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CRTC quizes CPAC on need for mandatory carriage

A CRTC logo is shown in Montreal on September 10, 2012.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

CPAC – the public-service broadcaster owned by some of the country's largest cable companies – could be forced to fend for itself for the first time since its inception unless it can convince Canada's regulator it deserves still deserves special treatment.

The service has enjoyed mandatory carriage since 2002. But as it renews its licence, the Canadian Television-radio Telecommunications Commission asking the channel why it needs this privilege when the companies could simply include the channel on every cable package on their own without regulatory interference.

"Why do you need us?" Commissioner Candice Molnar asked during a mandatory carriage hearing held in Gatineau, Que.

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The channel is owned by Rogers Communications Inc., Shaw Communications Inc., Vidéotron Ltée, Cogeco Inc. and Eastlink.

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.

Ms. Molner praised the channel for its "important work," but also asked why the cable companies can't simply include the channel without being forced. The service currently receives 11 cents per subscriber, and has asked for a one cent increase for its next licence term.

CPAC's chairman Ken Stein said the cable companies compete with each other for customers, and the channel would need to negotiate a price with each in order to ensure its signal made it in front of Canadians. He added that not every television distributor in Canada is a part-owner of the service, which could further complicate things.

"They compete among themselves for customers, and on rates and packages," he said. "CPAC is a public-interest service that is a totally commercial-free offering, it's a service that is pursuing a very clear mandate and all distributors are paying the exact same wholesale fee."

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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