Canada's cable wars coming to a head

Operators opposed to increased local programming quotas

TORONTO -- As Canada's cable-broadcast wars reach a dramatic climax, the country's broadcast regulator has become the feature attraction.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has denied a bid by cable giant Rogers Communications to stop airing 100 hours of Canadian movies a year in prime time at its City-TV over-the-air TV stations.

The CRTC, which referees a highly-regulated Canadian industry, said it received insufficient evidence from Rogers on why it should eliminate the regulatory obligation to air Canadian films as it granted a short-term renewal of the City-TV broadcast license to August 31, 2010.

Also Wednesday, Canadian cable operators lined up to oppose a decision by the CRTC to increase their required contributions to local programming production for struggling domestic broadcasters.

"In the current economic climate, it is indecent to increase the burden on consumers," Groupe Videotron CEO Robert Depatie, CEO of Quebec cable operator Groupe Videotron, said as cable operators said they will pass the increased local programming costs onto monthly cable subscribers.

As tensions in Canadian TV grow, the CRTC is trying to maintain a level playing field as cable operators fare better during the economic downturn with the certainty of subscriber fees as over-the-air broadcasters grapple with a continuing TV ad slump.

The CRTC this week also ordered cable and satellite companies to pay conventional broadcasters a fee to carry their local TV station signals.

Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications, said the new TV taxes from the CRTC will add from CAN$50 ($43) to CAN$100 ($86) to cable subscription fees.

"We are profoundly concerned about how these new taxes will affect our customers and the Canadian broadcasting system and we intend to fight them on behalf of Canadian consumers," Lind said.

The CRTC will hold public hearings in September to determine how the new cable and satellite TV taxes will be distributed to broadcasters.