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Ruling means cable bills won't be going up

Top court rejects fee-for-carriage system for TV

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The CRTC does not have the power to make cable providers pay broadcasters for carrying their TV signals, a decision handed down Thursday by the Supreme Court of Canada that one analyst said should be a win for consumers.

While the decision was hailed by one major cable company as a step forward for customers, broadcasters said the very survival of local TV is at stake.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that setting up such a system is not within the scope of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In doing so, the justices overturned an earlier Federal Court of Appeal decision.

The Broadcasting Act can't be interpreted to give the CRTC that power, Justice Marshall Rothstein wrote for the majority.

"First, a contextual reading of the provisions of the Broadcasting Act themselves reveals that they were not meant to authorize the CRTC to create exclusive rights for broadcasters to control the exploitation of their signals or works by retransmission," Rothstein wrote.

"Second, the proposed regime would conflict with specific provisions enacted by Parliament in the Copyright Act."

Telecom analyst Troy Crandall said at this point it's the status quo for consumers, who won't have to bear any costs of a fee-for-carriage system.

"It looks like a win for consumers right now because it's not going to have an immediate impact," said Crandall of MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier in Montreal.

Traditional broadcasters will have to find other ways to raise revenues, supplement advertising and support local programming. If the Supreme Court had agreed to allow traditional broadcasters to charge such fees, a basic cable subscriber would have seen his bill go up, he added.

"Now, it probably won't because the majority of your channels won't be allowed to have fee-for-carriage."

In their dissent, Justices Rosalie Abella and Thomas Cromwell argued seeking a system that would be beneficial to local television stations was well within the mandate of the CRTC.

"As an expert body, the CRTC, not the courts, is in the best position to decide what measures are necessary to save local stations from going bankrupt," they wrote.

The CRTC had decided in 2010 to launch what's known as a value-for-signal system as a response to a changing broadcasting landscape that saw local broadcasters struggling for revenue.

The CRTC declined comment on the high court's decision, except to say it is reviewing it.

Currently, cable and satellite providers pluck TV signals out of the air for free and then redistribute them to their subscribers, who pay for access.

Bell Media said it's disappointed the Supreme Court has found the CRTC doesn't have the jurisdiction to implement such a system. TV viewers across the country would have benefited from long-term stability for their local television stations, which can no longer rely on advertising to cover their costs, said Bell.

"Local news, entertainment and other programming distinguishes Canadian broadcasting from everything else on TV," said Mirko Bibic, Bell's chief legal and regulatory officer.

Bell (TSX:BCE) said the television industry needs to find another way to help local TV survive, noting 87 per cent of Canadians get their local news from TV stations.

"With its reliance on an uncertain advertising market, the financial model for local television is broken," it said.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 A19

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