'Death Star' TV Plan Riles Canadian Politics
Satellite would offer hundreds of channels, carrying many US reruns but probably little Canadian content
TORONTO — ONCE again some Canadians are worried advancing technology will soon swamp their culture by beaming hundreds of American-supplied television channels directly to millions of Canadian households.
High-power television satellites, dubbed ''death stars,'' are already circling overhead. Their extra-strong digital signals will soon let Canadian couch potatoes plunk down $750 for a decoder box and pizza-sized dish receiver, bypassing domestic cable-TV channels that are subject to Canadian content rules.
Instead of getting a big slice of American TV along with a thin-but-steady ration of domestic programming (via Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other channels), Canadians will be able to immerse themselves in reruns of ''Gilligan's Island'' and ''Car 54 Where Are You?'' without any Canadian-produced programming.
That would not seem to be a notion the government would embrace. Until recently the Canadian government unambiguously supported Canadian content. Last December, for example, Canada's top regulator intervened in the media marketplace to kick an American country-music channel off the air in favor of an upstart Canadian country-music channel.
Last week, however, the government did an about face. Canada's federal cabinet -- overseen by Prime Minister Jean Chretien -- overruled a broadcast regulator's decision that would have strongly favored a Canadian direct-to-home (DTH) consortium over a United States-based supplier in partnership with a Montreal-based company.
The move has opened the Canadian market to DirecTV, a Los Angeles-based subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft Company owned by General Motors Corporation. DirecTV's Canadian partner is Power Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Power Corporation, one of Canada's largest conglomerates.
Until the cabinet ruling, an all-Canadian consortium called Expressvu Inc. had been on the inside track to a virtual monopoly position. Fearing that only American DTH companies would step forward to supply service, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) encouraged the consortium's development.
Expressvu was exempted from having to apply for a broadcast license in exchange for a promise to adhere to Canadian content rules and use Canadian satellites for transmission.
Expressvu -- owned by BCE Inc., Canada Satellite Communications Inc., and Western International Communications -- has plowed $200 million (Canadian: US$146.8 million) into its bid to air on Sept. 1. But its entry will be delayed and cost much more now that under the cabinet decision it must seek a license. It also allows the US-based competitor precious time to catch up.
Opposition party members in Canada's Parliament decried the ruling putting Expressvu head-to-head with DirecTV as an attack on culture. But it was also cited as blatant favoritism because the prime minister's son-in-law is president of Power Corporation, DirecTV's Canadian partner.
''Doesn't the prime minister consider it at the very least inappropriate that, for the first time in its history, the cabinet is changing a decision of the CRTC -- and this historic first benefits, completely by coincidence, his son-in-law?'' asked Suzanne Tremblay, a Bloc Quebecois member of Parliament.
Such comments haven't yet dented Mr. Chretien's armor. He remains highly popular since his victorious 1993 campaign to clean up government and insider dealing. He denies any favoritism, saying the cabinet decision was in line with an independent review board's recommendation that competition was needed -- or else Expressvu would have had a monopoly.
''When the time came to discuss this issue before cabinet I abstained,'' Chretien said. ''I didn't talk about it to anyone.''
The government's main interest these days is not appearing to favor US interests at the expense of Canadian culture.
In December, Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy announced a heavy surtax aimed at US publishers that simply repackage ''Made in America'' editorial material in ''Canadian editions'' of US magazines with little Canadian content. New York-based Time Warner's Sports Illustrated, which produces seven Canadian editions a year -- beaming its copy electronically to printing plants across the border -- was a target.
Last week's DTH television decision appeared to some analysts to be simply a case of government having to decide between two favored philosophies -- free-market competition or sustaining Canadian culture -- with culture losing.
Today there are more than 1 million direct TV subscribers in the US. There are a few thousand in Canada -- mostly with the older big-dish technology.
But predictions are for tens of thousands of DTH dishes in Canada by the end of next year.