MPs grilled Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, on measures he could be taking to help broadcasters struggling to survive the recession.
With local TV stations closing or threatened with closure, MPs of all stripes are feeling pressure from constituents _ and seeing outlets for their own publicity disappearing. The hearings came the same day CBC announced it was slashing 800 jobs.
Von Finckenstein said the CRTC is prepared to temporarily lower the Canadian content and local programming requirements on private broadcasters in dire straits. The commission has also introduced a new $60-million fund to help local stations pay for more shows.
Regulators have also cleared the way for broadcasters to charge cable and satellite companies for time-shifting, the practice of transmitting one local TV signal to areas outside the normal viewing area.
But the chairman said these are all short-term fixes. Politicians and the industry need to help with a larger policy plan.
Later on, von Finkenstein discussed carriage fees:
Both Liberal and Conservative MPs continually pressed von Finckenstein on one of the major grievances of private broadcasters, their desire to charge cable and satellite companies for the privilege of transmitting their programs, referred to as ``fee for carriage.''
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Wednesday he also feels the time has come for such a fee to be introduced.
In the past, the idea has been politically unpalatable because the costs of those fees would be passed onto the consumer.
Things have changed now, with politicians fearing the demise of their local stations.
``As much as you say fee for carriage is not the solution, the status quo is not the solution either,'' said Conservative MP Patrick Brown, whose riding risks losing a local A-Channel station.
``The status quo means no local programming in my community.''
Liberal Scott Simms asked the chairman: ``If I bring up the issue of fee for carriage, is this a fait accompli for you? Is this over for you?'' .
Von Finckenstein deflected the criticism on fee for carriage, telling MPs that the broadcasters had never been able to promise that the additional revenues would result in stable local programming.
Fee for carriage would represent an estimated $300 million in revenues annually for stations, of which there are 125 in Canada. Which ones would theoretically get the cash is a matter for debate.
``Fee for carriage is not the answer,'' von Finckenstein said, while acknowledging it is still on the table for discussion.
The grilling continues today, if it can really be called a 'grilling'...more like a light browning taken with a few grains of salt.