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Battle Lines Drawn in Canada's Cable Unbundling Debate

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Top-rated broadcaster Bell Media pushes back against Ottawa forcing a pick-and-pay regime by warning about an end to U.S. import channels like AMC and FX.

TORONTO – As Canada drives towards unbundling cable channels, top-rated broadcaster Bell Media has warned less coin may be left for original Canadian TV production and more American programming may fill primetime schedules here.

"As we move forward in responding to consumers, we need to be clear that there is an inherent risk. When buying less, the unit cost is going to be higher and overall savings, if any, may be small," Bell Media president Kevin Crull told the Canadian chapter of the International Institute of Communications’ annual conference during a keynote address.

“If we are only left with U.S. channels in Canada, don’t expect unbundling. They [Americans] don’t allow it. They won’t do it," Crull added.

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The question of how American programming suppliers will react to Canada introducing a pick-and-pay TV regime comes as the federal government has told the CRTC, the country's TV watchdog, to consider cable unbundling to encourage consumer choice and savings.

Crull, while supporting "balanced ways" to provide cable pricing flexibility, said package unbundling will inevitably reopen commercial agreements and change the overall business model for Canadian TV.

But rival Rogers Communications, which supports cable package unbundling to stop consumers from cutting the cord, released polling results this week that indicates most Canadians want pick-and-pay cable pricing.

The Harris/Decima poll, commissioned by Rogers, reported 86 percent of 1,019 Canadians surveyed want more flexibility and choice in TV channels they pay for.

To feed that consumer demand, Rogers, Canada's largest mobile phone and cable provider, on Tuesday unveiled a $5.2 billion, 12-year deal with the National Hockey League to become the exclusive broadcaster of pro hockey on all platforms, starting with the 2014-15 season.

Rogers is betting that offering the NHL to hockey-mad Canadians will give it an edge over rivals should Ottawa carry through on plans for cable unbundling.

"One of the things that we're all looking forward to is offering Canadians more choice, more flexibility," Rogers Communications CEO Nadir Mohamed said on Tuesday as he unveiled the landmark TV deal with the NHL in Toronto.

"And that leads to the whole industry question of, we'll call it a la carte, moving towards pick-and-pay. It's a world we're very supportive of, but frankly, a world that will evolve over time," he added.