CRTC warns cable companies to behave following $25 basic TV outrage
CRTC says it will keep an eye on TV providers as they try to renew broadcast licences
After facing numerous complaints about the new $25 skinny basic TV packages, the CRTC has come up with a number of "best practices" for how cable companies "should" behave.
And just to make sure they pay attention, the CRTC has also announced it's renewing most TV providers' broadcast licences for only one short year rather than the typical seven-year term, while it keeps watch on them.
However, the best practices are not regulations. According to the commission, they are instead a checklist for how cable companies should conduct their business to ensure that Canadians are offered "real choice" when it comes to their TV services.
That leaves some people skeptical that the prescribed practices will actually become a reality. "I would have been happier to hear more rules and then penalties if they don't follow the rules," says Gilda Spitz, a cable customer in Thornhill, Ont.
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The CRTC had mandated that by March 1, cable companies had to offer a so-called "skinny basic" TV package for $25 or less.
Many customers have complained that the basic packages came with no routine discounts, and that when they added fees for things like equipment rentals or extra channels, the price became unreasonable.
"It just doesn't make sense," says Spitz. She signed her mother up for the basic Rogers $24.99 TV plan and was surprised that it jumped to $40 after adding a couple of channel theme packs. It's still, however, cheaper than her mom's previous cable package.
The best way to behave
The best practices the CRTC has laid out include not forcing TV subscribers to get their internet with the same company, and giving basic customers the same deals offered to people with pricier plans.
That means basic subscribers should have access to added perks like video on demand and the opportunity to combine their TV package with other services in a discount bundle.
"The commission considers that discount practices that make the small basic service a more onerous option than larger [TV packages] are inconsistent with the policy," states the CRTC on its website.
The commission also expects providers to keep their TV offers "simple and transparent" for customers, including the new individual pick-and-pay channel deals they must provide customers by Dec. 1.
But the CRTC lists no fines or concrete consequences for cable companies that don't play along. Instead, it pledges to "closely monitor" them.
A little more action?
"I don't know if watching is the same," says Spitz, who adds she would rather the CRTC take action now to force providers to offer Canadians better basic TV deals.
But Toronto tech analyst Daniel Bader believes the commission is doing all it can considering it's not in the business of regulating prices.
"This is the best and most cautious approach the CRTC can take in the sense that it's always hesitant to regulate behaviour," says the senior editor with the tech site Mobile Nations.
Bader points out that the commission has limited licence renewals to a one-year term, which suggests the CRTC means business.
"They've essentially said, we're going to give you a year to take our suggestions to heart and if you haven't done that in 12 months, then we'll see about implementing new regulations."
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Bader also says telco behaviour has already changed for the better. Rogers recently announced that "in the coming months," customers will be able to get its basic plan in a bundle discount.
Bell Canada has also announced that early next year it will stop requiring basic Fibe TV customers in Ontario and Quebec to also sign up for its internet service.
Bell faced much criticism for tying the two products but says untying them had nothing to do with the complaints.
Don't like it? Shop around
And for Canadians still unhappy with the basic $25 TV packages, the CRTC encourages them to shop around for a better deal.
The commission recently posted comparison-shopping tips for Canadians, along with the slogan "You have choices; demand better."
Its advice includes doing price comparisons and suggesting that when calling your provider to negotiate, "Speak with confidence but stay polite. Show the customer service rep that you did your homework."
Spitz says the tips sound like the CRTC is passing the buck. "They're saying, 'We can't be bothered protecting Canadians, so you're on your own.'"
She also points out that comparison shopping is pointless for her mother, 88-year-old Liza Eshanou, who lives in a nursing home that only offers Rogers TV service.
"She has no choice. She can't go anywhere else."
However, Bader applauds the CRTC for offering Canadians TV shopping advice. He says in a climate where it's not going to control prices, the commission is finding other ways help consumers get the best bang for their buck.
"It's telling customer how to get those better deals," he says. "It may not be as overtly effective as some people would have liked, but it's definitely a good start."
Spitz believes her best bet at this point is to wait and see if she can get a better deal for her mother when Rogers offers stand-alone pick and pay channels on Dec. 1.