Bell Canada is directing sales staff not to promote its new basic $24.95 "Starter" TV package, according to a recent internal training document obtained by CBC News.
The "Starter" pack will be unveiled Sunday, the document indicates. By March 1, to comply with new CRTC rules, all TV service providers must offer a "skinny" basic package costing no more than $25 a month, plus additional pick-and-pay channel options.
The Bell document also shows that add-ons to the basic "Starter" pack can become so costly that what was supposed to be a good deal for Canadians could wind up, in some cases, costing more than their current cable bill.
One Bell employee who has seen the document told CBC News he believes that Bell's aim is to make the basic "Starter" package as unattractive as possible. He claims that's because the company wants customers investing in pricier deals.
"They're making the skinny basic package simply unbuyable," he said. "What's been explained to me is that maybe one per cent of people would be interested in getting it."
The Bell worker asked to remain anonymous, because he fears retribution from the company.
Downplay the 'Starter' pack
The Bell training document states: "Do not promote the Starter TV package. There will be no advertising, and this package should only be discussed if the customer initiates the conversation."
It also shows that costs for the Fibe TV "Starter" pack can go much higher than the initial $24.95 monthly fee. The plan comes with about 20 mandatory Canadian channels. Customers can then add individual pick-and-pay channels priced at either $4 or $7.
As with other packages, people will also have to shell out extra monthly fees for the TV receiver or box rental and high definition programming. In addition, according to the document, to get Fibe TV, customers must subscribe to a Bell internet package.
On top of that, according to another apparent Bell training document posted online, the company will not offer any deals to "Starter" customers.
The document said there will be no bundle discounts, no hardware or PVR deals, and "no TV sweetener offers" with the package.
Fibe is Bell's high-speed fibre optic network. It also offers separate plans for satellite TV.
The Bell document obtained by CBC News lays out the pricing for the Fibe "Starter" with some add-ons.
Combined with ultra-high-speed internet, a couple of $7 pick-and-pay channels and the TV box rental, according to Bell's own calculations, a customer would pay a total of $130.35.
That's more than five times the initial price of the basic package.
CBC News reached out to the CRTC and asked if Bell could require customers to buy Bell internet when signing up for the "Starter" basic pack, as indicated in the company document.
Soon after, we heard from a Bell employee who told us that "Starter TV no longer has to be linked with internet. [Bell] just backed off." However, subsequent contact with a Bell representative on Sunday confirmed that customers getting the Fibe starter pack must also purchase Bell internet service.
CBC News asked the company for a response to this story. "Sorry I wouldn't comment on anonymous claims or documents you are finding," Bell spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis said in an email.
She also wouldn't confirm any details about the "Starter" pack. "We wouldn't pre-announce pricing," she said. "It's a competitive business."
Michelis added: "We will follow all CRTC rules, we always do."
Keep it on the down low?
The CRTC regulations mandating a $25 basic "skinny" TV pack and added pick-and-pay channels were designed to give viewers more choice. The rules were created in response to customer complaints that they were paying too much for big bundles of channels just to get the ones they want.
Industry analysts have speculated that providers are not eager to promote the basic package, because it could inspire customers to pare down their TV plans.
"They`re not making any profit off of this package and what they`re doing is, they`re downplaying the idea of this being a benefit to customers," said Daniel Bader, senior editor with the tech site Mobile Nations.
Just days before the final March 1 deadline, major TV providers Bell, Telus and Rogers have yet to publicly release the details of their new offerings.
Like the Bell employee, a Rogers worker has also told CBC News that the cable provider had instructed staff to downplay its $24.99 "Starter" pack that will be unveiled March 1.
Rogers denied this, claiming the company instead told employees to make it clear to customers that the downsized deal wouldn't be the right fit for everyone.
Obligated to advertise
The CRTC has told CBC News that TV providers are obligated to advertise the new "skinny" basic pack and pick-and-pay options.
"[We] will certainly be following through on ensuring that they promote this package and these opportunities as well as they promote their other packages," Scott Hutton, the CRTC's executive director of broadcasting, said several days ago.
But that doesn't mean much, journalist Greg O'Brien, who closely covers the Canadian TV industry, told CBC News. He writes for the online publication Cartt.ca.
He predicts TV providers will give the new cheap package some obligatory attention, but that it will be limited.
"No one sells basic cable. So, skinny basic will be there, but it's not going to be on top," says O'Brien.