Canuck cable channels turning a profit

Subscriber-rich Canadian pay TV networks up 16.6%

TORONTO -- As Canadian over-the-air TV stations follow the U.S. towards a digital transition, they're struggling for long-term sustainability.

Canadian cable channels now draw more revenue from nationwide TV viewers than struggling private over-the-air TV stations.

And they're profitable, despite the economic downtown.

Statistics Canada, the federal government's statistics agency, on Monday reported overall Canadian TV revenue totaled CAN$6.5 billion ($6.27 billion) in 2009, up 0.6% from 2008.

That represented the lowest year-over-year increase since 1997, when a revenue fall was reported.

But a break-out of Canadian TV revenue reveals a dismal private conventional TV sector, where revenue last year fell 7.7% to CAN$1.98 billion ($1.9 billion), the largest annual drop in more than 30 years.

"It was a particularly difficult year for private conventional television," Statscan reported with bureaucratic understatement.

Canadian conventional TV networks, once a license to print money, face a steady collapse in ad revenue as their programming costs rise, just as competition for viewers with the Internet and niche channels is growing.

Overall revenue for local cable TV channels, by contrast, rose 3.3% to just over CAN$2.4 billion ($2.31 billion).

Canadian public and non-commercial broadcasters, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and its heavy government subsidy, saw revenue increase 1.9% from 2008 to 2009.

Statscan reported especially strong revenue growth for subscriber-rich Canadian pay TV networks, up 16.6% to CAN$695 million.

At the same time, the latest industry snapshot from Statscan warned revenue growth for pay and cable TV channels was trending downwards.

The year-over-year increase for those sectors, Statscan reported, was CAN$230 million in 2007, CAN$200 million in 2008 and CAN$175 million in 2009.

Local cable channels, with their twin revenue streams of subscriber fees and air-time sales, have overtaken conventional TV stations in size and value just as the overall Canadian TV business undergoes a radical shakeup.

Western Canadian cable giant Shaw Communications is close to purchasing the local TV assets of Canwest Global Communications Corp., including 13 profitable cable channels, for CAN$2 billion, and rival eastern Canadian cable operator Rogers Communications is increasing its foothold in conventional and cable TV through its Rogers Media division.

Those moves will make local cable and satellite TV operators increasingly industry gatekeepers.

Canadian primetime ratings leader CTV, meanwhile, has seen parent CTVglobemedia aske the CRTC, the country's TV regulator, to reduce Canadian programming obligations for its second A Channel network as it faces steep annual losses.

And while Canada has set a target date of Aug. 21, 2011 to shut off analog TV services and provide digital TV signals, the Canadian feds, the CRTC and private broadcasters are still bargaining over how to pay for the technological transition.
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