...

Let consumers choose the television channels they want to pay for, and no matter how the fight between cable and satellite companies and broadcast networks is resolved, don't pass the cost on to Canadians.

That was the argument made by Quebecor Inc. yesterday at a hearing before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission exploring whether over-the-air networks should be allowed to charge for their signals.

The Quebec-based media company is the only player straddling both camps in the debate: It owns the Vidéotron Ltée cable service and the French-language TVA network. Quebecor president Pierre Karl Péladeau told the CRTC hearing that allowing specialty channels to charge monthly fees while cable and satellite providers carry over-the-air stations for free creates an imbalance in the industry.

"It is high time we take the measures required for Canadian conventional television to compete with specialty television on an equal footing." Some of the money directed toward specialty channel fees could be used to compensate the networks, he said.

However, CanWest Global Communications Corp., which went before the CRTC later in the day, questioned this plan. CanWest runs the Global television network and also has a portfolio of specialty stations.

"There are partners in our specialty channels that will not stand for one part of our business subsidizing the other," CanWest president Leonard Asper said.

Mr. Asper argued that the current regulatory system is unfair, because broadcasters must invest in Canadian programming but cable and satellite companies carry the networks for free.

"There has been a massive wealth transfer over the past 40 years favouring one sector over the others, brought on by regulatory decisions and policies," he said.

Sticking to the argument the broadcasters have put forth consistently throughout the debate, Mr. Asper cited the rising profits of cable companies, in contrast to the declines seen by broadcasters. CanWest's high debt load landed it in perhaps the most precarious state of the big broadcasters: It was forced to file for protection from creditors in October.

CRTC chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein has expressed frustration that industry players have not resolved the dispute on their own. Mr. Asper blamed a system that gives broadcasters no leverage to negotiate with cable and satellite companies.

"They won't come to the table because they don't have to," he said.

But earlier, Quebecor's Mr. Péladeau suggested consumers may not have the patience to wait out the battle. With new technologies giving viewers the option to look elsewhere for their television, the media industry's best bet is to give them more choice in their TV service, he said.

"Let consumers decide. Otherwise, audiences will hammer the last nail into the coffin of conventional television and of the CRTC by turning to the Internet and mobile devices to watch the content they want."

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