Crime-fighters in the middle of CRTC squabble

OTTAWA — The digichannel Avis de Recherche will be forced into bankruptcy if Quebecor Media wins its appeal of a recent CRTC decision, according to its owner.

The channel — which provides information on recent crimes, seeking tips from the public — was granted ‘must carry’ status on basic digital cable in Quebec, at a wholesale rate of six cents per subscriber, but Quebecor is asking the government to send the decision back for reconsideration.

Quebecor, which owns the cable company Videotron, says that the July 24 decision goes against the spirit of the Broadcasting Act and ‘will make [the channel] less affordable to consumers in Quebec.’ The company has also suggested it will have to raise cable rates to cover the cost of paying for the French-language channel.

The ruling was a great windfall for the channel, which previously paid Quebecor and other cablecos for carriage. Avis de Recherche president Vincent Geracitano tells Playback Daily he was invoiced $15,638.81 to be on the Videotron system in September, roughly two cents per subscriber. He has been ignoring the bills since the ruling came down.

‘Quebecor notes in its appeal that our channel is currently available for free through its Videotron cable system, but it neglects to state that we are paying to have it distributed,’ says Geracitano.

The CRTC sent the money, and much more of it, in the other direction. The cablecos now owe Avis de Recherche six cents per subscriber. That adds up to about $43,000 per month from Videotron.

The channel has been operating at a loss for several years, says Geracitano, and cannot continue without the subscriber fees. It does not sell advertising and has no other source of revenue. Plans for an English version, to be called All Points Bulletin, may also be scrapped.

Quebecor did not return calls for comment on this story. But its appeal to the federal cabinet chastises the CRTC for deeming the channel of ‘exceptional importance’ to the objectives of the Broadcasting Act.

‘The raison d’etre of the Broadcasting Act is not, at all, to assist law enforcement. Rather it is a cultural instrument that is designed to promote the production and broadcast of Canadian programming,’ it reads. ‘Is it appropriate for Canadian television viewers in the Canadian broadcasting system to be required to fund the operation of a law enforcement tool?’

The same round of decisions also granted special carriage status to The Accessible Channel and to CBC’s Newsworld and RDI. Quebecor also questions the importance of these three, though its appeal focuses on AdR.

Geracitano says AdR answered these complaints at its public hearing in March and insists, ‘Quebecor’s arguments simply don’t hold water.’ The channel filed an ‘undue preference’ complaint in May with the commission, alleging that Videotron grants more favorable carriage deals to its affiliated specialty TV channels.

The organization behind TAC is also putting pressure on politicians to preserve the CRTC decision, noting that ‘powerful media interests’ should not be allowed to derail its yet-to-launch digital service for the hearing and visually impaired.

‘Quebecor’s real issue is with Avis de Recherche, but since all renewals or amendments in the decision are being considered, TAC is affected,’ says Bob Trimbee, president of the National Broadcast Reading Service. NBRS is calling on its supporters to contact their MPs to pressure the government to ensure the CRTC decision stands.

Trimbee says the appeal has ‘slowed down’ TAC’s bid to launch by Jan. 24. ‘We’re still aiming for the first quarter, but we have to wait and see what happens,’ he says.

A government response to the appeal is due Oct. 21.

Canada One, a would-be channel which was turned down in the same round of decisions, also sought an appeal, but got no where because cabinet only has the power to reconsider decisions to issue, amend or renew a broadcast license. It does not deal with rejections.