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Canada's Attempt To Force Cheaper, More Flexible Cable Packages Is A Bit Of A Joke

Canada’s attempt to force Canadian cable providers to deliver cheaper, more flexible cable TV bundles appears to be a comedy of errors. Last year, driven by user complaints, the CRTC passed rules requiring Canadian cable companies to provide a $25 so-called “skinny bundle” of discounted TV channels starting March 1 of this year, and the option to buy channels individually (a la carte) starting December 1 (aka this week). Companies responded by first pouting, then by offering new “discounted” TV bundles so layered with hidden fees, surcharges, and caveats as to be effectively useless.

This week’s deadline to offer a la carte TV channels doesn’t appear to be going much better. Companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Bell are now allowing users the option to buy TV channels individually — but they’ve again priced each channel high enough to make the option completely pointless. Under this new pricing paradigm, buying individual channels can cost you anything from $6 to $20 per channel. After having a little time to crunch the numbers, consumers were quick to complain to the BBC about the absurdity of the entire effort:

“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.

Incumbent Canadian TV providers, as you also might expect, insist that offering “discounted” service that really doesn’t provide any discount is the height of value, and that the way they’ve always done things (read: offering you a bloated, expensive bundle of channels you don’t actually watch) is the best way to continue to do things:

“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.”

Part of the problem is that the CRTC doesn’t really have the authority or willingness to fully regulate rates, so it’s demanding less expensive options for consumers — but isn’t really willing (or in some instances able) to hold companies accountable when they tap dance around the requirements. In a March interview with The Globe and Mail, CRTC boss Jean-Pierre Blais tried to downplay public criticism of the effort (and the CRTC’s unwillingness to follow through) by claiming the goal was never to lower soaring cable bills:

“People may have thought, mistakenly, that the CRTC was going to reduce everybody’s cable bills – that’s not what we promised. We said we’re going to give you more choice,” Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said in an interview.”

But what people actually got was the illusion of more choice under what appears to just be regulation theater. Given the fact that streaming video competition (and by proxy lower prices and more choices) will be arriving whether these cable companies like it or not, the CRTC’s effort could just be a giant waste of time. A better tack for regulators would be to focus not on trying to drag legacy TV kicking and screaming into the modern era, but to focus on improving broadband competition and obstacles (usage caps) to the rise of cheaper, better, and more flexible streaming TV alternatives.

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