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Sun News Network pulled from Bell TV in fee dispute

Krista Erickson screengrab from Sun News

Canada's newest 24-hour news channel, Sun News Network, has been yanked off the air by Bell TV in a dispute about fees.

Quebecor Inc. which owns the channel, sent a letter to BCE Inc. on April 18, demanding the channel be removed from Bell's satellite TV service if an agreement was not reached by May 3. Bell did just that at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Now, Quebecor plans to file a complaint with the federal broadcast regulator, charging that BCE is discriminating against channels that it does not own.

Like most specialty networks, Sun News must negotiate with cable and satellite providers to determine the subscriber fee they will pay to carry the channel. Those negotiations have so far been successful with Western cable giant Shaw Communications Inc. and with the cable service Quebecor owns, Vidéotron Ltée. But Bell has so far not paid the subscriber fee that Sun News was requesting, said Luc Lavoie, senior adviser to Quebecor chief executive officer Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

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"They're saying that the conditions we're asking for are not fair and not reasonable," Mr. Lavoie said in an interview Tuesday. "We're not asking [as much as]CTV News Channel is getting; we're not asking what Business News Network is getting. We're not asking what CP24 is getting. And oh, what a coincidence, those three are owned by Bell."

On Wednesday, Quebecor will file a complaint to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, stating that Bell is violating rules about "undue preference," since it carries the news networks that it owns but will not pay comparable fees for Sun News.

Quebecor received a slap on the wrist in January under the same rules: It was keeping some content from the TVA broadcaster that it owns to air on Vidéotron's video-on-demand service, without offering the same content to other cable and satellite VOD services. Bell complained, and the CRTC ruled the behaviour was "undue preference." Now, Mr. Lavoie said, "they are treating their own [channels]in a different way."

Negotiations for the channel are ongoing with Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., among others, but Quebecor has not asked that the channel be pulled from those services.

"We had hoped to come to a commercial agreement based on the fact that Sun News is a new and relatively untested channel on the market. But the price being asked is quite excessive – it's in line with what would usually be quoted for a well-established and popular channel," said Bell spokesman Mark Langton. He added that long before BCE acquired CTVglobemedia's TV assets last summer, it carried CTV News Channel and other specialty stations under similar terms as other TV providers.

According to regulatory documents, CTV News Channel received fees on average of slightly more than 14 cents per subscriber per month from cable and satellite providers in 2009.

Quebecor's news network has had an unconventional launch: Sun News is transmitted on the signal previously used for the company's money-losing broadcast network, Sun TV. By putting Sun News on the Sun TV airwaves, Quebecor secured it a prime spot low on the TV dial. To do this it took the unusual step of broadcasting a specialty channel on airwaves those cable and satellite carriers usually pick up for free.

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The other advantage of broadcasting on Sun TV's signal is that the over-the-air station has must-carry status for cable providers, so viewers can get a taste of Sun News while negotiations continue. However, satellite services are not required to carry the channel.

"We've indicated our willingness to negotiate, made a realistic counter-proposal and asked them to respond. We haven't heard back," said BEll's Mr. Langton.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.

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