I can hardly believe it. On the front page of Babel Backward’s July 23 issue, there is a story saying “CRTC order helps A-Channel.” Not only is this story based on information that appeared in real newspapers two weeks ago but it does not even get it right. It makes the erroneous claim that the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered cable and satellite companies to start paying broadcasters for carrying their programming. What the CRTC ruling really said was that there would be an increase of the Local Program Improvement Fund from one per cent of cable and satellite service gross revenues to one and a half per cent. That will mean that another 30-plus million dollars will now be added to the $68 million already available to support Canadian produced programs such as Flashpoint, The Listener and others, over the next year—paid for by cable and satellite customers.
But that is not going to do anything for A Channel unless the station needs a refurbished backdrop for its news programming such as the high-tech set now used by its competitive sister station CTV News down in the big smoke. What the CRTC really told the small market broadcasters is that they have to sit down with the cable and satellite people and negotiate a deal on how to wrest more money from cable and satellite customers. This money will be given to the broadcasters whose signals they have always distributed without payment.
Since civil discussion between broadcasters and distributors is unlikely, you know that the CRTC will be back to wrestle with the problem again. We certainly hope the commission will be back. For the broadcasters and distributors to sit together to decide how to split the pie, the only thing you know for sure is that the viewers will pay for it. Without the public being represented at the table, the viewers’ basic channel line-up costs are going to take a hit in the range of another $6 every month. That can be more than $70 per year per subscriber to add to the profits of the television networks.
What is galling to the television distributors is that these channels are the ones the CRTC demands that distributors carry as a condition of license. The door was opened to payment when, in the past, specialty channels were added to the cable and satellite line-up. These channels do not go over the air and you are paying for them as part of the charge for the line-up of channels you choose from your supplier.
Confusing the issue is that within two years, the CRTC has mandated that broadcast outlets must follow the American lead and switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting. Broadcasters such as A Channel in Barrie are arguing with the CRTC that it makes little sense to convert to broadcasting digitally when they claim that less than ten per cent of Canadians use antennas to receive their television signals. What nobody wants to tell people is that low cost digital antennas can provide better quality for viewers and going back to antennas can satisfy many current cable and satellite users. If A Channel goes digital from its current tower, I could point a cheap digital antenna out my window at the A Channel tower up off Essa Road and get a far better high definition picture from it than Rogers Cable can deliver to my TV. A digital antenna and hook-up would be a one-time cost of about $70. Compare that to about $50 (and rising) per month charged by the cable and satellite providers for basic service.
But I would not bother with A Channel for anything more than local news. The station produces nothing else. Rogers Cable does more for local viewers by offering Colts’ hockey games and city council meetings.
The accurate part of the front-page story in Babel Backward was when Peggy Hebden, A Channel general manager, is quoted as saying “It’s business as usual until we find out what’s happening.” Reading Babel Backward might not be an assist in that!
But Hebden is further quoted as saying that Patrick Brown, MP has been the station’s champion on Parliament Hill. That might help explain the station’s problems.