Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A contrast in coverage

To me, the most interesting thing about the CRTC hearings that start today won’t be the testimony, nor the arguments, but instead how the press in Canada covers them. Most of the major dailies, of course, are owned by CanWest Global Communications, which is the Big Dog in this fight. CanWest would like to convince the CRTC to force the cable companies to charge their customers to watch local stations they can get free over the air. It would like to convince Canadians that what they are seeking is not highway robbery, and that’s where the propaganda value of owning the country’s largest newspaper chain comes in. Right off the bat, it appears that the CanWest dailies will be falling in line with coverage that makes the cable companies look bad. Today’s Financial Post, for example (that’s the business section of the National Post, if you haven’t been keeping track) begins its coverage with a report that top Rogers brass isn’t even on the same page. “Dissension in Rogers ranks as CRTC hearings open,” read the FP headline. Testimony from company head Ted Rogers, noted the article, disagreed with position of his top execs, who favor unfettered competition.

Later during Tuesday morning's hearings, Mr. Rogers again appeared to disagree with the company position on the subject of "targeted" advertising, which is being pitched as a way to give broadcasters more revenue in lieu of the controversial "fees for carriage" they are seeking.
The Toronto Star, by contrast, made no mention of dissention in the Rogers ranks in its kick-off coverage, instead reporting the Rogers delegation “bluntly telling the federal broadcast regulator that domestic broadcasters ‘don’t deserve a handout’ at the expense of consumers.”

Ted Rogers, the cable giant’s president and chief executive officer, told a standing room-only crowd in a Gatineau, Que., conference centre that if broadcasters are not as profitable as they used to be, it is because of spending on American programming and billion-dollar acquisition deals.
The Star bears much less conflict of interest in covering the hearings, being invested in network television in only a minor way, compared to CanWest. Its parent company, Torstar, bought a 20-percent interest in CTVglobemedia, which also publishes its main competitor, in 2006. That didn’t stop it from reporting that Rogers exec Ken Engelhart noted Canada “has got to be the only country in the world where profitable companies can come in and ask for subsidies,” or that Rogers himself warned of a consumer “revolt” if the fee passes.

Despite the optics and inevitable odor, don’t bet against the CRTC bowing to CanWest’s request. As I noted in Asper Nation, the company’s 2006 swallowing of the 13 specialty cable channels formerly owned by Alliance Atlantis leaves them vulnerable to increased ownership by U.S. investment bankers Goldman Sachs if their network revenues lag.

Their Global television operations would then need every advantage they could get from Ottawa to keep them mostly Canadian. The bridges they had been building to the new Conservative government would thus be more important than ever to CanWest. That in turn suggested mutual admiration would continue to be expressed between the federal government and Canada's largest news media company.

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