Bell Wants US Networks Removed from Canadian Screens


by JAMES BRADSHAW,  Media Reporter, Globe and Mail ‘Report on Business’


President of Bell Media Kevin Crull delivers his keynote speech November 18, 2013 at the International Institute of Communications conference in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

 The president of Bell Media fired a broadside at Canada’s broadcast regulator on Friday, saying its policies are hobbling the company’s profitability and suggesting that U.S. networks such as CBS, NBC and FOX should be kicked off the country’s airwaves.

In a speech to a TV industry audience in Ottawa, Kevin Crull (above) argued the business model for traditional broadcasters is “fundamentally broken” and “unsustainable,” pointing a finger at Hollywood’s direct intrusion on Canadian TV dials.

He also took aim at a number of policies created by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), including two recent decisions that Bell is challenging in court. But the central issue, Mr. Crull argues, is that the program rights Canadian broadcasters buy aren’t being protected well enough, and that hurts the ecosystem that produces local content.

“If we believe the Canadian broadcasting industry is important, and if we want private investment, we must have a supportive regulatory and public policy framework – enabling rather than undermining content creators,” Mr. Crull said in a strongly-worded speech that highlighted Bell’s strained relationship with the CRTC. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have that right now.”

Bell Media is a division of BCE Inc., which also owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.

By Mr. Crull’s own account, Bell Media’s over-the-air network, CTV, is having its best year ever in viewership terms, but still lost $40-million last year as the cost of content rises. The company has also been losing subscribers to its specialty channels.

In his eyes, the root of the problem lies in the decades-old practice of allowing American over-the-air networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS – to be broadcast in Canada for free. Decades ago, the popularity of some of these channels helped draw wide enough audiences to build Canada’s cable TV system. But it also created a unique cross-border relationship.

“Canada is the only country in the world that allows American networks to be retransmitted without restriction despite valid and exclusive copyrights held by domestic broadcasters,” Mr. Crull said in his speech.

Since 1971, the CRTC has compensated with “simultaneous substitution,” more often called “simsub.” It allows Canadian broadcasters to swap in their own signals and advertising on American channels airing the same show at the same time – thus giving the Canadian broadcaster a way to maximize revenue from the rights it paid for.

Yet Mr. Crull calls simsub an “inelegant and insufficient solution.” It leaves Canadian broadcasters beholden to American networks’ schedules when deciding what time the most popular shows will air. And it draws complaints over errors that put the programs out of sync, or from viewers who want to see expensively-produced U.S. ads.



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