Westman Communications Group customers won’t be seeing extra charges for broadcast signals on their bill thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.
The court ruled that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) does not have the power to make cable providers pay broadcasters for carrying their signals.
"It’s good news for consumers," said Dave Baxter, president and CEO of Westman Communications Group. "Because if the CRTC did have the power to allow broadcasters to charge for their signals, it would have resulted in much higher costs to cable companies and others in the industry who provide TV service, and therefore cost to consumers would’ve had to have gone up."
In a 5-4 decision Thursday, the court ruled that setting up such a system is not within the scope of the CRTC. In doing so, the justices overturned an earlier Federal Court of Appeal decision.
The Broadcasting Act can’t be interpreted to give the CRTC that power, Justice Marshall Rothstein wrote for the majority.
The CRTC had decided in 2010 to launch what’s known as a value-for-signal system as a response to a changing broadcasting landscape that saw local broadcasters struggling for revenue.
Baxter said he’s pleased to see the issue come to an end.
"It’s one of those things where it’s been in the works for a long time," he said. "This is an issue that’s been outstanding for several years, as it’s been going through the court system and the regulatory process … It’s good to have this concluded finally and just removes a lot of uncertainty for all the players involved, including consumers."
Currently, cable and satellite providers pluck TV signals out of the air for free and then redistribute them to their subscribers, who pay for access.
"These are over the air broadcast signals, so it’s not all signals," Baxter said. "It’s just certain signals that this applies to. … We do pay for all of the other signals but for these ones, these are costs that we haven’t incurred before, so it would have increased our costs, so that’s the primary difficulty … that we had with it."
Bell Media said it’s disappointed that the Supreme Court has found that the CRTC doesn’t have the jurisdiction to implement such a system. TV viewers across the country would have benefited from long-term stability for their local television stations, which can no longer rely on advertising to cover their costs, said Bell.
"Local news, entertainment and other programming distinguishes Canadian broadcasting from everything else on TV," said Mirko Bibic, Bell’s chief legal and regulatory officer.
Bell said the television industry needs to find another way to help local TV survive, noting that 87 per cent of Canadians get their local news from TV stations.
"With its reliance on an uncertain advertising market, the financial model for local television is broken," it said.
"Bell Media believes the Canadian television industry as a whole must work together toward a new model for local TV, one that provides viewers with stable local TV stations well into the future."
Cable provider Rogers Communications Inc. welcomed the decision, saying it’s good for consumers.
"We believe that today’s Supreme Court decision is the right decision for Canadians and a step forward for consumers," said Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications.
The new system would have allowed the broadcasters to charge the cable companies for taking their signals and possibly withhold programming if the companies wouldn’t pay up.
But first, the commission went to the Federal Court of Appeal to see if it had the jurisdiction to implement the changes.
In a 2-1 decision, the appeal court agreed that the Broadcasting Act gave the CRTC the broad mandate to regulate and supervise all aspects of the Canadian broadcasting system and there was no conflict with the Copyright Act.
The cable and satellite companies appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing specific provisions in the Copyright Act denied the CRTC the power to force them to pay for signals.
They also argued that any costs incurred by them would just be passed on to consumers.
The television networks said the fees were essential to the survival for local programming and the new system was consistent with the CRTC’s role as the national policy-maker for broadcasting.
» email@example.com, with files from The Canadian Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 14, 2012