This fall's battle over fee-for-carriage — a fee that cable and satellite companies would pay to broadcasters to carry their signals — has begun.
The major conventional broadcasters, including CBC-TV, have created a new alliance to gain public support for fees to underwrite the cost of local programming.
CTV, Global, CBC and the A channels, all networks that provide over-the-air broadcasting, are forming Local TV Matters, which will back their individual efforts to set up a system that will see cable and satellite firms pay into a local programming fund.
The federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, plans a hearing this fall to work out a framework for such a fee.
It already has created a $100-million fund for local programming, after local stations in Hamilton, Montreal and Victoria changed hands for only a few dollars because the big networks did not want to keep them going. Another local station in Red Deer, Alta., closed at the end of August.
The cable and satellite companies are vigorously opposed to paying any kind of fee towards local programming and say they will have to hike prices to consumers.
Rogers Cable opposes fee-for-carriage "as an unnecessary bailout for over-the-air broadcasters and an unfair tax on cable and satellite television subscribers," Rogers said in its brief to the CRTC, made public Monday.
"Canadians do not want to pay additional charges for services that have always been available over the air for free," Rogers vice-chairman Paul Lind said.
If cable and satellite firms pay for Canadian TV signals, they might get U.S. broadcasters demanding a fee for their signals, further raising fees for consumers, he said.
But Local TV Matters argues on its website that Canadian cable companies already pay in excess of $300 million a year to U.S. cable channels, but nothing to Canadian over-the-air stations.
"Over the past five years, cable bills have gone up more than twice the cost of living and their profits have grown by more than a billion dollars," said Steven Guiton, CBC/Radio-Canada's chief regulatory officer.
"At the same time, we have had to reduce our people, programs and services, especially given the extremely difficult economic conditions over the past two years."
He said Local TV Matters was formed to address a need to inform the Canadian public ahead of the CRTC hearing in November.
The cable companies have already launched a campaign to engage consumers in the debate, with letters in their bills warning that what they pay could increase because of the CRTC initiative.