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Filmmakers up in arms as Rogers seeks to alter licence Add to ...

While Global and CTV grabbed the majority of headlines during the recent round of CRTC licence-renewal hearings, Rogers Broadcasting quietly asked for a controversial condition-of-licence change that has filmmakers and distributors in this country spitting mad.

In its application last February, the cable TV and cell-phone giant asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to lift a mandated condition that requires two of its CITY-TV stations in Toronto and Vancouver to air 100 hours of Canadian films a year in prime time.

That request - which the federal regulator is still mulling - has infuriated this country's filmmakers, who say sales of Canadian features have ground to a halt since Rogers purchased a total of five CITY-TV stations from CTVglobemedia two years ago.

They're not even trying to play nice. They're just mocking the system and the CRTC. Victor Loewy, Alliance Films

"We are outraged for two reasons," said Ted East, president of the Canadian Association of Film Distributors and Exporters (CAFDE). "CITY has been a critical partner in financing Canadian films and reaching audiences, and the loss of this support is having a devastating effect on Canadian film.

"When Rogers went to the CRTC to get approval to buy the CITY stations, they jumped up and down over Canadian film, saying we're delighted to be part of this and we intend to uphold this long-standing tradition," asserts East. "Immediately after the acquisition was approved, they stopped buying Canadian films.

"Over-the-air television - which represents roughly 40 per cent of the overall TV market for Canadian feature films - has basically dried up."

Victor Loewy, chairman of this country's biggest distributor, Alliance Films, agrees the market has evaporated, adding his company has made no sales to CITY-TV since it was taken over by Rogers.

"They have bought nothing. Zero. We've taken them everything, and there is simply nobody there to even talk to," says Loewy. "They're not even trying to play nice. They're just mocking the system and the CRTC.

"The truth is we don't have any customers [for indigenous feature film]any more. My attitude on this is very simple. Rogers got a licence when they acquired the CITY channels. They knew the conditions of the licence. Now they don't want to play by the rules. We don't need another mini-network like CTV or Global downloading American programming."

Susan Wheeler, Rogers Media's vice-president regulatory affairs, justifies her company's application for licence change by pointing out that in "today's media environment, where movies are widely available and offered by a number of over-the-air, specialty, pay and video-on-demand services, a focus on feature films is no longer a viable programming strategy for CITY-TV.

"As we responded to CAFDE, we will continue to air movies but we can't really accept a specific condition on the carriage of movies," Wheeler adds. "No other over-the-air broadcaster - CTV, Global, even CBC - has a requirement to air Canadian feature films, or feature films in general. Why should we be singled out?

"We believe our programming focus is on local programming, and that is our priority." She would not say how many Canadian full-length features CITY-TV has purchased since Rogers came on the scene.

Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media, agrees the market for TV sales has dried up in the last 18 months. But he adds he has managed to sell CITY one Canadian feature film - the upcoming Cairo Time , due in theatres this fall.

"We used to sell almost all our product to them. CITY-TV was our champion, and the first stop for all Canadian films to get their pre-sale. That, I'm afraid, is lost," says Amarshi.

"Without significant broadcaster interest in Canadian films, the making of them now is basically unviable."

A decision on CITY-TV's 100-hour licence condition is expected to be handed down by the CRTC in a few weeks.

Norm Bolen, president of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, says he will fight Rogers's petition.

"The film community feels betrayed by this. Rogers makes the argument that feature films are no longer a reasonable way for them to schedule their prime time. We're talking about one feature film a week. That doesn't seem onerous."

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