Hearings to explore Canadian programming regulations

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TORONTO ? Canada's TV regulator on Monday will launch key public hearings on free, over-the-air TV here that could see minimum indigenous program spending requirements re-imposed on conventional broadcasters.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will also consider forcing domestic cable and satellite TV companies to pay a first-time fee to conventional broadcasters for carrying their local channels.

Four major conventional broadcasters -- the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Tele-Quatre Saisons, CTV Inc. and CanWest MediaWorks Inc. -- will be first up to address the CRTC in Hull, Quebec on Monday as the regulator wrestles over how to recast free, over-the-air TV in Canada in the face of gathering competition from digital multiplatform technologies.

Canadian independent producers, unions and guilds are lining up to urge the CRTC to reinstate minimum indigenous programming spending requirements for conventional broadcasters that were removed in 1999.?

Sarah Kor-Hornell, managing director of FilmOntario, a coalition of Ontario independent producers, studio operators and guilds, argued in a written submission to the CRTC that free, over-the-air broadcasters will remain central to the Canadian broadcast system for at least five years, or until the dust settles on the current digital revolution.

Kor-Hornell urged the CRTC to reimpose expenditure requirements on conventional broadcasters to boost viewership for homegrown programming over foreign fare.

"We need more original hours of Canadian drama, and less repeats, to meet the policy of the Broadcasting Act," she argued.

Arthur Lewis, executive director of Our Public Airwaves, an advocacy group, said in his own written submission to the CRTC: "It is clear that the various incentives and license conditions instituted and imposed by the CRTC over the years have not had the desired effect of increasing the production of this genre of television programming in and for the private sector."

Canadian conventional broadcasters are expected to tell the CRTC that they cannot afford minimum program spending requirements in the face of unprecedented industry change and instability.

"We are not in the middle of an economic cycle from which conventional television will emerge," Jay Switzer, president and CEO of Chum Ltd., the conventional and specialty channel broadcaster, said in a subsmission to the CRTC.

"In contrast, what is occurring is a seismic shift in the way in which conventional television stations operate brought on by a number of factors: increasing programming costs, changes in the advertising market, loss of tuning to out-of-market stations, regulatory constraints and the impact of new technology," he added.

The struggle on both sides to encourage or dissuade the CRTC to reimpose drama spending requirements underlines how central free, over-the-air broadcasters are to the Canadian TV system.

With the exception of live sporting events like the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada," the top 20 shows on Canadian television, comprising mostly U.S. network series, air on the major private conventional networks, including CTV, Global Television and Chum.

Besides arguing against restoring expenditure requirements on themselves, the conventional broadcasters have other goals at the CRTC hearings next week, namely protecting their turf in the face of U.S. media giants using emerging digital technologies, including the Internet, to flood Canada with digital video and audio content.

Other broadcaster concerns include how to finance the transition to HDTV programming as Canadian broadcaster continue to lag behind their American counterparts, introducing product placement to offset the advertising-skipping impact of TiVo and PVRs,? and convincing the CRTC to order cable and satellite TV services to share their subscription revenues with conventional broadcasters by paying out a fee for carriage.
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CanWest MediaWorks has spearheaded the fees-for-carriage fight, arguing a tax already offered to specialty channels should be extended to conventional broadcasters.

Opposing any new charges for carriage of local conventional channels at the CRTC hearings will be major cable and phone giants, including Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.

Ahead of the hearings, they released on Friday the results of an opinion poll indicating Canadians overwhelmingly opposed paying increased cable or satellite bills for television signals they now receive for free over-the-air.

The CRTC has scheduled the hearings on free, over-the-air TV policy to run until December 6, and will hold separate hearings on the future of Canadian cable channels in the new digital universe next year.
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