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All news channels must be available: CRTC

All news channels must be available: CRTCA CRTC logo is shown in Montreal on September 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

OTTAWA - Cable and satellite companies will be required to give their consumers the option of subscribing to Sun News Network and every other Canadian news channel, starting next spring.

Thursday's announcement by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission sets a mid-March deadline for cable and satellite companies to offer all Canadian news services either in bundles or a la carte.

"Canadian news services are an important part of our democracy," CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais said in a statement.

"With the rules we are announcing today, Canadians, as citizens, will have access to the news services that are of interest to them and will therefore have an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of opinions on matters of public concern."

The CRTC previously rejected Sun News Network's bid for a guaranteed spot on basic cable and satellite services — known as "mandatory carriage."

Such a designation would have forced cable and satellite companies to carry the network on all basic digital and analog services.

However, in rejecting the Sun News bid, the CRTC acknowledged there are significant obstacles facing newly launched news services trying to compete against established networks such as CBC News Network and CTV News Channel.

The CRTC also said at the time that it would review the framework for national news services in the same category as Sun News, including CBC News Network and CTV News Channel.

Some had suggested a "must-offer" designation — which would only require cable and satellite companies to make it available to their customers to subscribe if they chose to do so — might be a suitable compromise for Sun News Network.

But network executive Kory Teneycke, the former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper who helped launch Sun News, said earlier this year that a "must-offer" designation would not suffice to save the channel, which lost $17 million last year.

"Let us be very clear: a 'must-offer' licence would not have a meaningful impact on the current trajectory of Sun News and would inevitably lead to the closure of the station," Teneycke told the CRTC during a hearing in May.

"Let me repeat: a 'must-offer' licence would be a death sentence."

It is not clear if the network still holds that view. A Quebecor spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

In a statement Thursday, Sun News said it welcomed the CRTC's decision.

"This was never just about Sun News, it was always about putting Canadian TV first," Teneycke said.

"It is no longer okay to treat foreign news channels better than Canadian ones."

The network says it will now start negotiating new cable and satellite agreements "that are in alignment with the new policy framework to ensure that Sun News is treated in a substantially similar fashion to other all news channels."

Earlier this year, Sun News Network told the CRTC it would earn 18 cents a month from every household in English Canada — and nine cents per month from French-language markets — subscribing to basic cable if it received a mandatory-carriage designation.

It also argued current agreements — allowing the channel to be offered in only 40 per cent of Canadian homes — are inadequate.

It also said these distribution agreements were affecting their ability to raise advertising revenues.

Quebecor asked the CRTC to grant Sun News Network mandatory carriage through the end of 2017, meaning that cable and satellite companies would be required to carry it on all basic digital and analog services during that time.

It also asked for better channel placement.

Quebecor argued this would allow the network to increase its viewership in the way its main Canadian competitors — the 24-hour news networks operated by CBC and CTV — did for many years.

"We don't begrudge our competitors in any way, we simply want the same rules that they enjoyed — at least for the next five years," Quebecor wrote in its filings to the CRTC.

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