Commercial concerns dominate CRTC ruling

Canada to remove ad restrictions

TORONTO -- Canadian TV viewers have more commercials in their future, the country's communications watchdog said Thursday.

Releasing its latest policy changes for over-the-air TV stations here, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it will progressively remove restrictions on advertising time limits for broadcasters, with the ultimate goal of removing all such restrictions by Sept. 1, 2009.

The CRTC said that moving from the current 12 minute per-hour primetime advertising limit to a completely market-driven model is aimed at giving broadcasters additional revenue to deal with increasing competition from cable channels, new media and other emerging digital platforms.

"The commission considers it essential that broadcasters have the flexibility to maximize advertising revenues to respond to the negative impact of audience fragmentation," the regulator said in a statement.

Easing restrictions on commercial airtime has implications for broadcasts of U.S. shows here.

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

But while the CRTC aided conventional broadcasters by opening the door to more ads, it denied them on another front, shooting down a request that they receive fees from cable and satellite services for carriage of their TV signals.

The regulator said that the "current financial situation of conventional television broadcasters does not justify such a (fee-for-carriage) measure."

Domestic cable and satellite operators opposed the fee-for-carriage proposal, insisting it amounted to little more than a revenue-grab on the part of broadcasters.

The CRTC also set August 31, 2011 as the official date by which Canadian broadcasters will need to complete their shift from analog to digital signals.

Canadian media guilds expressed disappointment that the policy changes for conventional broadcasters did not include re-imposing expenditure requirements for homegrown programming that were removed in 1999.

"Without regulation, Canadian broadcasters will continue to fill their primetime slots with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S.-made programming," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director at ACTRA, Canada's actors union.

Canadian guilds have long argued that the removal of quotas for homegrown dramas has allowed broadcasters to license and air reality series, variety fare and other cheaply-made programming to fulfill their license conditions.

"Broadcasters will only support the Canadian production sector if they have to. We have seen this time and again," said Monique Lafontaine, general counsel at the Directors Guild of Canada.

As consolation, the CRTC said it will examine specific program spending levels by conventional broadcasters on homegrown programming when their current licenses come up for renewal in spring 2008.

The CRTC policy changes follow public hearings in November on recasting free, over-the-air TV in Canada in the face of gathering competition from digital multiplatform technologies.