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Retrans fees for Canuck webs a moot point

Biz has moved on since issue went to court

TORONTO — When the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its Dec. 13 ruling that industry regulator the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission cannot lawfully implement a U.S.-styled “value for signal” regime, the decision ended a lengthy, heated dispute.

Yet the issue had become an almost moot point due to major changes in the Canuck broadcast landscape the past few years.

In the 5-4 ruling, the scheme, in which commercial TV networks would negotiate retransmission fees with cablers and satcasters that carry their programming, was deemed to fall “outside the scope of the CRTC’s licensing and regulatory jurisdiction under the Broadcast Act” by the court.

The issue became a contentious matter in public policy during the past decade and heated up in 2009 when the federal government directed the CRTC to hold public hearings. Broadcasters squared off against distributors, the former arguing they needed fees to offset declining ad revs, the latter warning extra costs would be passed on to consumers.

But the picture started to blur. In late 2010, cable giant Shaw Communications bought Global TV network. Then telecom BCE, also a sat provider, bought Canada’s largest free-to-air network CTV, turning BCE, a former opponent of the fee-for-carriage plan, into its only supporter.

The issue has been tied up in the courts since 2010, when CRTC granted networks the right to negotiate retransmission fees but asked the highest court to ensure it was lawful. The Dec. 13 decision said it was not.

“We believe that value for signal has no place in today’s broadcasting landscape where the major players are enjoying significant profits,” said Rogers vice-chairman Phil Lind in a statement applauding the ruling.

“Value for signal would have addressed the extreme financial pressure that local television in Canada is under,” said a statement from BCE subsidiary Bell Media. “Considering how important local TV is to viewers and their communities — Canadians get 87% of their news from advertiser-supported local stations — we’re calling on the entire industry to work together to ensure the continued viability of local television in Canada.”

How that will happen, however, is the next big question.

“There’s a dangerous level of concentration of media ownership in this country, with the four big distributors Rogers, Shaw, Bell and Quebecor now the gatekeepers for at least 95% of Canadian households — something the average citizen doesn’t think about,” Ian Morrison, the spokesperson for independent, not-for-profit and non-partisan industry watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, told Variety.

“I’m not criticizing the court, because it was interpreting the law, but the impact of the law weakens the regulator’s capacity to balance off that concentration of power,” Morrison said. “There may have been smiles in the boardrooms of those four organizations, but 34 million of us should be frowning.”

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