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NFL sets up BCE-CRTC Super Bowl showdown

The NFL’s hard line approach forces a showdown between Bell and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission over how content is shared on mobile devices, following a regulatory decision last year that required broadcasters to give up exclusive content deals.

Jim Young/Reuters/Jim Young/Reuters

BCE Inc. has a muscular new ally in its fight with the federal broadcast regulator: the National Football League.

The company that owns Bell Canada, CTV and TSN has been sparring with the CRTC over deals the company has made to broadcast hockey and football games exclusively to its own wireless subscribers. The federal broadcast regulator ruled in December that BCE had gained an unfair advantage through those deals – and ordered it to make that content available to rival Telus Corp. "at reasonable terms."

But the NFL has intercepted the regulator's pass, saying its contract prohibits any Canadian wireless provider except BCE from gaining access to football broadcasts, including this weekend's Super Bowl, the most-watched sporting event in North America.

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The NFL's hard line approach forces a showdown between Bell and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission over how content is shared on mobile devices, following a regulatory decision last year that required broadcasters to give up exclusive content deals.

"The NFL owns the copyright to NFL content licensed under the mobility agreement and Bell has no right to [redistribute]this content" to other companies, wrote Hans Schroeder, the NFL's senior vice-president of media business strategy and development, in his submission. The CRTC would not comment.

The broadcaster has quietly renegotiated its deal with the National Hockey League, and said it will share those mobile rights with other wireless carriers. But the NFL refuses to allow Bell to share its games, saying it doesn't want its content spread among several different broadcast partners.

The ball is now in the CRTC's hands. While it can't levy a fine for disregarding its order, it could elevate the case to federal court. Bell hopes it will let the whole thing slide, given its concessions on the NHL rights.

Telus would not comment.

Bell said it doesn't actually mind sharing, but it would be "draconian" for the regulator to expect it to renegotiate contracts signed prior to the CRTC's edict.

"We're prepared to live inside the new rules," said Mirko Bibic, Bell's senior vice-president of regulatory affairs. "We can't step back into a contract like that, so we're in a bind. Either we respect the NFL's clear rights, or we have regulatory issues. And we can't respect the regulatory rules because the NFL says we only have the rights they've given us."

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Bell's Mobile TV service, which includes content from a number of television channels, is available to any mobile provider for a fee. But only Bell phone subscribers are able to watch extra NHL and NFL content: live audio and video feeds of hockey games and live video of NFL prime-time and Sunday games, including the playoffs and Sunday's championship game.

The fight over sharing began last year when the CRTC ruled that "vertically integrated" broadcast companies would be required to offer their content to competitors, for a price. In December, it ruled that BCE Inc. had given itself an unfair competitive advantage by striking deals to offer sports exclusively on Bell's own mobile network for phones and tablets, and refusing that content to other providers.

But the sports deals were struck before the CRTC ruling, which Bell said restricted its options. Mr. Bibic said Bell is generally fine with sharing, because it owns a great deal of content and can make money by offering it to other broadcasters to sell to their mobile customers. When the NFL contract comes up for renewal, Bell wouldn't seek exclusivity, he said.

While the broadcaster isn't pleased that exclusivity is banned outright in the future, there is an obvious upside for BCE.

"We have what is probably the largest stable of content anywhere in the world," he said. "We are a content owner in a big way, and we want our content distributed as widely as possible. It's how we make money."

While BCE intends to renegotiate terms when the NFL deal comes up again – the length of its current contract has been redacted from the CRTC filings – it isn't clear that the league will twist its standard operating rules to fit Canadian regulations.

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"We offered a package of rights focused on exclusive content for live games," Mr. Schroeder said. "It was our belief that this model, which is one we have used often in countries throughout the world, is the best model for offering this set of rights in Canada. Bell was the winning bidder … we continue to believe in the desirability of this model."

Mobile NHL feeds, meanwhile, are now available to any competitor to offer their subscribers.

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