Canada's Bell Media Fingers Big Cable for Undue Leverage in Carriage Negotiations

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The unresolved clash between the top-rated Canadian broadcaster and independent carriers is now the subject of mediation by the CRTC.

OTTAWA - Top Canadian broadcaster Kevin Crull on Friday raised the stakes in his long-running carriage dispute with cable distributors by suggesting domestic carriers enjoy too much negotiating leverage over content producers.

“If we don’t fix this imbalance, the Canadian media and content industry may not look as good in three or five years,” Crull, president of Bell Media, which runs the CTV conventional network and 29 cable channels nationwide, warned.

A group of independent broadcast distributors and Bell Media have agreed to try resolving their stalled carriage negotiations via mediation by the CRTC, Canada's TV regulator.

The two sides are at odds over what the carriers, calling themselves the Canadian Independent Distributors Group (CIDG), must pay Bell Media to continue carrying its cable channels, which includes The Sports Network, MuchMusic, Discovery, Space and BNN.

The Bell Media channels are coveted by domestic cable and satellite TV operators for prized properties like live National Hockey League and National Football League game telecasts, and popular U.S. shows like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Crull said he completed earlier carriage deals with major carriers like Shaw Communications and Rogers Communications, and found they used their size and muscle to drive down wholesale rates paid to Bell Media for its channels.

“I got beat up hard,” he said of the earlier carriage negotiations.

Now Crull’s unhappy the CIDG group has landed the broadcaster in front of the CRTC to resolve their lengthy commercial dispute.

Crull argued a Canadian TV industry that depends on fair distribution deals between content producers and carriers stands to be harmed if cable and satellite TV operators use their size for bargaining advantage.

“I want to work with the distributors to have a positive relationship, and I want to bring them the TV content that their customers are seeking,” he said.

Besides differing over wholesale rates paid for the Bell Media properties, the CIDG group wants flexibility in how it distributes and packages Crull's cable channels, and an end to proposed penalties such as re-contracting fees and step-up fees.

The irony is Bell Media as a broadcast group is part of a major vertically integrated media group run by phone giant BCE, of which Crull was a part as a top telecom executive before he became a broadcaster.

Despite the heft BCE and its deep pockets brings Bell Media, Crull is unhappy with the vertical integration tag.

“I’m a broadcaster, and I have loved being involved with Bell Media, and I happen to be owned by Bell Canada. But I will fight passionately for things that ensure the continued success of the Canadian broadcast industry,” he argued.

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