CRTC begins hearing proposals for pick-and-pay, other cable TV changes

The CRTC has begun a two-week public hearing into sweeping proposals that could, if adopted, dramatically change how Canadians receive and pay for their television.

Hearings continue until Sept. 19, could dramatically alter TV content delivery

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Extended broadcast regulations into the online space would hinder innovative content streaming companies like YouTube, Netflix and others, Google Canada told the CRTC in hearings on the future of television on Monday.

Jason Kee said asking digital companies to contribute to various Canadian-content funds, while at the same time not allowing them to benefit from them, would hurt the industry.

"Mandatory contributions would likely increase costs to consumers in the form of increased subscription fees and creators in the form of diminished licence fees or revenue share for them," Kee said.

He was one of many speakers in what the regulator is calling "Let's Talk TV" — a series of hearings into how the future of television should be regulated.

In opening the hearings, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais suggested that rules protecting specific channels or broadcasters could be thrown out in favour of new regulations that empower Canadians to get TV programming how they want it, when they want it.

"Rather than protect specific channels or broadcasters or a particular way of doing business, we must ensure that the television system meets the needs and interests of Canadians, both today and in the years ahead," said Blais.

'Pick-and-pay' cable TV?

One of the many options on the table is to allow so-called "pick-and-pay" cable packages, where consumers can custom-make their own television plans, only paying for the channels they want to watch, without being forced to subscribe to others.

Representatives from Canada's Competition Bureau and other consumer groups were on hand, with the former arguing that bundling of possibly unwanted channels is tantamount to price discrimination.

The Competition Bureau also suggested it's not a sure thing that a more flexible market would bring down prices. "Prices could go down [but] they could go up," Renée Duplantis said.

For their part, the big cable companies say they're open to changing their distribution model to allow more customization — as long as it's a level playing field.
Canada's Industry Minister James Moore in late 2013 indicated that he wanted cable and satellite providers to offer an option other than bundled packages. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

"The evidence shows that most consumers do not believe basic packages have too many channels; the key consumer demand is for more flexibility in adding channels over and above the basic package," a spokesman for Bell said in the company's submissions to the hearings. "This puts consumers in control and ensures they never have to pay for a channel they don't want just to get one that they do."

Howard Law, a media spokesman for Unifor, a union that represents many in the television sector, said he believes less profitable Canadian channels will fold under a pick-and-pay cable system.

"The introduction of pick and pay will, in itself, lead to a major loss of revenues to Canadian broadcasting system, which ultimately plays out in less Canadian content and less Canadian jobs and less Canadian broadcasting," he said in an interview on CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

"But if they go further and make it easier for American companies to compete head to head in unfettered competition with Canadian channels, then the results will be quite extreme," he said. 

The CRTC has already suggested it would like to see a cap on the price of a basic TV package — known in industry parlance as a "skinny basic" plan — at somewhere around $30 a month. 

The hearings will continue in Gatineau, Que., for the next two weeks. More than 188 deputants are scheduled to speak as well as members of the public.

With files from The Canadian Press