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Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada's biggest broadcast companies are at odds with each other over consumer choice and support for local programming, setting the stage for a debate at September hearings that could reshape the way Canadians watch and pay for television.

BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Shaw Communications Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. disagree sharply on several of the proposals that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has gathered under its Let's Talk TV initiative, launched last fall to give consumers clamouring for better service more choice and flexibility in managing their TV bill.

Friday was the last day on which companies, viewers and lobby groups could submit their views.

The federal broadcast regulator has put several of Canada's most important TV policies up for discussion, questioning whether local programs must still be offered free over the air, how much Canadian content should be required, and to what extent subscribers should be able to pick their channels one by one, rather than in bundles.

"We wouldn't have launched this process if we weren't going to make major changes," said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais in an interview. The regulator will start holding hearings in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 8.

One of the CRTC's proposals is a "skinny basic" cable package, made up of local Canadian broadcast channels and a select few others, such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. But Bell argues in its submission that there is little real demand for such an option. A skinny basic package would also make it harder for Bell to cover its fixed costs, and it may pass some costs along to viewers.

"It's going to harm consumers at the end of the day," said Mirko Bibic, Bell's chief legal and regulatory officer.

Bell would prefer to maintain current basic packages, which are much larger, and allow a pick-and-pay option for all channels outside the basic package. (Bell parent company BCE owns a 15-per-cent stake in The Globe and Mail.)

By contrast, Rogers says it would embrace a skinny basic package if it includes core U.S. networks ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and PBS, which it says it needs to compete. Rogers, which owns the City and OMNI channels, also said it is open to pick-and-pay options beyond that and suggests offering more than half its non-basic channels à la carte. Some U.S. channels only offer their content as part of a bundle and Rogers is concerned that it will lose access to those channels if it is forced to offer them individually.

"I think that some of the other distributor groups are taking a very short-term view," said Ken Engelhart, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs at Rogers, noting the rise of streaming services has convinced some viewers to cancel cable subscriptions. "Yes, it can mean less revenue, but it can also mean keeping people on the system."

Bell, Rogers and Shaw also want the minimum requirements for airing Canadian content relaxed – and in Rogers' case, removed in prime time – in return for guarantees they would concentrate their dollars on higher-quality Canadian shows. But the Canadian Media Production Association wants the regulator to maintain current standards.

The fate of over-the-air television, which consumers watch for free with an antenna, is also at stake as revenues for local television are sagging. Bell, which owns CTV, wants transmitters for these stations shut down – an option the CBC also supports. Instead, Bell proposes a "local specialty" model under which stations would charge wholesale fees to cable and satellite companies, and use the extra revenue to prop up local TV.

Rogers and Shaw both disagree, saying it is too soon to abandon these free signals. Gregory Taylor, a researcher at Ryerson University and author of Shut Off: the Canadian Digital Television Transition, agrees the number of households that rely on it is still high.

"To discontinue over-the-air distribution would be to further remove a substantial sector of the population from the broadcasting system that has been, in theory and in law, designed to serve the wider public interest," he said in a submission.

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