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Let me in, let me in: The case of foreign programming
Laurel Hyatt

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OTTAWA - Foreign TV channels are knocking at the door, begging to be put on the guest list (of eligible services) to come into Canada. Canadian distributors are throwing out the welcome mat, while broadcasters are guarding the doors.

It became apparent during last week's annual Canadian Association of Broadcasters conference in Ottawa that the issue of maximizing consumer choice yet ensuring a strong Canadian presence on the screen is far from resolved.

One panel pitted the Canadian Cable Telecommunications Association President Michael Hennessy against a bevy of broadcasters, and sparks flew.

Opening up the Canadian system to more foreign channels, especially news, and dismantling the regime that won't allow too many competing genres is the best way to curb black-market satellites, Hennessy argued. You can't say no to consumers for too long or they will get their foreign shows elsewhere, he said.

If we bring in more services, they should be in partnership with Canadian broadcasters, a model that "works incredibly well," said Phyllis Yaffe, Chief Operating Officer of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., which teamed up with BBC to bring channels such as BBC Kids to Canada. She argued that consumers here have more choices of channels per capita than anywhere in the world, and that living in a free society means having laws that protect the Canadian broadcasting system.

The BBC's Olga Edridge said while the Alliance Atlantis partnership amounts to the first time that the corporation couldn't own 100% of a channel branded as BBC, it's worked "wonderfully well" and is the best way to be sensitive to local systems. You can't just take a foreign signal and plonk it down in another country, which amounts to "the arrogance of imperialism," said Edridge, Director of Joint Ventures and New Channel Development, BBC Worldwide Inc.

Besides, quantity doesn't always mean quality, Edridge argued. "If freedom of choice is listening to Fox News, good luck to you."

Canadians frustrated that they can't watch certain U.S. shows should keep in mind it works both ways, said Telelatino President Aldo Di Felice: Americans can't see the shows that Telelatino produces here in Canada either.

Much of the best programming from U.S. specialty networks is already carried by Canadian channels at a third of the price of what American consumers pay, said John Riley, President of Astral Television Networks. Opening the gates to "unfettered competition" would only amount to a "bloodsport" and "tug of war" that wouldn't service the Canadian broadcasting system, Riley said.

Hennessy's contention that consumers are driven to illegal satellites to get foreign services was echoed in a panel the next day featuring MPs from all four parties. Conservative heritage critic (and former CRTC Commissioner and former TV executive) Bev Oda said that in a global environment, Canada's broadcast system has to be more flexible to compete. "We have to enable maximum choices´┐Żand that includes more Canadian and foreign choices." She doesn't want to see all foreign services allowed, but doesn't think they should have to find a Canadian partner in order to come in.

Corus Entertainment Inc. President and CEO John Cassaday shot back. "We should have a Canada first system," he said, parroting the convention's theme "Putting Canada first." Corus, which owns part of Telelatino, opposed the application of Italian broadcaster RAI to come directly into Canada, after it ended its 19-year deal to provide programming to Telelatino. Cassaday said RAI should have used the category 2 digital specialty licence it was awarded by the CRTC, which later turned down RAI's application to come in directly.

Allowing U.S. and other services in on their own is unfair competition, said Leonard Asper, President and CEO, CanWest Global Communications Corp. They could come in with "no strings attached, no hands behind their backs, no ball and chain," Asper said, pointing to regulations requiring Canadian channels to spend a certain percentage of revenues on Cancon and forbidding competition with similar genres (CanWest can't create a news channel of its own, for example), among other things.

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