CRTC ready to rule on fees

Is it strike three? Or third time's the charm? The latest, and presumably final, ruling on the thorny issue is on its way from Gatineau.

The CRTC has reached a decision on fee-for-carriage, the source of bitter debate between Canada’s broadcasters and cable providers, and plans to release its findings next month.

CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel confirms the ‘second half of March is the planned date’ for the ruling.

The decision will end months of public squabbling on what has become the thorniest issue in Canadian broadcasting: whether ‘casters including Canwest Global, CBC and CTVgm should be permitted to charge cablecos for their over-the-air station signals, which they currently carry for free.

The federal watchdog has twice turned down broadcasters on the issue, in its 2007 TV policy and again in 2008, before a round of hearings last year aimed at establishing ‘fair market value’ for over-the-air signals.

Broadcasters vigorously lobbied for the fees, starting anew last spring with the ‘Local TV Matters’ campaign just as they were hit hard by the recession and declining advertising sales. Layoffs and the closure of some local TV stations added fuel to the political fire. Cable and satellite distributors such as Bell TV, Cogeco and Rogers Communications warned that the proposed fees would be passed onto consumers and instead proposed an overhaul for the entire broadcast system.

It is not clear what the CRTC’s new policy will look like, though Ottawa will have the final say. Heritage Minister James Moore stated last year that fee-for-carriage will not be imposed ‘without the consent of the government.’ Recently, the CRTC was overruled on another major decision, that of Wind Mobile, by Industry Canada.

Whatever the ruling, cable giant Shaw Communications looks to be in an awkward position now that it has moved to acquire Canwest Global’s TV assets – putting it, like Rogers Communications in Toronto, on both sides of the fence. Rogers, which also owns the OMNIs and the Citytvs, opposed fee for carriage, as did Shaw.

From Playback Daily