GATINEAU, Que. -- The head of Quebecor Inc. questioned the power of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in its quarrel with Bell and tried to blame the regulator for a potential termination of TVA Sports.

The CRTC held a hearing Wednesday to address the dispute between the two media companies that led to the temporary suspension of TVA Sports' signal for Bell subscribers until a judge last week ordered the return of the service.

In his opening comments, CRTC chairman Ian Scott reiterated its role in "protecting Canadians" who are "victims of this dispute."

"The commission has put in place a rule to ensure that Canadians do not lose access to the services they pay for in the event of a dispute between parties. This is known as the standstill rule," said Scott.

But Quebecor chief executive Pierre Karl Peladeau responded by raising doubts about the commission's power to force the service to continue during the dispute, especially when one side doesn't want to maintain a business relationship with the other.

He also took advantage of his speech to attack Bell.

"We had no alternative," he said to justify his decision to cut the TVA Sports signal to Bell subscribers.

The standoff between Quebecor and Bell was provoked by a dispute over the royalties to be paid to the specialty channels.

In response to a CRTC lawyer who pointed out the risks of ignoring commission orders, Peladeau said he is ready to consider the end of the sports channel.

"A suspension may pave the way to the death of TVA Sports," he said, later elaborating at a news conference.

"After tens and tens of millions of dollars in operating losses, (...) if the board is not able to provide rates that are reasonable (...) the probabilities of closing TVA Sports are very high," he said.

Bell executives later accused Quebecor of "spreading lies" and offered their version of the "unfortunate and unprecedented events" that resulted in it seeking a judicial injunction.

"We are asking for the revocation of TVA Sports' licence," said Robert Malcolmson, or alternatively a suspension until the end of NHL playoffs in June.

Last week, the Quebec Superior Court ordered Quebecor to restore the signal of the three TVA Sports channels to Bell subscribers by Friday night, which Quebecor did.

Judge Claude Champagne noted that Quebecor was apparently in breach of a clause in its contract with Bell, that imposes a 180-day notice period before terminating the contract, that was not done, along with CRTC regulations and an order not to interrupt the signal.

Quebecor has criticized Bell for not paying it royalties that reflect the fair value of its specialty channels, especially TVA Sports, which is suffering because the Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

According to Quebecor, all cable companies in Quebec have accepted the proposed TVA Sports tariff except Bell because it owns RDS, another sports channel.


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