Quebecor drops Sun TV's special request

Quebecor Inc. says it is no longer seeking a controversial special licence that would give the new right-leaning Sun TV 24-hour news channel a three-year boost in seeking out viewers.

Péladeau no longer chasing must-carry exemption for news channel

Quebecor chief executive Pierre Karl Péladeau arrives to deliver a speech at the Canadian Club of Canada in Ottawa on Tuesday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))
Quebecor Inc. says it is no longer seeking a controversial special licence that would give the new right-leaning Sun TV 24-hour news channel a three-year boost in seeking out viewers.

Chief executive Pierre Karl Péladeau told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday that he would likely drop his request for a must-carry exemption on his Category II licence application.

Under such a exemption, carriers would have to make the channel available, likely either as a paid add-on service or as part of a specialty package in addition to basic cable.

"I would say there's a possibility that we drop our condition and go simply to Cat. II," Péladeau said.

An official with Quebecor later said the decision had been already been made. A letter will be sent to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission within a few days withdrawing the request, which would have been the subject of a public hearing Nov. 19, the official said.

The change of tack likely removes all impediments for Quebecor to receive a licence to broadcast, and almost certainly means the public hearing will not be held.

The request was expected to be hotly contested, with rivals and many civic groups lining up to oppose the application. Last week, the advocacy group dropped off 10 boxes to the CRTC containing more than 21,000 letters from Canadians opposed to the special licence.

Avaaz called Quebecor's decision to drop the request the direct result of public outcry against special treatment for politically connected individuals and corporations.

"The sudden withdrawal of Sun TV's application for special treatment is a victory for people-powered democracy across Canada," the group said in a statement late Tuesday.

Péladeau describes system as 'unfair'

This is the second time that Quebecor has lowered its sights on what licence it could obtain. Initially, it had wanted a mandatory carriage licence that meant Canadians would have had no choice but to receive the station on their basic cable package, as is currently the case with CBC News Network.

This summer, the company said failing to get the same treatment as CBC News Network would doom the upstart.

"This would be fatal to our business case … and would likely result in the cancellation of the Sun TV News project," Quebecor wrote the CRTC.

The CRTC had earlier told Quebecor no such licences would be considered until after Sept. 1, 2011, and that in any case, starting then all cable news and sports shows must negotiate with carriers for inclusion in the lineup of shows offered.

That means News Network and CTV News Channel will find themselves in the same place as Sun TV, competing for attention from the public and carriers.

Still, Péladeau complained that his company was being treated unfairly, since CBC and CTV had been given help in building up their subscriber base.

Asked why he was withdrawing his request if he considered the system "unfair," Péladeau responded: "It's not as simple as that. I think we need to be open-minded and this is the attitude we will (adopt) throughout the whole process."

Sun TV, dubbed "Fox News North" by critics, has courted controversy since Quebecor hired Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former communications director, Kory Teneycke, to run the news operations.

Teneycke resigned abruptly in mid-September at about the same time Avaaz called in the RCMP to investigate interference with its online petition drive against the station.