Bell asked Ottawa for laws, regulations to ensure access to American TV content

The impacts of streaming have been ‘massively disruptive,’ the company said in a letter to the Liberal government

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OTTAWA — Without the government taking steps to ensure Canadian broadcasters can buy popular foreign TV content, the Canadian broadcasting system won’t survive, Bell told the Liberal government in March.

Bell’s ask comes as U.S. companies that make TV shows or have rights to sports content are choosing to offer streaming services in Canada themselves, bypassing the Canadian TV broadcasters that have traditionally been the only option to distribute that content.

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The government’s policy direction to the CRTC on implementing the Online Streaming Act “must be amended to contain measures to ensure that foreign content owners continue to make their content available to Canadian broadcasters and streamers,” Bell said in a letter to Canadian Heritage.

The letter was among documents obtained through access-to-information, which also included a mostly redacted December 2022 presentation prepared by Bell. It said the success of the Canadian broadcasting system was heavily dependent on regulation, and that “system was built based on rules that ensure Canadian broadcasters can access and monetize popular U.S. shows.” That enables Canadian broadcasters to invest in Canadian content and news, Bell said.

It told the government Bell Media is continuing to work “with major U.S. studios to support the Canadian system but the traditional regulatory levers are failing.”

The impacts of streaming have been “massively disruptive,” and online streaming platforms now have more market penetration in anglophone Canada than traditional cable or satellite services, the presentation outlined.

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Bell’s letter was sent in March, months before the government released the draft policy direction to the CRTC.

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The Online Streaming Act the CRTC is in the process of implementing brings streaming companies into the CRTC’s regulatory sphere, with the aim of requiring them to contribute to Canadian content.

“Canada’s broadcasting system will not survive without new legislative and regulatory rules that ensure Canadian broadcasters have access to popular foreign content,” Bell said in the letter.

It included suggested amendments to the policy direction, stating that broadcasters “require access on reasonable commercial terms to non-Canadian programming” and that the CRTC should incentivize foreign services to “partner” with Canadian ones.

The government chose not to include the company’s suggestions in the draft policy direction. A spokesperson for Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said “we reviewed carefully the many proposals brought forward throughout this process,” and that the final policy direction would be released “soon.”

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Bell hasn’t changed the position it outlined in the spring. “U.S. content is more difficult to access than ever as major sports properties and studios are imposing higher costs or refusing to sell their content to Canadian broadcasters altogether, opting instead to sell directly to Canadians through streaming services,” spokesperson Jacqueline Michelis said.

“We need access to content to generate revenues, which in turn allows us to fund and promote Canadian storytelling and produce original news and information programming in communities across the country from a Canadian perspective.”

Kevin Desjardins, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said foreign programming “has until recently been foundational” to broadcasters’ abilities to produce news and contribute to Canadian content.

“With global media companies bypassing our domestic system, Canadian broadcasters need to see this new reality properly reflected in the forthcoming changes to broadcasting’s regulatory framework,” he said.

The documents obtained through access-to-information included a fact sheet pointing to a CRTC-commissioned report on the Canadian program rights market. The report, prepared by consultant Peter Miller, said Canada’s $16-billion broadcasting sector is now competing directly with global streaming platforms whose revenues are more than five times higher.

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It noted studies as recent as 2017 previously concluded the market was relatively sound, but that things have changed in recent years.

The report said the “significant presence and market share” of U.S. streaming services in Canada, especially the arrival of services like Disney+ and Paramount+ in the previous two or three years, “is now significantly eroding the ability of private broadcasters to acquire rights to US programming.”

It said “left unchecked, this new trend is significant enough that it could effectively lead to the disabling of the Canadian broadcasting system as we know it, in a matter of single digit years.”

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