In an effort to preserve local TV programming, Canada's broadcast regulator has increased a fund for small TV stations to more than $100 million.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says it is a temporary measure for the 2009-10 broadcast year and will be reviewed in the fall.

The cable and satellite companies have been ordered to contribute 1.5 per cent of their gross broadcasting revenues to the local programming fund, an increase of 0.5 per cent.

Among issues to be discussed:

  • Conducting future licence renewals on the basis of ownership groups rather than categories of television services.
  • Revenue support for conventional broadcasters.
  • Protecting the integrity of Canadian broadcasters' signals.
  • Possible models for the transition to digital television.
  • Canadian programming commitments by English-language television broadcasters.

Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications Inc., responded to the announcement with a statement that the consumer would end up paying the extra cost, which he estimated at $50 to $100 a year per consumer.

However, the move was welcomed by the Writers Guild of Canada, which called it "the right solution to help the broadcasters over this difficult economic period." The WGC also praised the CRTC for not giving way to broadcaster demands to lessen local content requirements.

The total funds available for local programming will grow from $68 million to over $100 million.

Small-market stations are struggling as ad sales decline and some are threatened with closure.

Local programming valued

"Canadians have made it abundantly clear that they value local programming," CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said in a statement Monday.

"We have taken steps to ensure that broadcasters, and particularly those in smaller markets, continue to provide Canadians with programming that reflects their needs and interests."

Television stations in markets with less than one million people will be able to draw on the fund to support news and other types of local programming, the CRTC said.

Earlier this year, the regulator decided to issue only one-year licences that run until next spring to conventional over-the-air stations, rather than the usual seven-year renewals.

In the meantime, the CRTC wants to assess the rapidly changing environment in broadcasting and to entertain proposals from broadcasters on how to save small-market stations.

The CRTC will hold a public hearing starting Sept. 29 in Gatineau, Que., to discuss the development of a new regulatory framework for conventional television in Canada.

"The rapid evolution of the communications industry is forcing everyone to rethink the model for conventional television broadcasters," said von Finckenstein.

"This fall, we will develop a new framework that will give broadcasting ownership groups the flexibility to adapt to this changing environment. However, in exchange for greater flexibility, we expect broadcasters to make meaningful commitments regarding the production, acquisition and broadcast of high-quality Canadian programming."

Private broadcasters have been heavily criticized by the creative community for spending 10 times as much on U.S. programming as they do on Canadian programming.

The CRTC also said Monday that local stations will be required to air a minimum number of hours of programming that is produced locally and "speaks to, and about, the community."

It also has harmonized its local programming rules in English and French-language markets.

With files from The Canadian Press