Canada-U.S. cross-border station shake-up

Threat to continued carriage of so-called U.S. 4+1 signals

TORONTO -- A grand Canadian tradition of cable and satellite TV subscribers receiving U.S. cross-border TV station signals is undergoing a shake-up.

Following a protest by loyal PBS viewers in Ottawa, the nation's capital, local cable operator Rogers Communications agreed not to replace the WPBS-TV broadcast out of Waterdown, New York with the U.S. public broadcaster's Detroit affiliate to improve the reception.

Tom Hanley, president and general manager of WPBS-TV, said his station and Rogers "found a solution to continue to deliver programming to our friends in Ottawa" through a fibre connection.

Ottawa city councilor Rick Chiarelli, who has co-hosted membership drives for WPBS-TV, helped organize a grass-roots campaign to stop the switch of the PBS feed from Waterdown to Detroit, citing the Waterdown affiliate as "the glue that cements the relationship between Ottawa and northern New York."

Rogers' Ottawa subscribers have picked up the WPBS-TV signal from upper-state New York since 1971. Like most cross-border PBS stations, WPBS-TV tailors its programming to draw Canadian subscription revenue.

Canadians living close to the U.S. Border have also long received ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW and other American channels via Canadian cable and satellite TV operators.

Initially, Canadians raised big wire towers from homes to secure access to cross-border signals directly. Then local cable operators jump-started their businesses beginning in the 1960s by providing crisp reception of U.S. network signals to homes via a land-line.

Without cable connections or giant antennas, Canadians were restricted to a few local Canadian channels, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and the CTV network that, in turn, filled their prime time schedules with U.S. network programming to drive ad revenue and ratings.

What's more, a long-standing simultaneous substitution regime in Canada allows domestic broadcasters to replace American commercials on cross-border U.S. network TV stations with Canadian advertising to help subsidize the production of local programming and protect Canada's national identity.

But in a further sign of cross-border TV station tension, Canada's broadcast regulator is considering a move to pull U.S. network signals from cable and satellite TV schedules here if agreement on new carriage fees for local TV signals is not secured.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in a July 6 notice for upcoming fall TV hearings said continued carriage of so-called U.S. 4+1 signals (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and PBS network signals) could be contingent on "the successful negotiation of fair market value for Canadian signals."

Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications, said Canada's largest cable operator will not allow its carriage of Buffalo-border stations to its Ontario subscribers to become embroiled in industry negotiations.

"If they (CRTC) think they're going to use the Buffalo channels as some sort of whipping boy, so they can beat up on us and hold back the Buffalo channels, they're wrong," Lind said.

Domestic broadcasters in early July earned the right from the CRTC to charge cable operators for the first time to carry their local TV station signals.

Rogers and other domestic content carriers oppose the so-called "fees-for-carriage" as a revenue grab by broadcasters hurt by the economic downturn and the digital transition to niche channels and the Internet.