HD cable shuffle underway at CRTC

Broadcast execs converge on Gatineau as feds prepare to redraw the map of cable TV.

Looking to maintain – or in some cases change – the pecking order of Canadian TV, executives from cable outlets including CBC Newsworld, the Weather Network and would-be channels such as Canada One TV are converging on Gatineau, PQ today for hearings before the CRTC.

The feds are preparing to rewrite the list of channels included with basic cable, in preparation for the switch to digital in 2010 – a move that stands to open the door for a number of new channels, but threatens to shut out others if they are unable to argue for their continued inclusion on cable’s A-list.

New channels looking to break in include Canada One TV, which emphasizes multicultural programming; the Métis Michif Television Network; the Accessible Channel, all in described video; and All Points Bulletin, about public service and law enforcement.

If successful, the new channels will reach some eight million Canadian homes and make millions in subscription fees paid by cable and satellite operators. The Métis channel is looking to charge 15 cents per monthly subscriber, for example, while Canada One is seeking a hefty 50 cents per subscriber.

In the run-up to the hearings, the new channels have taken fire from Rogers Cable, which wants all five to be optional. The Toronto-based cable giant cited a survey conducted this month on its behalf by the Strategic Counsel in which cable and satellite subscribers ‘strongly rejected’ the start-ups’ inclusion in basic cable.

‘Canadians want to have the choice to pick and pay for the channels they watch,’ said Phil Lind, vice chair of parent Rogers Communications, in a release. ‘There’s very limited support for having these five channels added to digital basic service.’

Other channels are fighting to stay where they are, most notably the Weather Network and its French sister MétéoMédia, which has run a vigorous letter-writing campaign among its viewers and other supporters. Their parent company, Pelmorex Communications, says it has received some 7,000 letters, emails and the like from viewers, MPs, Environment Canada and other groups including farm and tourism organizations, all arguing that the channels should stay on basic.

‘Many speak straight from the heart, expressing their concern that we remain accessible and affordable to all Canadians,’ said Pierre Morrissette, president and CEO of the Oakville, Ont.- based broadcaster. ‘They don’t want to buy additional television packages to continue receiving what they consider an essential part of their daily lives.’ The Weather Network collects 23 cents per subscriber.

Reps must argue that their channels contribute to the social or cultural good of Canada, and that getting bumped from basic would cause them to lose money. Other channels looking to stay on basic include CBC Newsworld, YTV and VisionTV.

In a separate matter, the CRTC will also consider a change of ownership at The Documentary Channel, in which CBC would take over control from Corus Entertainment.

This story first appeared in Playback Daily.