Canadian b'casters take carriage fight public

Newspaper ads, Twitter playing part in negotiations

TORONTO -- Rarely has Canadian industry negotiations been fought out with such a public war of words.

Canadian broadcasters, looking to get domestic cable and satellite TV operators to compensate them for local TV station signals, in recent weeks turned to full-page newspaper ads, TV commercials and even Facebook and Twitter to get Canadians to back their "Local TV Matters" campaign.

Halifax musician Dave Carroll even produced a YouTube video for the broadcasters, with lyrics that include "cable bills are flying higher than a kite, soon they'll get 'em high enough to charge us for space flight."

Domestic carriers have been equally aggressive in their opposition to the broadcasters' fee-for-carriage bid, calling the proposal the making of an unfair "TV tax" on consumers and a costly federal bailout of failed broadcasters.

"Canadians should not pay to fix broadcasters' problems. Taxing you to pay for their mismanagement isn't fair," cable operator Shaw Communications said in its own newspaper ad.

While both sides in the dispute are trolling for public support, their real target is the CRTC, Canada's broadcast regulator, which will shortly hold public hearings to decide whether to force carriers to negotiate first-time fee-for-carriage compensation with broadcasters.

On Wednesday, the broadcasters said 130,000 Canadians contacted the CRTC by a Nov. 2 deadline for public comments.

"Canadian consumers were not fooled: They understood the issues, and we can't thank them enough," said Paul Sparkes, executive vp of corporate affairs at CTVglobemedia.

Canadian broadcasters, suffering during the economic downturn from falling revenue and changing viewer habits, are hoping first-time compensation from cable and satellite becomes a new and much-needed revenue stream beyond commercial advertising.

The bare-knuckles Canadian campaign stands in marked contrast to the U.S. market, where CBS' Leslie Moonves had led the fight to secure compensation from cable companies that carry local broadcast signals and quietly negotiated recent carriage deals with Time Warner Cable and Cablevision that includes retransmission consent fees.

In the highly regulated Canadian market, however, where the federal government heavily protects and subsidizes TV production, the broadcasters and cable operators feel compelled to make public pitches to garner favor in Ottawa.

The CRTC will hold its first hearing on the fee-for-carriage issue Nov. 16 to place a value on the broadcasters' signals and a second hearing Dec. 7 before it rules on whether the broadcast compensation should be imposed on Canadian TV viewers.