HDTV application meets opposition at CRTC hearing

The repeatedly asked question: Why should the proposed net be allowed to eschew local programming when competing networks must provide it?

Entrepreneur John Bitove appeared before the CRTC on Wednesday in support of his pursuit of a licence for an HD national network that would go free over-the-air in major cities, and which would have to be carried in both analog and digital by distributors. The network would not solicit local advertising, but also would not have a regular block of local programming or news, under Bitove’s plan.

‘The stark reality is that today’s conventional television industry has been slow to deliver HDTV programming to Canadians, yet it is the fastest-growing global consumer technology,’ said Bitove.

The would-be network has also pledged more priority programming in peak time than in its original application – six hours per week in the first three years, increasing to eight in the next four. And while it plans to acquire some US programming, it would ‘not be competing for those expensive prime-time shows with other Canadian networks,’ stated exec Ellen Baine.

But Bitove’s application was criticized by the CRTC chair for its lack of local content this week. On the opening day of licence hearings for HDTV Networks, Konrad von Finckenstein repeatedly asked why HDTV Networks should be free of local programming when it would be competing against other networks with local TV requirements.

‘We want to build a wall around local programming so we don’t affect it,’ responded Bitove, adding that HDTV Networks would be more competitive with the specialty TV market. Bitove is also chair and CEO of Canadian Satellite Radio Investments, which owns and operates XM Satellite Radio in Canada.

‘You’ve said basically what bothers me,’ von Finckenstein responded, noting that the CRTC has no category of licence for national networks with no local programming requirements. ‘I’ve been clear that the CRTC should be predictable and clear. If I make a deviation [from precedent], I need rationale and to say whether it is a one-time exception or not.’

HDTV’s application is being vigorously opposed by Canada’s private conventional networks. Calling it the ‘wrong application at the wrong time,’ Canadian Association of Broadcasters president and CEO Glenn O’Farrell told the CRTC that profitability of the OTA sector has ‘never been lower.’ He added that there was no market demand for a new OTA network, and that Bitove’s proposal would not kickstart a transition to HD any faster than the existing broadcasters, but would further fragment the market.

Canwest Media and CTVglobemedia executives denounced the initiative, saying it would lead to too much fragmentation in the market, and add nothing new to the broadcast landscape. Picking up on questioning by von Finckenstein, they also argued that no new licence should be granted to a broadcaster that wouldn’t commit to local programming.

Rick Lewchuk, CTV’s SVP of creative agency and brand strategy, noted that all prime-time programming on CTV is in HD, and that its entire slate of Canadian scripted programs (i.e. Corner Gas, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Instant Star) and movies of the week are in HD.

From Playback Daily