Asper, Fecan tag-team CRTC

Rival network bosses insisted yesterday, in a rare joint presentation, that they're getting unfairly squeezed by the system.

Yesterday, Leonard Asper compared a conventional broadcaster trying to survive under the Broadcasting Act in the 21st century to a frog that’s slowly dying in a pot of hot water. ‘We’d like you to turn the boiler off,’ the Canwest president and CEO told the CRTC, as the three-week-long BDU hearings continued.

In a rare joint presentation by two broadcast giants, Asper and competitor Ivan Fecan, CTVgm CEO, warned the commission that cable and satellite companies will destroy the country’s broadcasting system if the federal regulator fails to step in and do something, fast.

Both CEOs want the CRTC to introduce fee-for-carriage so broadcasters will be able to charge cable and satellite providers for local ‘over-the-air’ programming that’s traditionally been free. Fecan and Asper want companies such as Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications and Bell ExpressVu to pay about 50 cents per channel per monthly subscriber. Cable companies have said they will pass this expense on to consumers.

‘We need the CRTC to help us fix the cracks in the system. It will help us support local content,’ Asper argued. ‘The foundation is cracking,’ added Fecan. ‘Something will have to give unless we can shape the right business model.’

CTV and Canwest maintain that fee-for-carriage will give them a second revenue stream – in addition to advertising – that will help pay for Canadian content. Both CEOs maintain that they need the extra cash because revenues are down due to audience fragmentation, higher programming costs and the expense of transitioning from analog to digital.

Both Fecan and Asper warned that if the current rules don’t change, it will be hard for their companies to continue to put money into conventional broadcasting. ‘If one sector of the business isn’t working, we have to look at whether it’s a good place to keep investing,’ said Asper.

But CRTC vice-chair Michel Arpin accused both companies of apocalyptic thinking, saying, ‘Your statements are quite alarmist. You talk about cracks in the foundation. I have the impression that you’re talking about the end of the era of conventional broadcasting.’

Asper replied that restrictions outlined in the Broadcasting Act – which treats broadcasting as a public service – limit his company’s ability to adapt in a rapidly changing media environment.

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein suggested that if the commission does decide to allow fee-for-carriage, it might insist that the channels spend more on Canadian programs and local news.

Countered Asper: ‘We have been wronged for a long time and we’d like to have that wrong righted, and we shouldn’t have to do something extra to right that wrong.’

The broadcasters also asked the commission to end carriage of distant signals and time-shifting, which they said robs them of about $93 million in advertising revenue. The hearings continue today, with appearances by ACTRA, the DGC and WGC, among others.

From Playback Daily