Bell TV says Rogers breaking CRTC rules with exclusive features in sports app

TORONTO – Two of Canada’s largest sports broadcasters are scrambling to score points with hockey fans through a regulatory battle over whether certain NHL game content can be offered exclusively to Rogers customers.

Bell TV says that the GamePlus mobile app should be made available for free to all NHL GameCentre Live subscribers, not just those who are customers of Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B).

“Consumers who are not Rogers customers will be harmed as a result of being blocked from accessing this content,” Bell TV argues in a filing to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

BCE’s Bell (TSX:BCE), owner of the TSN and RDS sports channels and other businesses that compete with Rogers, says that CRTC rules prohibit its Toronto-based rival from giving its own customers preferential access to the GamePlus mobile app.

Rogers has until Nov. 20 to respond formally to the complaint but it said in an emailed statement that the company believes the app is covered by an exemption for digital media broadcasting.

“It’s a shame that Bell is trying to stop innovation in hockey,” the Rogers statement says.

“We have made significant investments in innovations to bring Canadians an enhanced experience and judging by the thousands of fans that are logging in every game night it is working.”

Rogers says conventional television broadcasts the exact same program to a mass audience and every person sees the same content, presented the same way, but that’s not the case with this digital product.

“With GamePlus, each fan has a unique experience since they can choose the camera angles and the replays they want to watch. These user enabled camera angles were designed primarily for the Internet — we wouldn’t have developed them solely for broadcast use.”

Bell counters in its filing, dated Oct. 14 but released this week by the CRTC after removing some portions that contain competitive information, that the digital content is “inextricably linked” to the TV programming and that Rogers only has it because of the people and equipment used for television broadcasts.

It alleges that Rogers is trying to use a “loophole” in the exemption to undermine the regulator’s intent.

“This loophole, if endorsed by the commission, will of course be aggressively exploited by all stakeholders,” Bell says in its eight-page complaint.

Bell adds that the onus is on Rogers to demonstrate that “subscribers to other mobile and Internet providers are not being subjected to an undue disadvantage when access to the GamePlus content is blocked for them even if they pay $199 to access GameCentre.”

Bell says that the GamePlus application will be, in practical terms, exclusively available to Rogers mobile and home Internet customers although it acknowledges the possibility that people with a rival wireless or Internet provider could get the app if they have a Rogers cable or home phone service.

“It does break CRTC rules because these kinds of features are already available on broadcast TV, but hockey fans just aren’t happy about being denied access after paying full price,” Bell spokesman Mark Langton said in an email Wednesday.

“In Canada, hockey isn’t something one company can really restrict as it pleases, it’s not something TSN or (its French version) RDS do with their hockey broadcasts and mobile products. Hockey lovers who’ve paid full price for a hockey service should be able to access all of its features, simple as that.”

Once Rogers responds formally to the complaint, Bell will have a chance to make another written submission before the CRTC makes a decision.