MONTREAL — The Canadian broadcast industry was in an uproar Thursday after the Cable Television Assn. revealed it had asked the local broadcast regulator to allow 17 U.S. services, including HBO, ESPN and Fox News, into the country.

The Canuck cable companies want the networks to be distributed on digital only to helpbuild auds for digital cable.

At present, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), refuses access to a wide array of U.S. channels, forcing them to sell their programming to local broadcasters.

Within two hours of the announcement, execs from most of the top broadcast companies held a hastily organized press conference to blast the proposal, which they fear will cost them auds.

The broadcasters pointed out that much of the best programming from U.S. channels, including HBO’s “The Sopranos” is already on Canadian webs — and they want it to stay there.

Network execs downplayed the significance of the fact that Canadian viewers see the shows a little later than viewers south of the border.

“What we have to look at here is the big picture,” said Rick Brace, president of CTV Specialty Television. “What we are talking about is not the fact that Tony Soprano may be leaving his wife today, and you don’t see it for a while on CTV. What we’re talking about is tearing down a policy that’s helped to grow the Canadian system. What this is leading to is absolute anarchy in the system, and it will tear down a lot of what’s taken us so long to build.”

Added Glenn O’Farrell, CEO of the Canadian Assn. of Broadcasters: “This will not be good for Canadian consumers. It’s just a cynical cash grab on behalf of the cable association.”

The CTA said it has research that shows that Canadians want more U.S. channels — a survey taken in April showed that 64% of Canadians believe there should be no restrictions on access to non-Canadian channels.

“We believe that adding popular U.S. services to digital will accelerate the digital transition and provide added lift to Canadian digital services that were launched in 2001,” said Janet Yale, CEO of the CTA.

“Our request to add these U.S. services is modeled on the approach that strengthened Canadian conventional broadcasters and successfully launched the Canadian pay and specialty services, namely to use the best U.S. services available to increase the penetration of Canadian services and tiers.”