March 29, 2023
Sometimes CRTC rulings on seemingly minor regulatory disputes raise big issues. The Commission’s ruling last week in favour of OneSoccer and against Rogers does that.
‘OneSoccer’ is a programming service owned by start-up Timeless Inc. It devotes itself to broadcasting Canadian soccer. It’s calling card is its exclusive rights to the eight-team Canadian Premier League as well as FIFA World Cup qualifying games for the two national teams (but not the quadrennial FIFA tournaments).
OneSoccer already offers its programming on its own online streaming site for $10 monthly. It’s trying to make the crucial breakthrough into the linear cable TV market. It took the first step by securing a cable deal with Telus before approaching Rogers in April 2021, a month after the Shaw-Rogers merger was announced.
Rogers said no thanks.
Miffed, OneSoccer filed a complaint to the CRTC under its ‘undue preference’ regulations that govern the opportunity of programming services to get on to cable and satellite platforms serving ten million Canadian households.
‘Undue preference’ in CRTC-speak means either a cable company favours its own channels —like Rogers favouring Sportsnet— or carries some third-party channels while denying carriage to similar services.
OneSoccer accused Rogers of trying to smother a potential competitor in the crib, pointing to Rogers’ Sportsnet and Sportsnet World channels, but also complained it was being treated unfairly because Rogers Cable carries soccer programming on Bell’s TSN, Ethnic Channels’ beIN Sports and TLN’s EuroWorldSports.
Also OneSoccer wasn’t shy about wrapping itself in the Canadian flag: “Rogers appears not to be concerned that its viewers can watch extensive coverage of German and English soccer, but not Canadian soccer.”
You can follow the back-and-forth volley of arguments between OneSoccer and Rogers here…
The CRTC ruling is here.
Rogers had a pretty good defense if it weren’t for the merger and the remarkable success of our National Soccer Teams.
That strong position, on paper anyway, stems from the Commission’s ruling in 2015 to roll back existing rights of independent programming services to ‘mandatory access’ to cable platforms. The Commission put the cable companies in the driver’s seat determining which channels are popular enough to earn carriage on a distribution platform that at least in theory is not infinite.
The Commission remained the watchdog by enforcing the undue preference regulations as well as its ‘1:1’ rule that cable companies must carry one third-party channel for each of their own.
To punctuate the new gatekeeper policy, in 2016 and 2017 the Commission blessed Bell and Vidéotron kicking the declining Avis de Researche and BBC Kids channels off of their linear platforms.
The 2015 policy wasn’t OneSoccer’s only problem. As much as Canadian soccer is growing in popularity, OneSoccer struggled to give the Commission convincing viewing data of enough games with enough audience to make the leap from a streaming website to a viable television channel.
Under the 2015 policy, you would expect a Rogers win.
Well that was then, this is now.
Having approved the merger of Rogers and Shaw cable and satellite properties in March 2022, the Commission was sensitive to the fact that if ISED Minister François-Philippe Champagne approves the overall deal it will put Rogers in command of 47% of the English Canadian cable TV market. The Commission’s approval of the merger makes it that much harder to live up to its 2008 ‘Diversity of Voices’ policy which links better programming to more competition.
That is why the Independent Broadcast Group pleaded with the Commission to reject the merger because they were sure their members —-the minnows of the industry— will get screwed or just shut out from a must-have platform and that diverse programming will suffer as a result.
In short the OneSoccer complaint was a litmus test of whether the minnows have a chance.
As you read the Commission ruling you can see them straining to tick off the legal boxes to rule in OneSoccer’s favour. That required the Commission not only to favourably compare the popularity of Canadian domestic soccer leagues with European first division football, but to ignore the lack of audience data.
It also required the Commission to ignore the glaring question of why OneSoccer couldn’t prove Rogers’ undue preference by first demonstrating its own viability through carriage deals with Bell, Vidéotron, Eastlink and Cogeco?
In the end the Commission stated plainly that if ‘given the opportunity’ OneSoccer ‘might’ prove viable on cable. It ordered Rogers to put OneSoccer on the cable dial.
The Commission then went on to address the elephant in the room, Canadian content:
As noted above, Timeless stated that 90% of OneSoccer’s programming is Canadian. Further, it is likely that OneSoccer is the only service that broadcasts only Canadian soccer and soccer-related content. Therefore, Rogers’ distribution of OneSoccer on linear television would benefit the Canadian broadcasting system by enhancing the availability of Canadian content on television, an objective defined in the Act.
That statement earns a hearty endorsement from MediaPolicy.ca but with the observation that there is no specific regulatory policy directing an outcome like ‘carry more national sports.’
The desirability of platforming any particular Canadian content was supposed to be left to the corporate gatekeepers designated under the 2015 policy. The Commission is not supposed to pick winners, save for the undue preference check.
Also keep in mind, another channel with Canadian content that is currently on Rogers Cable may get kicked off the island as a result: Rogers is only obliged by the Commission to carry 45 independent programming services.
The epilogue to this story is that it is not over: OneSoccer must still negotiate retail price and ‘theme’ packaging with Rogers. Should be fun.
Catching Up on MediaPolicy.ca – C-11 is back on the menu – Objective or Opinion Journalism ? – The American C-18 stumbles – OneSoccer
CRTC licence ruling for LGBTQ+ channel OUTtv dramatizes the plight of independent TV programmers
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