Bell Media-owner BCE Inc. wants the federal broadcasting regulator to create a news fund that would provide money to broadcasters and require foreign streamers to contribute to the subsidy through their Canadian content spending.

Bell representatives told a CRTC panel Tuesday that the commission should simultaneously exempt Canadian streaming platforms such as Crave from those new obligations until traditional broadcasters receive regulatory relief.

The hearing, which began Monday and is set to last three weeks, is part of the regulator's public consultations in response to Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act.

The legislation received royal assent in April and is meant to update the Broadcasting Act to require digital platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and TikTok to contribute and promote Canadian content.

In September, the CRTC released a decision that closed two previous consultations it launched related to Bill C-11. Now, the commission is seeking to determine what contributions traditional broadcasters and online streaming services will need to make to support Canadian and Indigenous content.

Bell's presentation took issue with the regulator's direction amid what the company described as a “crisis” for Canadian broadcasters.

“Your priorities are backwards,” Jonathan Daniels, Bell Canada vice-president of regulatory law, said in his remarks to commission panellists.

“Traditional broadcasters, the linchpin of the Canadian broadcasting system, need relief and we need it now.”

Daniels described a trio of obstacles that local broadcast giants such as Bell are being forced to contend with. He said traditional platforms are losing customers to streaming services, driving declines in broadcasting revenue while those same digital alternatives don't face the same regulatory burdens.

As streamers have entered the Canadian market, it's also become more expensive for traditional broadcasters to buy content because they no longer only compete with rival Canadian companies. Meanwhile, he said Bell is often unable to purchase the type of content it used to air as foreign studios increasingly keep those programs exclusive to their own streaming apps.

“We are frustrated because, frankly, we do not believe the CRTC is adequately addressing this reality,” he said.

Daniels said the company's proposal, which would force digital streamers to contribute funding for subsidies, would result in more money going into the broadcasting system for Canadian news and television productions, while reducing traditional broadcasters' obligations.

Bell's presentation marked the latest update in its ongoing campaign for regulatory relief.

In June, Bell submitted two applications to the CRTC, including a request that the commission reduce its obligation for Canadian content spending on some of its television stations.

In its other submission, the company requested the regulator drop requirements for spending on local news and on the number of hours per week that stations are required to broadcast locally reflective news in major and smaller markets.

Those applications were filed the same day Bell announced it was cutting 1,300 positions, shutting or selling nine radio stations and closing two foreign bureaus in the face of rising financial pressure. The layoffs included a six per cent cut at Bell Media.

Bell Media filed an application last month to the Federal Court of Appeal seeking to appeal a CRTC decision that renewed its broadcast licences for three more years. It said that decision was made without a public hearing and could result in the regulator prejudging the issues it outlined in its June applications.

The CRTC's previous dive into setting conditions of the Online Streaming Act's implementation saw it set a threshold that determines which online streaming services will be subject to new rules.

A September decision mandated streaming services offering broadcasting content in Canada and earning $10 million or more in annual revenues to provide information about their activities to the CRTC by next week.

The watchdog also required certain online streaming services to provide it with information related to their content and subscribership, and make content available in a way that is not tied to a specific mobile or internet service.

On Monday, the commission heard from Quebecor Inc.

President and CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau urged the CRTC to impose “a significant and immediate reduction in the regulatory and financial burden on traditional Canadian businesses.” His address came with a warning that even if the CRTC imposes requirements on foreign streamers, it does not necessarily mean they will comply.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2023.


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