By Don Hutchinson

In April, Canada’s telecom regulator started hearings as the battle over basic cable heats up.

The advantage of being on basic cable (called “mandatory carriage” in the telecom world) is that every cable subscriber in the jurisdiction where you broadcast will get your station. Not on basic cable? People have to pay extra to see what you produce.

Cable providers pay most basic cable channels a matter of pennies per subscriber. This is used to develop Canadian programming. It’s not a government subsidy.

As the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) holds hearings to assess whether select stations should have the privilege of being on basic cable, the competitors are jockeying for position. It can resemble a collection of Davids and Goliaths in hand-to-hand combat on an open field (of course, inside a locked stadium controlled by the CRTC).

Sun News Network (SUN TV) was bumped from basic cable in the deal that secured their license in 2010 and their projected viewership declined accordingly, to the point where they are losing money. A return to the basic cable universe – with a reasonably anticipated recovery of viewers – would likely propel “the little station that could” out of the red and into the black. SUN certainly provides a readily observable alternative perspective on the day’s events to that of CTV News Channel and CBC News Network; and, features all-Canadian primetime content. CTV News Channel and CBC News Network had 21 and 13 years respectively on basic cable across the country to develop their audiences (while piggybacking their parent networks). SUN has evidenced the type of viewership they have the potential to draw on basic. Seems to me this combination makes SUN worthy of consideration for the basic spectrum. On top of that however, SUN has demonstrated that it is the news channel most interested in faith viewpoints on the news that interests Canadians.

VISION TV, now part of Moses Znaimer’s Zoomer Media, is a uniquely Canadian invention that provides multi-faith and multi-cultural programming – a television tribute to Canada’s constitutional religious freedom and multiculturalism. Whatever one thinks of Znaimer’s previous efforts at CITY, SEX, MuchMusic or Bravo, the production standards, community engagement and Canadian content were innovative and progressively high as he honed his skills; and, all opinions were welcome by the management – who didn’t necessarily agree with them, and neither necessarily did we. Znaimer’s now mature production and management skills, along with continuing open invitation to on-air conversation, are becoming increasingly evident at VISION too. The Canadian multi-faith and multi-cultural content combined with the Znaimer touch make VISION a legitimate contender to remain on Canadian basic cable.

Throw in CPAC (jointly owned by cable providers that cover the nation; Rogers, Shaw, Videotron, Cogeco, EastLink and Access) , the Weather Network, Crossroads (primarily Christian but hosting other faith-based programming), APTN, public broadcasters like TVO and national coverage of French networks and one can see Canadian content is key.

Then we have the CBC family of stations , recipient of over $1 billion annually from the federal government – which is a taxpayer subsidy – in addition to advertising and basic cable payments, and Bell Media (CTV, CTV Two, CTV NewsChannel, TSN, Comedy, etc along with Bell satellite TV). The field is further confused by the cable providers who also own multiple stations – the aforementioned Bell, Shaw (Global, TVTropolis, SHOW CASE, etc), Rogers (CITY, Omni, Sportsnet, etc), etc – who clearly want the stations they own as part of their basic cable packages.

How will this settle out? Well, in the modern world of Canadian communications several of the major players also own print and digital media outlets. The average Canadian reads their Globe and Mail without making the connection to Bell Media in the same way that reading a SUN newspaper – once described as “the little paper that could” – draws the obvious connection to SUN TV; the little station that’s getting kicked around by the big media players. The print media competitors tend to cast their television competitors in a less favourable light, but with SUN the shared name makes it a little more obvious who they’re rooting (writing) for.

I can’t tell you how the CRTC hearings will settle out on this one. I can tell you that Canada’s religious communities are well served by having Crossroads, VISION and SUN available because, well, those are stations that regularly invite and feature the participation of various religious communities on the “airwaves” in Canada’s constitutionally “free and democratic society,” where our first fundamental freedom is “freedom of religion” and over ¾ of Canadians identify religion as significant in their lives. CBC, CTV, Global and others accept Christian programming and have occasional news interest, but I wouldn’t say they invite or feature it.

Crossroads, VISION and SUN present Canadian Christian (and other religious) voices with the opportunity to engage routinely as part of the diverse Canadian community – whether Crossroads’ longstanding “100 Huntley Street” or feature Canadian historical documentaries such as “Goal of the Century: The Paul Henderson Story,” VISION’s 25 years of original Canadian multi-faith and multi-cultural programming or SUN TV regularly inviting religious and non-religious voices together into conversations about news stories of the day. These are three Canadian originals that balance out the generally secular expression of Canadian cable and deserve space on basic cable for viewer consideration in every living room of the nation.

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