Skip to main content
opinion

If you were to draw up a list of the Harper government's corporate enemies, you would not find the banks or oil giants – the usual whipping boys of populist politicians – anywhere near the top.

In Stephen Harper's universe, the most vile oligopolists are the wireless providers that have Canadians paying among the highest smartphone rates in the world. Next on the Harper hit list are cable and satellite companies that make you pay for all the channels you don't watch just to get one that you do.

As fate would have it, these are one and the same. The big cellphone providers, Rogers and Bell, are also the main purveyors of cable and satellite TV, putting them doubly on the defensive as the Harper government attacks the very business models that have made them so rich.

Failure thus far has not deterred Mr. Harper in his bid to create a viable fourth national player that would shatter the semblance of competition in Canada's wireless sector by introducing the real thing. In June, Ottawa passed legislation to cap the rates Rogers and Bell can charge smaller players to roam on their networks. Success will hinge on how regulators apply the new rules.

The Harper government is similarly reliant on the regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to realize its promise of unburdening cable and satellite TV subscribers. The CRTC is an independent agency at arm's-length from the government, but Ottawa appoints its commissioners, who come to the table with their own biases and agendas.

For most of its history, the CRTC championed cultural protectionism. It sustained a Canadian television production industry by forcing networks to air domestic content. It protected private broadcasters by allowing them to substitute their signals for American ones. And when specialty channels arrived, it forced the cable and satellite companies to pay them carriage fees.

This model of regulation has not been particularly consumer-friendly. It is a big reason why cable and satellite bills are so high. And it's one reason why the CRTC, under Tory-appointed chair Jean-Pierre Blais, had aimed to put consumers first for a change.

The regulator is wrapping up hearings into proposals to rewrite the rules of Canadian television with this in mind. But the vested interests have roundly condemned the CRTC's ideas and instead advanced their own wish lists, undermining the whole point of these hearings.

The vested interests, from Bell and Rogers to the CBC and the TV production industry, have a very different idea of the public interest than most of us. For them, it involves protecting their business models, which are threatened by unregulated online services such as Netflix.

Bell and Rogers might well be agnostic about Netflix, since video streaming is perhaps the most lucrative part of their Internet provider businesses. Under the guise of cultural policy, the "tax" on Netflix subscriptions that the Ontario government, the CBC and producers are seeking is really an industrial policy aimed at favouring well-heeled television-production executives.

The Canadian Media Fund, which is two-thirds funded by levies on your cable and satellite bills and one-third by Ottawa, plows $370-million a year into domestic programs. These shows are ignored by most Canadian viewers, who strangely can't seem to get enough Big Bang Theory.

Next, the CBC and Bell want you to pay new fees for conventional TV channels. For the CBC, these fees would offset cuts to its government grant and the loss of a huge swatch of its advertising revenue with the ceding of its NHL rights. For Bell, which owns 15 per cent of this newspaper, it would help subsidize the local stations it acquired in its takeover of CTV.

Oh, did we mention the CBC also wants a new levy on cable and satellite bills to fund local news programming? This after local stations got an extra $200-million plus, courtesy of cable and satellite subscribers, to help them survive the recession.

Mr. Harper all but issued a public directive to the CRTC this week by insisting his government opposes a Netflix tax and thinks consumers should be able to "choose to pay for the TV channels they actually want." Bell and Rogers warn that a so-called pick-and-pay system could cost consumers more and force fledgling specialty channels out of business.

Somehow, Mr. Harper's corporate enemies have turned an exercise aimed at reducing your cable bills into a platform for raising them. And the PM stands to lose another round.