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Canuck digi-crunch

Flop fear hovers over rollout of cable services

TORONTO — Fifty new specialty channels are set to make their debut on Canadian digital cable TV in less than a week, but not everyone’s ready.

While some broadcasters scramble for programming and others hammer out last-minute carriage deals, pundits wonder how many viewers are going to be out there when the kit and caboodle finally rolls out, and for how long.

Beginning Sept. 7, digital cable subscribers in the Great White North, a number put at below 2.5 million, will receive new sports, travel, lifestyle, movie, kids and leisure channels, including Women’s Sport Network, Tech TV, Book TV, the Biography Channel, PrideVision and the Independent Film Channel.

Cable operator Jim Shaw predicted in May that half the new offerings would fail, and a poll released in June indicated that with just 10% of Canadians intending to subscribe to any of the digital channels, he may be right. Even the most bullish agree that everyone better be prepared to hunker down.

“Business models are lean,” says Chum Television prexy Jay Switzer. “Viewership will be low at the beginning. It’s going to be tough.”

With thrift the central tenet of their business plan, broadcasters are stretching the programming and infrastructure of their own pre-existing conventional and specialty channels, teaming up with existing franchises, and buying up and commissioning programming as cheaply as possible.

Carriers have been struggling to find a packaging and promotion balance that will give the channels a fighting chance while still making a buck or two. Some are offering programming credits to new customers and all are giving current customers a free preview period (with the exception, in Shaw’s case, of the gay-lesbian-bi channel PrideVision, for fear of offending the redneck contingent. PrideVision has also been the center of some controversy over bundling, with carriers such as Shaw offering it a la carte.)

In November, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) awarded more than 250 digital specialty licences to encourage the digital rollout in Canada. Sixteen English-language licences are in the first “mandatory carriage” category, while there are more than 260 second category licencees, which must negotiate their own carriage deals.

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