'Skinny' cable and pick-and-pay TV: What you need to know

The end of big cable bills is nigh. Maybe. Here's what you need to know about the "skinny" TV offerings coming to Canada.

TV providers have tried to keep details quiet, but information is emerging

Come March 1, Canadian consumers will have more choice over what channels they want to watch — and pay for. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

The big day many Canadian TV watchers have been waiting for is almost here.

Tube lovers tired of exorbitant bills for clunky cable bundles full of channels they don't want will finally — finally — be free from telecom tyranny. 

At least that's the theory behind "skinny" cable packages and pick-and-pay channels, which TV providers will be forced to offer to Canadians come March 1.

Is going skinny right for you? Here's a few things to watch for.

What is skinny cable?

Last year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that cable and satellite TV providers in Canada must offer a pared-down "skinny" option for customers priced at $25 or less.

This grouping must have all the channels on the CRTC's mandatory distribution list, which includes CBC, Global and CTV, as well as public interest stations like APTN and minority French or English language channels. 

At least 10 of the channels have to be local or regional. The skinny packages will also have educational channels and the proceedings of the provincial legislature, if they're available.

Providers have the option to add access to some U.S. networks, such as NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and the publicly-funded PBS, but the price can't increase with those options included. 

Customers can then top up their plan with channels not included in their provider's skinny package.

For now, companies can offer the extras either individually or, according to the CRTC, in "reasonably priced" small bundles. These bundles can be a "build-your-own" package of up to 10 channels, or "theme packs."

By December, providers have to offer both. 

What's included in that $25 package?

The $25 monthly fee is for access to the content. Beyond the mandatory channels, any additional content is entirely up to your provider.

The CRTC did not put a limit on how much companies can charge for an individual add-on. Premium offerings like specialty sports or HBO could boost your bill pretty quickly.

"If you want to keep the cost down, you'll have to make a very concerted effort to minimize what you subscribe to," says Daniel Bader, senior editor at tech site Mobile Nations. 

There's also additional monthly charges that could cost you. Cord-cutters or those without an HD or SD box will need to buy or rent one to tune in, for example. You could also end up paying extra for HD programming with some providers.

"Make sure to read the fine print of the deal," says Bader.

Can I easily switch over to a basic package?

In short, it shouldn't be a problem. In 2014, the CRTC banned providers from requiring a 30-day notice to cancel TV, phone and internet service in the hope of creating a more competitive marketplace.

However, unlike cellphone contracts, which can be cancelled without a fee after two years, no such rule is in place for TV.

Therefore if you want to get out of a cable or satellite contract and switch to a new plan, there could well be a charge. How steep the charge depends on the provider and the details of your original deal. 

So what will be on offer?

The answer, of course, depends on your provider. Many have kept conspicuously mum on the details of what they intend to offer customers. Come March 1, they will be required to advertise the packages.

More details are starting to emerge as the deadline approaches, though. Here's what we know so far:

Calgary-based Shaw, with many customers in the West, posted a 40-channel $25 starter package last week. 

According to Shaw's website, its "plan focuses on the basics, providing access to limited programming options." There's a limited selection of extra individual channels starting at $3 per month currently available. 

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Vidéotron in Quebec also has a $25 basic package, but currently it must be supplemented with a $12 bundle of five channels. An employee told CBC News that this will change by the Tuesday deadline to conform to CRTC regulations. 

Rogers originally planned to keep details of its plan quiet until March 1, but after an employee leaked information to CBC News, the company opened up a bit.

It will offer a $24.99 starter package that includes some of the American channels. Customers can add "Starter Theme Packs" that begin at $3 and go as high as $18.

The company has since posted the plan and package options online.

In the case of Bell, a training document obtained by CBC News shows that Bell plans to offer a Fibe TV "Starter" pack with about 20 mandatory Canadian channels for $24.95. Additional pick-and-pay channels will cost customers either $4 or $7.

According to the document, Bell will also require customers who want the basic Fibe plan to purchase internet service with the company as well.

Telus, another TV service provider, previously said it will not divulge the specifics of its skinny plan until deadline day.

Is skinny TV a fit for you?

That depends on what kind of programming you like best. According to Bader, there are lots of scenarios where a customer's viewing habits make a skinny package with pick-and-pay just as or more expensive than plans already available.

But it does give consumers more options, so "there's no real downside to it," he says. 

There's another upside, as well.

"This will give people more leverage," Bader explains.

"If you're happy with your TV package but aren't happy with the price — instead of burning the whole thing down and rebuilding — call and negotiate.

"Right now providers are going to be more inclined to negotiate to lower your existing plan than have you switch to a skinny plan or lose you as a customer."


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.