It has been hard to avoid the extensive media coverage of Quebecor Media’s announcement of its plans to launch a new all-news specialty television channel (selected media coverage: Hill Times; CBC; Globe and Mail). The news channel will have a decidedly populist, right-of-centre perspective, hence the dubbing of the new service as "Fox News North". What is significant from a regulatory perspective is the fact that Quebecor is seeking a rare type of licence from the CRTC, a “Category A” licence, which would grant it the privilege of receiving “mandatory carriage” from major cable and satellite broadcast distributors.
Quebecor argues that mandatory carriage of its channel would counter what it views as a left-of-centre skew by mainstream media. Quebecor will leverage off its current brand of Sun Media properties including its over-the-air television stations serving the Toronto market and its chainof daily Sun newspapers across the country to offer a more conservative take on news.
Whether this channel is of “national importance” is for another debate. The rhetoric about the need for balance in the current panoply of news choices has overshadowed the key regulatory issues. The “Category A” licences mandating carriage on basic cable are rarely granted by the federal broadcast regulator. The Commission had announced a public process earlier this year to consider a new batch of Category A services. However, that process was delayed until the fall of 2011. Quebecor is attempting to convince the Commission that its application for mandatory carriage is so important that this process should be ignored.
A more difficult hurdle for Quebecor is the fact that the regulator has now opened up competition to the formerly exclusive genres of mainstream news and sports. Services such as Newsworld, CTV Newsnet, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet are now subject to open entry and unregulated wholesale rates. The very essence of Quebecor’s proposed service appears to fall under the mainstream news genre suggesting that Quebecor’s options are limited to obtaining a Category B licence while trying to persuade a broadcast distributor to distribute the service. Quebecor has tried to avoid having its proposed news service categorized under the standard paradigm of a competitive mainstream news service. It has described the service as an “information and analysis channel” and, therefore, distinct from the competitive all news format.
However, in a recent staff letter sent to Quebecor, the CRTC rejected Quebecor’s approach, noting that there is little to distinguish SunTV from all other news services. The CRTC has offered Quebecor three options. First, it could pursue a standard Category B licence requiring it to negotiate agreements with broadcast distributors who would not be required to offer the service. Second, it is open to Quebecor to recast its current Sun TV over-the-air television station in the Toronto market as an all news service and hope that cable and satellite distributors across Canada will pick it up as a “distant signal” thereby patching together a patchwork network across the country. Quebecor’s third option is to bide its time until the CRTC considers a batch of Category 1 applications in the fall of 2011.
Standby for more talking heads on this issue.