As the CRTC gears up for yet another round of hearings later this fall that will address the fee-for-carriage issue, the most recent batch of submitted comments contains what may constitute an interesting shift in policy by the Conservatives. Earlier this year, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage conducted extensive hearings on the future of local broadcasting. Fee-for-carriage (ie. a requirement for broadcast distributors such as cable and satellite to pay for retransmission of over-the-air signals) figured prominently in the discussion. The Conservative members of the committee issued a dissenting opinion in the final report and offered up the following:
this dissenting report must now indicate our most fervent and rigorous opposition to any potential fee for carriage system, either negotiated or imposed, that would have a detrimental effect on the consumer. We believe it is fundamentally unfair to expect Canadian consumers to pay new and substantial charges each month to their cable or satellite distributor to reflect such a system.
Fast forward several months later and Conservative MPs Ed Holder (London West), Laurie Hawn (Edmonton Centre), Bruce Stanton (Simcoe North), Patrick Brown (Barrie), Gord Brown (Leeds-Grenville), and Lois Brown (Newmarket-Aurora) have each submitted comments to the CRTC public hearing process on the issue. Each MP sent roughly the same letter, suggesting that they all come from the same playbook. The new message:
Consumers already pay for local television in their monthly cable bills, as it forms part of the fee which consumers pay under their "basic" service rate. But there is no return from cable companies. In other words, consumers are billed by cable companies for local television, but cable companies do not compensate local television stations. A rebalancing of this system is needed in order to sustain local television and service to consumers. The Commission's stated intent of implementing a negotiated, fair market value for local signals is essential to continued local service.
While these two positions are not necessarily conflicting (cable and satellite companies could pay a fee-for-carriage without passing along the fee to the consumer), the recent experience with the LPIF suggests that new fees are invariably passed along to the consumer. To remain consistent (ie. FFC but no new consumer fees) would seemingly require considerable market intervention into cable and satellite billing rates to require the imposition of a fee-for-carriage system and a requirement that those additional fees not be passed along to subscribers.