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A coveted TV licence is up for grabs this week, as industry players line up to challenge Rogers Communications Inc. and its OMNI stations for the right to operate multicultural channels with mandatory placement in every basic cable package in Canada.

Such a licence is relatively rare; other must-carry channels include The Weather Network, CPAC and APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network). Mandatory carriage is highly sought-after because of the guaranteed annual subscriber fees that come with it, which are worth millions of dollars per year even though the number of TV subscribers in Canada is declining.

Canada’s national regulator is holding a hearing starting on Monday to consider applications from Rogers – which is asking to hold on to the licence – as well as seven others, including Rogers’s biggest competitor, Bell Media Inc.

The must-carry licence was granted to Rogers last year, after the company went to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to ask for a lifeline for its money-losing OMNI stations.

Over-the-air channels such as OMNI broadcast for free and subsist on advertising revenues – unlike specialty channels that also earn subscriber fees. However, OMNI’s revenues had been falling steadily and by 2015 Rogers was considering shutting down the money-losing stations.

The company slashed two-thirds of OMNI’s costs, cutting jobs and replacing newscasts in four languages with cheaper current affairs shows that relied on on-air conversations rather than news segments produced by reporters. Community groups protested the cutbacks to multilingual news. Rogers’s argument to the regulator was that OMNI constituted an essential service that needed the secure funding of mandatory subscriber fees in order to survive.

While the CRTC granted Rogers’s request – providing OMNI with fees of 12 cents per subscriber per month, starting in September of 2017 – the regulator was not satisfied the application “would fully address and reflect the needs and interests of Canada’s diverse ethnic and third-language communities.” It granted a three-year interim licence to OMNI, and opened up the licence for a multilingual, multi-ethnic TV service to other applicants.

The CRTC will now consider who will operate the must-carry service when OMNI’s licence is up in 2020. Applicants will have to show “the exceptional importance” of their proposed services in order to justify mandatory distribution. Rogers has again made the argument that without the subscriber fees from this licence, OMNI is not likely to remain financially viable.

The other applicants are Bell Media, which wants to launch a new multicultural TV service called OurTV; a proposed joint venture by Canadian multicultural broadcasters Telelatino Network Inc. and Asian Television Network International Ltd.; CorrCan Media Group, which publishes an Italian-language newspaper based in Toronto and is led by former federal Liberal cabinet minister Joe Volpe; Evan Kosiner, who proposes a multilingual programming guide for the visually impaired; Independent Community Television Montreal; Ethnic Channels Group, which also distributes a number of international stations in Canada, including Kremlin-controlled news channel RT; and B.C.-based radio broadcaster Amber Broadcasting Inc.

Former OMNI executive Madeline Ziniak, who is chair of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association and part of the Amber Broadcasting team, argues the regulator should not grant the licence to “vertically integrated” companies that own multiple TV channels as well as providing TV, Internet and mobile phone subscriptions.

“It’s time to diversify ownership of Canadian media,” Ms. Ziniak said. “What exists, in our view, is not commensurate to what the needs are of a growing, diverse and complex multicultural society.”

Rogers and Bell declined interview requests for this story.

As a condition of the current licence, OMNI must produce half-hour daily newscasts in Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian and Punjabi. Providing "news and information programming in multiple languages from a Canadian perspective” will be a key requirement for any applicant for the licence.

Unifor, the union representing workers at OMNI, objected to Rogers subcontracting its Chinese-language newscasts to B.C.-based Fairchild TV. The CRTC denied Unifor’s request this year that Rogers be required to produce those newscasts in-house, however Unifor is asking the regulator to make that a requirement of the new licence. The union also wants the CRTC to require the licence holder to provide news programming, and not just opinion-based current affairs shows that are cheaper to produce.

“Original news gathering is what we’re urging the commission to prioritize,” said Howard Law, director of the media sector for Unifor. (The union also represents employees of The Globe and Mail.)

The addition of a new mandatory channel does not increase the price of basic TV packages, which the CRTC has generally capped at $25 per month. Some TV providers, including Shaw, Telus and Cogeco, have opposed granting another must-carry licence, arguing such licences should be an exceptional measure.

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