Asper, Fecan tag-team CRTC

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 on April 17 at the BDU hearings in Gatineau.

Asper was, in a rare move, seated next to competitor and CTVglobemedia president and CEO Ivan Fecan, warning the CRTC in a joint presentation by the broadcast giants 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 for conventional networks, so that the broadcasters will be able to charge cable and satellite providers for local ‘over-the-air’ programming that traditionally has been free.

Fecan and Asper want to charge companies including Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications and Bell ExpressVu around 50 cents per channel per monthly subscriber. Cable and satellite 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 told the commission.

‘The foundation is cracking,’ added Fecan. ‘Something will have to give unless we can shape the right business model going forward.’

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 involved in making the transition from analog to digital.

Both Fecan and Asper warned that if the current rules don’t change, it would 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. ‘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,’ he said.

Asper replied that the 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 if the commission allowed fee-for-carriage it might insist that the channels spend more on Canadian programs and local news.

‘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,’ said Asper.

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.

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