Editorial: Change the channel

Consumers shouldn’t foot the bill because television companies decided to get into less profitable businesses.

If you believe executives from this country’s two largest private broadcasters, the television industry is in the midst of a crisis. It’s a crisis, they say, that can be solved only by placing fewer regulatory obligations on them and forcing consumers — through their cable and satellite contracts — to pay a carriage fee for over-the-air signals. What a crock.

It’s true that CanWest Global Communications Corp., for example, is hemorrhaging badly, but that’s not because its Canadian television business is doing poorly. In fact, year-over-year Q2 profit, reported April 9, skyrocketed 60%, to $32 million. And that’s not a one-off gain, either. Profit is up 21% for the year so far. Doesn’t sound like the sky is falling.

The carriage fee CanWest proposes would rather merely get Canadian television viewers to subsidize the company’s disastrous forays into other business areas, such as its ill-considered decision to buy Australia’s Network Ten and its 2001 takeover of the perennially struggling National Post. We don’t know if a similar situation applies over at CTVglobemedia Inc. — its financial information is not published — but that one-time TV network has also expanded into non-broadcasting fields.

We can only hope that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will see through this ruse and keep rejecting the carriage-fee idea, as it did in October. Even if you do accept that this country’s television industry is sinking, remember that CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein warned a carriage fee would raise less than $300 million, which wouldn’t be enough to solve the industry’s problems anyway.

Broadcasters already enjoy signal substitution, which puts Canadian commercials on U.S. simulcasts, thereby boosting their viewership numbers — and, hence, ad revenues. Those American shows are the ones people watch. If the CRTC is going to reconsider cable and satellite fee structures, it should simply allow consumers to pay only for the stations they want and stop signal substitutions.

Then again, if you don’t like what CanWest and CTVglobemedia are on about, change the channel, or the medium. There are plenty to choose from.