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Cable companies mum on pick-and-pay and cheaper 'skinny' TV packages

CRTC ruling forces cable companies to offer low-cost option starting March 1

skinny basic pick and pay tv VMedia

TV providers will be offering a new 'skinny' basic package and pick-and-pay options come March. But many details remain secret for now. (VMedia)

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In less than a month, big changes are coming that will usher in a new era of pick-and-pay television. But it appears none of the major cable and satellite TV companies wants to talk about it.

CBC News examined many of the big TV provider websites — from Rogers to Bell to Shaw to Telus. We couldn't find any information about the low-cost, "skinny" basic TV package or added pick-and-pay channel deals they must offer by March 1.

The silence is frustrating some customers who are eager to learn more.

"You'd think because they're coming soon that they would have these options available to be seen," says cable customer Chris Mooney, who's shopping around for a better deal.

Some industry watchers believe customers could be kept in the dark until the March deadline. They suspect TV providers don't want to spread the word about a basic, low-cost TV package — until they have to.

"It's a seismic shift that they don't really want people to know about," says Daniel Bader, a columnist with the tech site MobileSyrup.com.

"Of course, if it was in their best interest, they would be advertising it," he adds. "They have absolutely no incentive to tell people there's a cheaper option."

The skinny on changes

Last year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced new rules to give viewers more options. The regulations were sparked by viewer complaints that they were forced to buy big bundles of channels at high prices just to get the handful they wanted.

By March 1, TV providers must offer a so-called "skinny" basic package priced at $25 or less. It has to include mandatory local and regional stations, as well as public interest Canadian channels such as APTN.

Providers can also add selected U.S. networks like NBC and PBS — but the price can't go up.

Companies must also let customers top up their "skinny" package with pick-and-pay channels. They can offer them either individually or in "reasonably priced" small bundles. Come December, companies must offer both.

In the dark

Cable customer Mooney recently downgraded his current TV package to save money, but he had to give up a favourite sports channel — TSN. He's anxious to know whether the new offerings will let him get all the channels he wants at a decent price.

So he went online to check out Cogeco and Bell — two TV providers serving Oakville, Ont., where he lives. To his surprise, he couldn't find any information about the upcoming deals.

"It would be nice to know what they're going to be so I know what my options are," he says. "It's very frustrating."

There are no rules forcing the cable and satellite companies to advertise early. The CRTC has only mandated that TV providers must promote the "skinny" package by the March 1 deadline "so that customers are aware of its availability, price and content."

Tech analyst Bader believes that even when providers start promoting the new deal, they won't go all out, because it's not in their best interest.

"They're only going to do the minimum amount required to appease the CRTC," he says.

Stay tuned

In recent days, CBC News contacted many of the big providers to find out what deals they will be offering come March. Not one shared any details. We also asked the companies why they haven't posted any information yet.  

Bell told CBC News in an email that it hasn't announced anything yet, because "we're still more than a month out from March 1."

Rogers said, "We'll have more to say about this soon."

Eastlink stated it will be sharing details on March 1 and to "please feel free to circle back at that time."

Shaw said it will be spreading the news "in the coming weeks."

Cogeco stated: "It is too early for us to disclose any information. We will publicly announce our new offerings in due time."

Telus never responded.

Small player tells all

At least one provider is already offering details. VMedia is a small internet-based TV service with just 18,000 subscribers. 

The Toronto-based company has a new Skinny Basic Package already available for purchase, which it boldly promotes on its site. The package costs $17.95 and includes the mandatory Canadian channels plus five American networks.

Co-founder George Burger said that as a newer competitor, his company was eager to offer its deal early and stand out from the competition.

"We were champing at the bit," he said. "We try to establish ourselves as people who are in favour of choice and flexibility, so as soon as the CRTC gave the green light for this, we went ahead."

Burger added he understands why other companies would keep their plans quiet for now. He believes they may not want to tip off the competition.

Or, like Bader, he said providers may not be eager to tip off customers about a cheaper, smaller plan.

"They may not want the public to know very much about the fact that the 'skinny' option exists, because that's not very helpful to the business model," he said.

Whatever their motive, the silence is golden for VMedia, Burger said. "We might as well take a little bit of the spotlight."

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