Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eight minutes of ads are enough -- and DON'T mess with time-shifting!

The Canadian networks are at the CRTC right now for yet another round of hearings. This time, they're talking about advertising rules. The nets want more than the twelve minutes per hour of commercials that are currently allowed.

That seems to be fine by the CBC, who has a mandate to broadcast across the country and to do so is forced to run those expensive Low-Power Relay Transmitters (LPRTs) which carry distant signals from far away; and running them eats up a big part of their budget. People up in the Greenstone communities of Beardmore and Geraldtown, for instance, must still wonder why they must put up with news and commercials from CBC Toronto; and who might prefer getting information and community events from a closer regional source -- say, Sault Sainte Marie or Thunder Bay. CBC, which like the other networks are facing massive conversion costs for HDTV, would rather have just 40 transmitters, strategically located in the largest population centres, and have the rest of their viewers get their signals by digital cable or satellite, which most do anyway. That would free up some of their money to actually do quality programs and late local news again -- and with less commercials.

The private networks, however, are crying poverty. They're clobbering CBC and they're still crying poor. Why? Well, for one thing, among those twelve minutes per hour include promotions for upcoming shows, which they say shouldn't count. For another, they say local cable companies don't pay to carry their signals. The CRTC's position has always been that's the price they have to pay -- zero -- in exchange for their preferred positions on the dial, way down. Cable channels, most of which are higher up, charge subscriber fees for being higher up and as a consequence having lower commercial rates and fewer viewers.

It's hard to understand the networks' position. Cable and satellite-only channels have actually been eating away at the networks for years. They've done so because they actually have good shows, not the crap the networks usually put out. I could understand it if, say, the CBC moved to a licensing system like the BBC has -- provided they got rid of commercials all together. But why should we have to pay the networks -- including the CBC, it should be pointed out, which also wants to be paid for carriage -- for signals which are free-to-air? Shouldn't people who don't have cable and get their signals by antenna only, and there are still quite a few of them out there, have to be sent a bill to make things fair, too?

Twelve minutes of commercials is plenty. Matter of fact, it's too much. Things were fine when the rules only allowed for eight minutes, and they should go back to that. And no subscriber fees to them either, at least for the local signals. Not until the CBC moves to licensing, which given the political vagrancies in this country will be never.

There is one other item, however, that could really cause a revolt. The networks are bitching cable and satellite companies aren't compensating them enough for "time shifting." This is a very nifty feature that was introduced to persuade people to switch their analogue service to digital. It allows people to get network affiliates from all five (and a half) time zones in Canada. Not only does this allow us to see our favourite programs when we want (for example, people on the West Coast can actually see Saturday Night Live in prime-time and LIVE), but also to watch local news programs "from away." We think we have problems in Southern Ontario. Wait till you watch the nightly news on CBC Yellowknife. At least one network, CTV, is planning to stop feeding their microwave signals to redistributors if they don't get more money.

That might be something where there could be a compromise, as long as the new carriage fees for out-of-market signals aren't prohibitive. But if they even think Canadians will stand to lose time-shifting, then they don't know what a revolution is.

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