‘Skinny basic’ TV service rolls out

The Canadian Press
Terry Pedwell

OTTAWA—Canadian TV subscribers may be rejoicing as they prepare for today’s launch of new, regulator-mandated basic cable and satellite packages.
But the group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, which advocates for Canada’s broadcasters, is warning consumers ultimately will see fewer channel choices.
The vast majority of TV viewers also are likely to see their monthly bills increase under the so-called pick-and-pay system, the group is warning.
As of today, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is requiring TV service providers to offer customers a basic lineup of channels for no more than $25 per month.
Customers then can top up their channels one at a time, or in small theme packs.
By December, TV companies will be required to offer both options.
The so-called “skinny basic” packages must include at least 10 local or regional channels, as well as educational programming.
But even that requirement will disappear once the full pick-and-pay regulation takes effect.
Initially, some consumers who don’t watch a lot of TV will benefit, says Friends spokesman Ian Morrison.
But eventually, some channels that no longer are supported through prescription fees will go under, he warned.
“The end result is that there will be fewer Canadian choices,” Morrison said.
“You’re starting with choice in the sense of saving a few bucks on your cable/satellite bill and ending up with fewer Canadian choices.”
The bigger TV service providers—Bell, Rogers, and Telus—were waiting until today to officially unveil the channels included in their trimmed-down basic packages.
But Shaw Cable, which dominates the TV market in Western Canada, and Quebec’s Videotron already are advertising their $25 basic packs on their websites.
Shaw’s package, called “Limited TV,” features 40 channels, including programming from U.S. networks ABC, NBC, Fox, and PBS.
Videotron’s basic cable doesn’t offer the American channels.
Telus, which began offering TV services in 2010, indicated it was confident its customers would stick with the company’s array of programming options after the new regulations kick in.
“The packaging approach the CRTC has mandated very much mirrors the approach we have offered since we first introduced our TV service,” company spokeswoman Liz Sauve said in a statement.
Market research conducted in late 2015 by media analysis consulting firm Nordicity found only a small percentage of Canadian TV viewers would switch to a smaller basic service over the next few years once given that choice, broadcast lawyer and consultant Peter Miller said in a recent interview.
“Most Canadians will stick with their current packages because most Canadians do look at multiples of channels,” noted Miller.
“We estimate that by 2020, 15 percent of Canadians would pick one of those smaller sets of [TV] packages with the small basic.”
Nordicity also estimated the average consumer would be willing to pay an additional $20 for discretionary channels—either individually or through add-on bundles—on top of the $25 maximum that can be charged for the smaller basic service.
The CRTC said the move toward full pick-and-pay is focused on consumer choice, not on cost of service.
“In a pick-and-pay environment, some channels may be more expensive on an individual basis because they will no longer be cross-subsidized with others in large packages,” the regulator said in a statement yesterday.
“So prices for certain channels may be higher than expected.”
Cross-subsidization happens when service providers offset the costs of carrying more expensive channels with the lower costs of their less-expensive channels by offering them together as a bundle.
Still, the regulator will be monitoring the new pricing models introduced by service providers to ensure consumers aren’t being gouged by cable and satellite companies, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais pledged last week.
“I urge them to make the products they sell even better for Canadians, and put viewers—their customers—back in control of their televisions,” he said.
“This is their moment to shine.”