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Three must-watch storylines at CRTC's mandatory carriage hearings

CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has made it clear he doesn’t want the commission to be in the business of protecting television channels that can’t make it on their own.

BLAIR GABLE/The Globe and Mail

Basic digital cable packages could get a little bit more expensive some time soon, as a slew of channels ask to be included on the dial in order to get their signals in front of Canadians in a profitable way.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will hear from almost two dozen companies over the next two weeks, each asking for placement on basic digital television packages. There are about 12 million television subscribers in Canada, and having guaranteed access to them means higher advertising revenues and higher subscription fees.

To get their way, the channels need to convince the CRTC they offer something important that nobody else provides. But if CRTC Commissioner Jean-Pierre Blais had his way, it's unlikely these hearings would be happening at all.

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Commissioners are appointed for five-year terms, and this issue is something he inherited when he took over last year. He hasn't shown much interest in picking winners, and in a speech at the Canadian Media Producers Association's annual conference in February, he made it clear he wasn't all that interested in protecting any business that can't protect itself.

He could create viable businesses out of channels on the cusp of financial ruin just by assigning them mandatory carriage. But since taking over, he's made it clear that he doesn't think the commission should be a heavy hand in the market. At the conference, he said the commission should be "promotionist" rather than "protectionist."

"I don't have a crystal ball," he said, in a warning that applies to those operating channels as much as to those who produce content for them. "I can't predict what the future holds. Are you asking the right questions and doing the right things to secure your future? Do you have the necessary sense of urgency?"

The hearing starts Tuesday, and lasts two weeks. Here are three must-watch storylines.

Sun News vs. The World

Sun News Network is in the fight of its young life. Just two years after it launched and vowed to never turn to the government to help make its math work, on Tuesday the station that features "hard news and straight talk" will ask for a five-year mandatory carriage order and 18 cents from every television subscriber in the land.

It's unclear whether there's an appetite to put an all-news channel on basic digital cable; CTV and CBC started there, but have since been moved off and forced to fend for themselves. But if it's going to be successful, it'll need to convince regulators that it's capable of playing by the rules.

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When it received its original licence, it agreed to join and abide by the rules set by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. But when it ran afoul of the organization – host Ezra Levant was slapped for hurling an obscenity at a Spanish-speaking banana executive – the news channel launched a series of attacks on the ethics council and suggested it should be disbanded.

The noise around the network (which is losing $17-million a year) is louder than its actual offences may suggest. Canada's broadcast regulator received 6,963 complaints about Sun News, but the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found it only acted inappropriately in two cases (both findings centred on Mr. Levant). And 6,676 of those complaints were about an interview between former host Krista Erickson and choreographer Margie Gillis that didn't lead to a finding of fault.

But as its executives stand in front of the commission, they'll likely need to explain why they can be expected to be better behaved when they are in every television in the land.

Vision's Hail Mary

Vision Television has been a staple of Canadian television for decades, but if it doesn't receive mandatory carriage its executives have made it clear that it can't survive because it can't make enough money on its own. They argue that in the multi-channel universe, there should be at least one place where faith and race can be discussed.

But it will have to answer to critics who charge that the channel has strayed too far away from its original mandate to even be considered for basic digital cable. Touched By an Angel may have some religious overtones, they argue, but it's not the sort of programming that needs to be thrust into every living room.

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While other channels may be hoping for a little divine intervention, Vision has gone out of its way to ensure God is on their side. Thomas Cardinal Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, will take the witness stand to make the channel's case.

"As Archbishop of Toronto, representing 1.9 million Catholics, and as President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, representing 4 million Catholics throughout the province, I wish to submit this intervention to express my fervent support," he wrote in a letter to the CRTC supporting Vision's bid. "As the Catholic Church continues on its mission to actively share the good works of the church we want to ensure that VisionTV, a critical media partner, remains widely accessible to all Canadians."

Starlight's Charm Offensive

When Starlight: The Canadian Movie Channel makes its case before the commission on Thursday, its founders will be surrounded by as many as 20 big names from the Canadian film industry (sort of like how firefighters pack city hall whenever their budgets are under consideration).

"It will be unlike anything they've ever seen," producer Robert Lantos said last week while discussing his plan to stack the CRTC gallery with movie-making talent.

The channel – which doesn't actually exist yet – is asking for the most of any new service. It doesn't only want mandatory carriage, it wants Canadians to fork over 43 cents a month each (in reality, it's double that after the television distributors add their markup) to have a channel dedicated completely to Canadian cinema.

The channel wouldn't only air movies – it would also pay to have as many as 12 made each year.

"Canadian films, which are heavily subsidized by the government, are not available to be seen by Canadian consumers, who have indirectly helped finance their creation," Mr. Lantos said in an earlier interview. "Let us not twist the arms of the television networks that don't want Canadian films on their network, let's start our own network that only wants Canadian films."

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