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Time to de-regulate small market broadcasters?

QUEBEC CITY - "There's a bright future for small market radio," Jim Pattison Broadcast Group president Rick Arnish said today, "but I can't say the same for small market television."

Arnish was speaking during a small market broadcasting session this morning at the CAB annual convention. "I'm not confident small market TV is going to be in business in five to 10 years as we know it today," he continued, looking down the panel's other members to Marc O'Sullivan, the CRTC's executive director of broadcasting. "We're on the precipice of deep, deep trouble."

For example, Arnish's station in Kamloops puts out 17.5 hours per week of local programming, but due to falling revenue, "we're questioning today if we can continue to do that," he said.

With so much TV choice out there for consumers, added to the fact that the station isn't carried on DTH and that national advertisers are no longer sending spot advertising revenue to the small TV stations, it all adds up to an uncertain future for small market TV stations.

"The business model for TV has dramatically changed, even over the past three years," added Arnish. "The ad revenue is going elsewhere."

Session moderator Stu Morton of the OK Radio Group suggested separate regulatory rules for small broadcasters, a theme which Arnish picked up on quickly.

"We have to take a look at deregulating small market television in this country on a go-forward basis," said Arnish, who further stated that the levels of required Canadian content seem unsustainable. "I don't know if that model works in the future of Canadian TV," he explained.

O'Sullivan, however, threw cold water on that idea, saying while the Commission's mind isn't closed to hearing deregulation ideas which might help small TV stations, the Commission is bound by the Broadcasting Act to maintain "predominant" levels of Canadian content.

"Anything that tries to take Canadian content levels below a 50% level would be tough," said O'Sullivan.

On the small market radio side, one issue that's bigger than the broadcasting industry is affecting operators there: de-population.

Panel member Dave Maclean cited 10 to 15% drops in the population in the areas he serves with stand alone station CJFX-FM in Antigonish, N.S. with corresponding "declining levels of economic activity," he said. "The pool is being drained on us as small market operators."

"Trudeau said the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nations and I tend to agree," said O'Sullivan, as the Commission has no answer for that issue, which is plaguing rural areas throughout the country and affecting small town businesses of all stripe.

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