Foreign webs crack Canada

Subs to receive third-language services, homegrown counterpart

TORONTO — Canada’s new, softer policy on foreign TV services raises more questions than it answers say some industry observers, and its interpretation could make a huge difference to ethnic, French- and English-language viewers here.

In mid-December, broadcast regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission agreed to allow most third-language (neither French- nor English-language) general interest foreign services into the country automatically, providing subscribers also receive the homegrown counterpart if it exists, and programming rights are shared.

The change came about after last summer’s controversial decision barring Italy’s RAI from entry because that put it in competition with the Canadian Italian-language service, Telelatino Network, which used to carry a lot of RAI programming.

Previously, no foreign service that competed with an existing Canuck service was allowed into the country.

This allowed homegrown channels such as Chum Television’s MuchMusic, CBC Newsworld and CTV’s sports specialty channel TSN to flourish, because they did not have to compete with titans MTV, CNN and ESPN.

But many ethnic Canadians felt under-served by the indigenous general-interest third-language services, and are thought to be seeking these channels on black market satellite TV.

This illegal market costs the Canadian cable and satellite industry an estimated C$400 million ($328 million) in revenues per year.

The new policy has been presented as a compromise that all parties are publicly embracing.

“It increases consumer choice,” says Shan Chandrasekar, prexy and CEO of Asian Television Network which, along with other homegrowns Fairchild Television (Cantonese and Mandarin), Telelatino Network (Italian and Spanish), Odyssey (Greek) and Talent Vision (Mandarin) cost Canadians between $5.70 and $16.37 per month. “It’s like having an intersection with gas stations on all four corners — it attracts more traffic.”

Numerous foreign services are readying their applications, said Michael Hennessy, prexy of the Canadian Cable Television Assn. They include RAI, TV Espanola, RTPi from Portugal, and a number from Asia and South America.

There are expected to be growing pains as the policy comes into effect.

“The big issue now,” says Hennessy, “will be how the Commission interprets ‘not withholding exclusive rights.’ ”

The CRTC may have to thrash out whether a particular pricing point or first- versus second-window rights, for example, might constitute undue preference.

Hennessy believes that allowing in general-interest third-language foreign services is the thin edge of the wedge.

“If general interest is OK, why can’t you have special interest?” he notes. “Why should any Canadian have a monopoly on South Asian news or sports or music, for instance? It doesn’t make sense.”

He says the Commission can expect more specialized wannabes to come knocking. “I think it’s just the beginning of a new process.”