They may make strange bedfellows, but executives from rival private broadcasters CTV and Canwest Global Communications Corp. nonetheless combined forces on Thursday for the CRTC's ongoing hearings looking at the Canadian television industry.

Describing Thursday's presentation in Gatineau, Que. as an "unprecedented joint submission," CTVglobemedia president and CEO Ivan Fecan acknowledged that the two fierce competitors had set their differences aside for the day because the result of the hearings "will have a profound impact on our collective ability to continue to fulfil the requirements" of Canadian content and local news programming."

The joint CTV and Canwest panel spent much of its presentation criticizing and refuting statements made and proposals offered by Canada's cable and satellite broadcast distributors at earlier sessions.

Canwest president and CEO Leonard Asper painted a picture of one camp, made up of "affiliated broadcasters, CBC, the guilds, unions and creators," who want to see "an evolution of and not a revolution of the existing system."

He placed distributors such as Rogers and Bell ExpressVu in an opposing camp that is interested only in "dismantling" the Canadian television system for their own interests.

Asper accused distributors of calling for market deregulation that would mean "unbridled competition for broadcasters." However, they still want the federal regulator to protect them from competition from foreign distributors, like Direct TV, he charged.

Broadcasters argue carriage fees a necessity

Fee-for-carriage have been one of the most contentious issues of the hearings and the two broadcasters reiterated their view that the fee is necessary just to maintain the current levels of local programming and Canadian content they offer.

"What we're saying is the foundation is cracking. We have to stabilize that first, before we put another floor on," Fecan said.

Distributors have denounced carriage fees, saying that if introduced, they would be forced to pass that cost onto consumers, who would not be interested in paying more but not receive anything new.

Rogers, for instance, said that when it chooses to raise prices, it does so because it is offering new programming or services.

"I would never underestimate the ability of [distributors] to find a way to tell the consumer they're getting something when they're not," Asper retorted, as he and other panelists pointed out examples of unexplained price increases by the cable and satellite companies.

The CTV-Canwest panel also suggested that the distributors have a healthy enough profit that they could shoulder the additional cost of the carriage fees themselves.

However, in asking for carriage fees, "we realize that we're saying 'There is no new channel that is being added in particular.' We're talking about maintaining, sustaining what [audiences] already have and said they would [pay for]," Asper continued.

CTV and Canwest said that, if approved, carriage fees would be earmarked to bolster local news and information programming across the country.

"I'm not saying there's no value in drama and other kinds of priority programming," Fecan said, admitting he doesn't want a situation "where you say one of the children is better than the others."

"But you have to take it back to audience…and the audience tells us [local programming is] what they value most."

U.S. content levels disputed
 
The two broadcasters also refuted the distribution community's assertion that they have spent too much money on buying U.S. content. Offering top U.S. shows brings in money that can be spent on funding domestic programs, they said.

"The top 10, top 20 programs are more and more important parts of a broadcaster's profits," Asper said.

"Canadian drama has unfortunately not been able to become profitable…There's a programming budget and we're trying to do the best we can."

Fecan continued the line of thought, saying "you want us to make money on the American [shows] because that's how we pay for the Canadian ones."

Contentious cable co. Shaw still to appear

The hearings continue through next week, with presentations scheduled from the various production community unions and cable company Shaw Communications, which has publicly criticized both the broadcasters' fee-for-carriage proposals and the CRTC review itself.

After issuing a statement last week charging that the CRTC "clearly doesn't get it," chief executive Jim Shaw followed on Thursday by sending a blistering five-page letter to the prime minister to complain about how the hearings are proceeding.

Copies of the letter were also sent to CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein and the ministries of Industry and Heritage.

With files from the Canadian Press