As Bell and Quebecor face off over fees, Quebec hockey fans are the losers

The Montreal Canadiens may have failed to qualify for the NHL playoffs, but there’s still plenty of the bad blood that characterizes post-season hockey in Quebec. It’s not on the ice, however, but in the boardrooms of two of the province’s biggest media companies.

Quebecor Media pulled the signal for its TVA Sports channel—which owns the French-language rights to all NHL playoff games—from Bell TV Wednesday, the latest move in an increasingly acrimonious battle between the two companies over carriage fees.

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Bell promptly responded by making the Rogers-owned Sportsnet, Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 360 channels available to TVA Sports subscribers at no charge for a limited time.

Quebecor’s action, which affected hundreds of thousands of Bell TV subscribers, seemed to directly contravene a CRTC letter sent Wednesday afternoon that called for the two companies to abide by both the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations and Discretionary Services Regulations.

The letter cited the so-called “standstill rule,” which states that in the event of a dispute between a cable operator and a broadcast undertaking, both parties are required to continue to provide their respective services at the same rates and the same terms and conditions as they did before the dispute.

“Withholding or otherwise interfering with signals by either party such that Canadians are prevented from enjoying the programming would amount to changing the terms of carriage,” said the CRTC.

Bell promptly responded by issuing a release stating that the CRTC decision was “legally binding,” and that Quebecor was obligated to continue providing TVA Sports to Bell TV customers.

It went on to accuse Quebecor of issuing a series of “misleading statements” regarding the disagreement on its TVA Sports hockey broadcasts and other properties over the weekend.

Quebecor ran on-screen notices during TVA Sports’ coverage of the Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs game on Saturday, that read: “Bell subscribers: Bell decided to penalize you. The TVA Sports signal will be suspended in the next few days.” The ads also directed customers to cable alternatives, such as the Quebecor-owned Vidéotron.

Quebecor pulled the TVA Sports signal from Bell TV at 7 p.m. Wednesday, just as the NHL playoffs were set to commence. In a Wednesday evening press release, Quebecor said it was “disappointed” that no agreement could be reached in negotiations with Bell, despite its “strong desire to arrive at a solution that reflects the comparable stature of RDS and TVA Sports.”

The company went on to say that it had “no alternative” but to withdraw the TVA Sports signal from Bell. “Quebecor regrets having to take this action, but given the current obsolete regulatory framework, the survival of specialty channels is at stake,” it said.

At the heart of the battle is a longstanding dispute between the two companies over subscriber fees for their respective sports channels, Quebecor-owned TVA Sports and Bell’s RDS.

Quebecor claims that Bell is not paying enough in subscriber fees, and has launched a website outlining its position. It also ran ads in Quebec dailies including Le Journal de Montréal stating that TVA Sports and RDS are in a “tied match,” with data suggesting they have equal ratings, performances and programming investments and the cost to carry the services should be the same.

TVA Sports is the smaller of the two sports specialty services, with approximately 1.8 million subscribers and total revenues of $104.3 million in 2017 according to CRTC data. Bell-owned RDS has 2.8 million subscribers and total revenues of $170.3 million.

A media buyer contacted by The Message about the spat said the impact is only specific to the NHL playoffs, and is mitigated by the fact the Canadiens failed to qualify for the post-season. “If the Habs had made it in, there would have been a bigger audience impact,” said the buyer. They are monitoring audiences, they added, and will be requesting compensation.

There is also some speculation that this is about more than Quebecor’s dissatisfaction with fees. “It’s an attempt to switch users from Bell to Vidéotron by cutting the feed,” says Eric Blais, president of strategic consulting firm Headspace Marketing. “That’s the unsportsmanlike conduct in this.”

The CRTC announced on Thursday that it had scheduled a special meeting on April 17 to determine if Quebecor has violated the terms of the Discretionary Services Regulations by withdrawing TVA Sports’ signal.

The CRTC notice said that TVA is being summoned to the hearing to show cause why it should not issue a mandatory order requiring it to comply with the Regulations at all times during the dispute with Bell, and why its broadcast license should not be suspended.

“Given the seriousness of the matter, the Commission requires that TVA be represented by its corporate officers,” said the CRTC notice, which also invited Bell to appear at the hearing.

Chris Powell