CRTC makes it mandatory for cable companies to offer all Canadian news channels by Christine Dobby
Dec 19, 2013
Source: National Post
Canada’s broadcast regulator offered a preview of a television system based on individual choices in a decision Thursday that also highlighted its willingness to intervene in the marketplace to promote news programming.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled television providers must make a handful of channels devoted to national news available to their subscribers and even offer them on a standalone or “a la carte” basis.
In that regard, the ruling provides a glimpse of the broadcast model likely to result from the commission’s current review of the future of the television system and the Conservative government’s direction to “unbundle” channels.
Earlier this year, vice-president of Sun News Kory Teneycke lobbied for mandatory inclusion in basic cable packages, arguing that it was vital for the network's survival.
The government has given the CRTC until next April 30 to deliver a report on so-called pick-and-pay television services.
While some television providers, particularly in Quebec, already provide some a la carte offerings, channels are often packaged in bundles and Canadian cable and satellite companies are bracing for change.
In a statement announcing the new framework for news services , CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais emphasized individual choice as well as the democratic importance of news services.
“With the rules we are announcing today, Canadians, as citizens, will have access to the news services that are of interest to them and will therefore have an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of opinions on matters of public concern,” he said.
Along with live sports, news broadcasts are often touted as content that can help stave off the cord-cutting phenomenon television providers worry will turn their business model on its head.
Sun News Network has struggled to gain traction and asked the CRTC for help earlier this year when it sought mandatory placement in basic cable packages.
The CRTC rejected that bid in August but simultaneously launched a review of news channels and Thursday’s decision gives national news specialty channels “must-offer” status.
Sun News, which is a subsidiary of Quebecor Inc., had argued that mandatory carriage was vital for its survival and the CRTC did note the difficulties facing new entrants offering national news specialty services.
Thursday’s decision will not give Sun News the favourable placement on the dial it had lobbied for, but it will make the service more broadly available to Canadian television subscribers.
It means that Canadian cable subscribers who only pay for basic packages will be able to subscribe to the conservative news channel on an a la carte basis without moving up to a more expensive bundle.
Television providers that do not currently carry the channel will also have to add it to their offerings.
The decision requires broadcast distributors – cable, IPTV and satellite companies – to make Sun News as well as CBC News Network, CTV News Channel, Le Canal Nouvelles and Le Reseau de l’information available to subscribers in at least one of their packages as of next March 19.
By May 20, 2014, television providers must include the services in bundled packages as well as on an a la carte basis (if they are not included in the basic package).
The decision will likely benefit all of the national news services but Sun News is in the worst financial shape of the five.
While the others are widely available on cable services as well as profitable, Sun News posted a pre-tax loss of $18.5-milion in 2012, according to CRTC data published in April.
Kory Teneycke, vice-president of Sun News, said the decision will help address what he says is the discriminatory treatment it has faced compared to its competitors – for example CBCNN and CTV News Channel, which both enjoyed mandatory carriage in their early years.
“This is all good news for Sun. We are the outlier in a negative way right now, and these rules will bring us closer to what the average is,” he said in an interview.
“Clearly it’s a good win for the channel but it is not mandatory distribution on basic cable,” Haran Posner, an equity analyst for RBC Capital Markets, said in an email. “Nevertheless, [it is] certainly incrementally positive.”
During the consultation leading to the ruling, Quebecor and BCE Inc. (which owns CTV) both supported the proposed framework while others argued the CRTC should allow market forces to prevail.
“We believe that the current market already offers Canadians a broad range of national and international news programming,” said Jennifer Kett, a spokeswoman for Rogers Communications Inc., noting that the company already offers all five stations to its cable subscribers.
“We’ll continue to advocate for more choice and flexibility for consumers,” she added.
Telus Corp. spokesman Shawn Hall also pointed to his company’s flexible offerings but added, “[We] are concerned any time we’re mandated to offer content as part of a particular package, as we’d rather leave that choice up to individual customers.”
© National Post