The CRTC-mandated $25 skinny basic TV packages introduced earlier this year didn't exactly wow Canadians. And it appears Phase 2 of the unbundling of our television offerings — individual pick and pay channels — might also disappoint.
"Am I allowed to laugh?" said Gilda Spitz when asked for her reaction to the prices for the new line-up of stand-alone channels offered by Rogers. Most cost $4 or $7 each.
As of Thursday, TV providers must offer individual pick and pay specialty channels plus ones grouped in theme packs that customers can add to their TV plans.
Spitz, who lives in Thornhill Ont., had signed up her 88-year-old mother for a basic $24.99 TV package with Rogers. But her mother, Liza Eshanou, only wanted to watch two all-news networks not included — CNN and CP24.
So, Spitz was paying $15 extra per month for two theme packs that included those networks. When Rogers launched pick and pay on Wednesday, she hoped for a better deal.
But she didn't get it.
Turns out, to add CNN and CP24 individually, Spitz would pay $14 a month instead of $15. That's only a $1 savings, and her mother would lose a handful of extra channels included in the theme packs.
"That's ludicrous; that's ridiculous," said Spitz.
But some industry experts are not surprised by the pick and pay prices. That's because, they say, TV providers are for-profit companies, and their main objective is to protect the bottom line.
"What did you really expect?" says telecom expert Gerry Wall.
The great pick and pay hope
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had promoted the $25 basic TV plans as a way to provide dissatisfied customers with more choice at an affordable price. It gave companies until March 1 to come up with the plans.
According to the CRTC, 1.57 per cent of Canadian cable subscribers had signed up for the plans by June, well below the anticipated uptake of at least five per cent.
Many customers found that when they added fees for things like equipment rentals or extra channels, the final price just wasn't worth it.
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Pick and pay was the last hope — perhaps the missing link that would help TV viewers finally get what they want — or maybe not.
Spitz feels she's already paying too much — $40 a month total — for her mom's basic plan. But she won't be opting for pick and pay because she thinks she would get even less of a deal.
"That just doesn't seem right," she said.
Rogers told CBC News that adding individual channels to a plan won't benefit everyone and that most customers instead opt for its bigger TV packages "which offer great value."
It said the cable company's standalone channel pricing is "reasonable and competitive."
Bell Canada has been offering pick and pay channels since March 1. Like Rogers, many of them cost $4 or $7 each.
Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) recently rolled out its pick and pay lineup. Customer Cory Boehm in Winnipeg was also floored by some of the prices.
"I was honestly completely shocked," he said.
To save money, Boehm was hoping to downgrade to the basic package once he could top it up with individual channels. But that was before he saw the prices for the stations he wanted, such as $7 a month for AMC and $8 for the Comedy Network.
Boehm points out that if he got the same channels in theme packs, they would actually cost less, which he finds confusing.
'I think the CRTC had good intent, and I think the TV providers are trying to find loopholes.' - Cory Boehm, MTS customer
But no matter how he priced it, he found he wouldn't get a better deal by paring down to the basic plan with some added channels.
"It's very frustrating," says Boehm. "I think the CRTC had good intent, and I think the TV providers are trying to find loopholes."
MTS offered no comment on the issue.
What did you expect?
The CRTC is not expressing concern over channel prices. Although it mandated a basic TV package priced at $25 or less, the commission told CBC News it doesn't regulate retail rates.
"Prices for certain channels may be higher for this reason," said spokeswoman Céline Legault in an email.
Telecom expert Wall says because the CRTC isn't weighing in on pick and pay pricing, customers shouldn't expect bargain basement deals.
You can't ask a business "to give things away or to do things that are going to be damaging to their own financial welfare," says Wall, who runs his own communications firm in Ottawa.
However, he points out that basic TV is still appealing to some customers, namely, those who desire a bare bones plan without a lot of extras.
One of those customers is Peter Vogel in Vancouver. The Shaw subscriber had a big TV plan and says by paring down to basic, he's saving about $60 a month.
"I'm quite happy with what I've got there at the moment. I'm surprised that I'm happy with it."
But even Vogel says he won't be opting for Shaw's new pick and pay offering. He currently pays $6 to get CNN in a theme pack.
If he got CNN alone, he'd lose two other channels and save only $1.
"It doesn't seem worth it," he said.