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The CRTC has started two weeks of hearings for channels seeking mandatory carriage on basic digital cable. (Noraznen Azit/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The CRTC has started two weeks of hearings for channels seeking mandatory carriage on basic digital cable. (Noraznen Azit/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

BROADCASTING

CRTC not backing down as specialty channels make their case Add to ...

Sun News Network has a simple message for Canada’s broadcast regulator as it considers whether any new channels should be added to basic television subscriptions: “If we don’t qualify, no one does.”

The news channel’s executives made the statement near the end of the first day of hearings into so-called mandatory carriage, which could help the network solve its $17-million losses. It was speaking of its own application, but the statement could have come from any one of the six channels that made their case in front of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Tuesday.

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The commission made it clear it doesn’t intend to hand over new licences easily. Mandatory carriage is a highly sought-after designation, because it allows channels to charge more for advertising and also to collect subscription fees from almost 12 million Canadian television subscribers. But in order to win the designation, channels must prove they offer something unique that contributes significantly to the Canadian broadcast system.

“These services have a direct impact on consumer bills and the choices they receive,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in his opening comments. “The CRTC is well aware of the impact of the decisions that it could take in this proceeding and recognizes that consumers expect to be able to choose the television services they receive. We also know that subscribers are more and more concerned with the affordability of television services.”

Representatives of the channels appearing in the first day of the two-week hearing – the first of almost two dozen – faced commissioners who were quick to dismiss many of their arguments. When commissioner Stephen Simpson told the Natural Resources Television Channel’s Ivor Barr that the channel presented no evidence Canadians actually want to watch the channel, all Mr. Barr could reply was “you have a point.”

Executives from Fusion, meanwhile, made their case for the creation of a channel that would broadcast footage shot by amateurs armed with nothing more than a smartphone and a desire to share. Martha Fusca argued that Canadian broadcasters aren’t taking advantage of social media, and that her channel could bring young people “back to the Canadian broadcasting system.”

But she was met by a cool response from commissioners who have made it clear they don’t plan on writing any blank cheques to fund channels that don’t meet the CRTC’s criteria. The commission expressed concern that Canadians are weary of paying high fees to watch television, and appear leery to add any other costs to monthly bills.

“Why would I watch this instead of YouTube?” commissioner Louise Poirier asked. “This sounds like YouTube with all of the fun parts cut out.”

To win mandatory carriage, a channel is supposed to prove that it serves an exceptional need that isn’t being met elsewhere. In Fusion’s case, its executives argued that young Canadians lacked a platform for the content they are creating, a critical flaw in the country’s broadcast system that could see them disengage from public life once and for all.

Sun News, meanwhile, argued that an all-Canadian news service should receive preferential treatment in its early years so it can win a following and lay the foundation for a business plan that doesn’t rely on mandatory carriage. Canadians want to watch, vice-president Kory Teneckye said, but the television distributors are making it difficult for subscribers to access the channel.

“We’re hard news by day, straight talk at night,” he said, when asked by Mr. Blais if the channel considers itself a news broadcaster. “It’s a manner in which cable television is evolving around the world and Canadian audiences are responding strongly to that format.”

The CRTC hasn’t added any channels to basic digital packages in four years, and is handling a backlog of requests with these hearings.

Each channel will need to clear a high bar to win approval, Mr. Blais warned as the hearings began in Gatineau, Que. He said they must each convince him they are providing a service that helps “all Canadians recognize themselves in their broadcasting system.”

The hearing will hear from other channels seeking mandatory carriage as the week goes on, and will also hear from those who oppose and support each channel. Each channel gets a chance to make a closing argument next week.

There is no timeline for a decision.

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