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Dissenting cablers forget the point
by: Feb 5, 2007 Print

The moves by Shaw and Videotron to abandon their obligations to the Canadian Television Fund may be motivated by some legitimate beefs with the system, but ultimately show that the dissenting cablers have forgotten what the CTF is all about.

Shortly before this writing, Minister of Heritage Bev Oda met with the CTF's major BDU contributors in an emergency powwow aimed at averting a crisis the two companies have caused by threatening to withdraw their support from the fund.

I say "threatened," because Shaw and Quebecor-owned Videotron haven't yet dropped out altogether, and it could all amount to a mere bargaining ploy. They are refusing to make their monthly payments, arguing that they are not obliged to pay by the month. The CTF contests this, although the CRTC has acknowledged that the BDUs are not required to do so. But if Shaw and Videotron refuse to make their annual payments of 5% of gross broadcasting revenues by Sept. 15 - 15 days after their fiscal year-end - then the CRTC can take them to court.

The timing, first of all, is curious. It would have made more sense for Shaw and Videotron to make their dissatisfaction heard back in November 2005, after Auditor General Sheila Fraser issued a report that was critical of the fund, one of its primary complaints being conflict of interest issues - i.e. companies with decision-makers on the board stood to benefit by the very funds the CTF distributed.

The CTF, as has been the case for more than a decade now, was quick to adapt, adding a double-majority system to its voting system and ensuring the presence of board members who are not members of stakeholder organizations. It is also worth noting that the former CCTA nominated Alex Park, VP programming at Shaw Cablesystems, to the CTF board, while the CAB nominated Pierre Lampron, Quebecor's VP of institutional relations. Park resigned from the board following his company's withdrawal.

Both Shaw and Quebecor have pointed their guns squarely at CBC here, protesting the fact that independent productions airing on the pubcaster are guaranteed 37% of the fund's $240 million or so in annual spending. This is a familiar refrain from private-sector broadcasters, keeping in mind that the Shaw family owns a majority of voting shares in Corus Entertainment, and Quebecor owns not only Videotron but also TVA. When Shaw CEO Jim Shaw said he would stop contributing to the CTF back on Dec. 20, he no doubt saw the Ceeb, coming off months of underperforming programs, as ripe for the picking. Of course, three weeks later, the CBC scored a stunning success with Little Mosque on the Prairie, and can once again make a case for its relevance.

There is nothing to say Minister Oda can't reopen discussion as to whether or not CBC productions should automatically get 37%. (Once upon a time, they got 50%.) The point is - especially as the CBC is moving away from a traditional public broadcaster role in favor of providing more populist fare - that it doesn't matter so much on which channel Canadian programs air, as long as they do. Nonetheless, even if the CBC wasn't guaranteed anything from the CTF, it would still end up with the largest chunk, because, among networks in English Canada, who else is going to air as much first-window Canadian fare?

Self-interest is the key motive behind the dissenting cablers' stance. Jim Shaw has questioned why he should dole out for shows that nobody watches. In an interview with Playback, he also asked why he should support Showcase's Trailer Park Boys, "with all those guys running around half-naked, swearing and smoking weed." At this point, Shaw is taking leave of his business senses. His personal feelings aside, TPB is exactly one of those homegrown successes to which the entire Canadian production industry aspires.

Shaw has every reason to gripe about the ratings for other shows supported by the CTF. But the fund has already moved toward rewarding broadcasters that score strong viewerships for its Cancon, and CTF chair Doug Barrett has indicated the fund would be willing to go further in that direction if mandated to do so by its boss, the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Meanwhile, Quebecor EVP Luc Lavoie, in addition to joining the anti-CBC refrain, has voiced his displeasure that the CTF does not recognize video-on-demand stations as first-window broadcasters qualifying for CTF money. Of course, VOD is a big part of Quebecor's business. The company's point is certainly worthy of serious consideration, but it's still early days for alternate broadcast platforms. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that the CTF has been designed as an independent body that aims to distribute funds in a manner that is as equitable as possible to all stakeholders. It is not an investment division for the participating companies, and refusing to pay into it out of self-interest is unacceptable.

In English Canada, the main reason Canadian shows are hard-pressed to find audiences is competition from the south - irrepressibly hyped U.S. product on American and Canadian stations that drive subscriptions to Shaw Cablesystems' $1-billion-plus per year business. Supporting Canadian production is part of the deal for this licence to make money. Just as cable companies enjoy forms of regulatory protection, Canadian production is also so entitled.

So, while Shaw and Quebecor have received plenty of attention with their actions, we'll expect to see their CTF cheques by sometime this summer.    



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