Carriage talks for Muslim net sparking row

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TORONTO -- Canadian cablecaster Rogers Communications is facing a growing protest from Muslim Canadians as it attempts to negotiate a domestic carriage deal with Bridges TV, the English-language American Muslim TV channel.

Following negotiations last week between Bridges TV and David Purdy, vp and general manager of Rogers Cable, organizations representing Muslim Canadians on Thursday charged Toronto-based Rogers with discriminating against Muslims by proposing to carry Bridges TV as a premium channel alongside foreign-language cable channels on the digital cable dial.

"By lumping an English-language, North American-produced, mainstream network that is bridging Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians, with foreign-language services, Purdy shows his ignorance of current world reality, a desire to censor Islam and bigotry to hide Canadian Muslims in an ethnic pay ghetto," said Nadir Shirazi, executive director of the group Muslims Against Discrimination.

But Rogers spokeswoman Taanta Gupta countered that negotiations over possibly distributing Bridges TV to digital subscribers have nothing to do with politics.

"This is a commercial arrangement of a commercial channel," she said of negotiations with Bridges.

Mo Hassan, the Buffalo-based CEO of Bridges TV, said Muslim Canadians were already viewing his channel via illegal U.S. satellite dishes and that a ready market existed in Canada for an English-language channel that could broaden perspectives on Muslims and the Middle East.

But Hassan said negotiations with Rogers were hung up over pricing. Hassan is urging Rogers to carry his channel on its basic cable service. He proposed that Bridges TV receive no payment from Rogers until 2008, after which 2 cents per subscriber would be paid to the broadcaster.

That arrangement would be similar to carriage deals Bridges already has with such U.S. carriers as Comcast and Time Warner, Hassan said.

The Bridges TV founder insisted he cannot agree to the network being carried as a premium pay channel as that would breach existing contracts with U.S. cable carriers and enable them to back out of their current agreements.

But Rogers' Gupta insists that Bridges TV was licensed as a digital channel in Canada in April 2005 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. She added that licensing the U.S. channel on basic cable was out of the question.

"We are not going to consider subsidizing the channel. We're not in that business," she said.

Instead, Rogers is offering three options for carriage: licensing Bridge TV as a discretionary premium pay TV channel, typically for about CAN$15 month ($13.25) per-subscriber; treating Bridges TV as a digital cable channel available as part of a package or purchased as a stand-alone for about CAN$2.50 ($2.20) a month; or having Bridges TV pay for carriage and Rogers distribute the channel to viewers for free.

But Shirazi, a Rogers cable subscriber living in a Toronto suburb, insists Rogers would not be subsidizing Bridges TV if it agreed to basic cable carriage in Canada.

"You're talking about an organization that just lost CAN$25 million ($22.1 million) on the Toronto Blue Jays," Shirazi said. "We're not saying give us charity. Rogers will make money on this."

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