Forget “Skinny Basic”, It’s Time For the CRTC To Mandate Full Consumer Broadcast Choice

The CRTC vertical integration hearing continues today, following several full days last week in which the Commissioners repeatedly asked whether companies such as Rogers, Bell, and Shaw should be required to offer a “skinny basic” service – a cheaper television package with limited programming. The introduction of skinny basic appears to be one of the CRTC’s preferred responses to the issue, since it is concerned that vertically integrated companies will use their broadcast distribution services to require subscribers to subscribe to their broadcast properties. The major integrated providers have opposed the idea, arguing consumers aren’t interested.

While greater consumer choice is definitely needed, skinny basic, which still envisions a required basket of channels, isn’t good enough. A preferable approach would be to offer consumers real choice with a full pick-and-pay format. I discussed the option in 2009 during the fee-for-carriage fight:

A full “a la carte” model would require three steps. First, exclude public broadcasters from the issue altogether. The CBC argues it is also entitled to fee-for-carriage compensation, yet that runs counter to the very notion of a public broadcaster.  The public has already paid for the broadcasts and should not be asked to pay again.  Public broadcasters should instead form a new basic tier for cable and satellite providers that would be considerably cheaper since it would only include channels for which no fees are attached.

Second, make all remaining channels – local, foreign, and specialty – optional for consumers.  Groups of channels can still be packaged to offer better value (sports, movie, local channel, or U.S. channel packages), but the crucial difference from the current system would be that Canadian consumers would get to decide what channels they want to pay for.

Third, institute a fee-for-carriage system so private broadcasters are compensated for their local signals where consumers choose to subscribe.  If Canadians are really concerned with their local television, they will subscribe and the broadcasters will be the beneficiaries. If the Canadian broadcasters are wrong, however, they lose both compensation and mandatory carriage.

The core principle is simple – the CRTC mandates full consumer choice so that vertically integrated companies can’t use their market power to pressure consumers to subscribe to unwanted channels, broadcasters are forced to compete for consumer dollars by offering something that is worth paying for, and consumers start with public broadcasters (which they’ve already paid for) and go from there.


  1. Sounds good, but will probably be more expensive for the customer
    Even if they charged 50 cents a channel, most people would still probably end up paying more for true a-la-carte channel selection if they wanted to maintain anything close to the selection they have now. Sure anglophones could cut out the few french channels, and you could probably get rid of quite a few channels that you don’t usually watch, but I think it’s nice to have all the channels, because every once in a while, there’s something good on a channel which you almost never watch. This will only be resolved once more on-demand services like Netflix start to get more content, including live or just aired TV shows. Then we can do away with this whole thing, and people can truly pay for exactly what they are watching. Then we just have to worry about metered internet.

  2. Jason Keirstead says:

    French Language
    The problem with “pick and pay” in Canada is that with this model, private French language stations would not be economically viable.

    This is the core reason that a-la-carte systems can not work in Canada in conjunction with the equal-status provisions enforced by the CRTC – the base cable packages (which ALWAYS include French language stations) amortize out the cost among the Canadian public.

    For example, TQS would not be able to exist in it’s current form if a-la-carte programming was the norm in Canada, because they would lose a huge swath of their subscriber base overnight.

    This is not to say I am not for a-la-carte. I am of the opinion that people should not be paying to subsidize entertainment programming for anyone. But you can’t really have a conversation on the topic without including this very important point.

  3. More expensive, Kibbee? Not for my family and I’d wager for most
    perhaps for you, that’s true, Kibbee. “Every once in a while” isn’t anywhere near enough justification for most to subscribe to that one extra channel. If you miss it, so what? Most people could’ve spent that 30 minutes/one hour etc much more constructively than watching TV anyway. My family would be thrilled with $0.50 a channel, even $2 a channel would be fine, and my wife’s a bit of a TV junkie. We’d only need CBC/Global/CTV/CITY/ABC/NBC/CBS/PBS/Discovery/HGTV/Food/HBO/BBC/TSN and maybe a couple more for the kids and we’re done, thanks. In the $0.50 per channel scheme you’re proposed that’s maybe $10/month. Awesome. I can’t imagine why people want 500 channels of mostly trivial, passive, stupefying junk that passes for “entertainment”. Different strokes, I guess. At $10/month I could save more than $700/year from Robbers. Bring that on.

  4. Why don’t we just get rid of everything but sports, porn, and business news?
    It would be much simpler than the heavy-handed regulation advocated here. 50 cents a channel? Let’s be clear — for niche services, right now consumers pay well below that. Once that niche service is trying to recover its cost in an à la carte world, thought, the now-astronomical 50 cents can’t cut it. Think three to five bucks, for a little while. Then it goes away.

  5. I will subscribe to cable again if a-la-carte is available
    I disagree with previous comment by @Kibbee, in which he believes that service will be more expensive. I bet majority of people watch just a few channels and skip pretty much all the rest. True a-la-carte will allow for evolution in the broadcasting marketplace, where useless and junk channels will die, because customers will not be paying for them. One thing should be noted is that cable companies should not allow for preferred status for their own channels to be included in a basic package. So that their own channels would be subjects to the same survival forces. This will also allow to evaluate, in the long term, how Canadians value their forced into their throats Canadian mostly-junk content. I argue that bundles should be optional, for example some time in the past I had News bundle from Rogers with CNN, ABC, etc news channels all in one, however I shortly realized that I’m watching exclusively BBC World News, since I was not interested in the Entertainment Gossips and Sexual Rumors, which is what all US networks are covering today, leaving any real news completely forgotten. At the same time my wife watched HGTV, we had no time for anything else in our busy lives, but payed for a huge package since news was in one bundle and HGTV in the other. Our movie fix is still satisfied with huge selection of disks in quality that I can call HD and not “High Definition” that Rogers offers. So all in all I would pay may be 5$ for BBC World News (otherwise I will just continue paying the same $5) and 5-10$ for HGTV each quite expensive, but in the end it will be still lower than 70$ that I was paying before I cut the cord.

  6. Sort of already have half of his
    Videotron already offers a-la-carte on top of the basic service; in my case, I get he basic package plus 30 channels of my choice that I get to pick, and I’m able to change them once a month from my receiver.

    It ends up costing a pretty penny, though, since they charge more than a buck a channel, on top of the basic package, and numerous fees.

  7. Netflix
    A-la-carte would save me a vast amount of money since all I need at the moment is the kid’s channels.

    Still, if given the choice between an a-la-carte TV system or an on-demand type of delivery, such as Netflix. The convenience of the on-demand service will win out hands down, just as soon as I get sufficient bandwidth.

  8. Good luck DaveyJJ
    $10 for those cahnnels? good luck. The conventional broadcast channels should be virtually free since they aren’t charging fee for carriage (yet?). But at least 2 of the channels you picked will blow your theory apart. TMN which carries HBO is already virtually pick and play and its $18-20. CRTC data shows that Astral and Corus who run TMN and Movie Central get around $9.30/sub/month. The BDUs then double it to make some margin for themselves. TSN is apparently looking to charge the BDUs $4/sub/m or more. Again, bet that the BDUs don’t pass that to you at cost so maybe $6-8?. So for 2 of the channels you want you would be at better than $25.

    When you get the giant 300 channel package you have to realize that alot of it is virtually free. Don’t think that because you have Treehouse on your dial but you don’t have kids (just an example) you’re spending a bunch of money you shouldn’t have to. Meanwhile the family next door who watches Treehouse non-stop thinks the Food channel (which you like) is a waste of money. Each are insignificant on your bill and if, with a la carte, you cancel Treehouse and your neighbour cancels Food, the broadcasters who own them will have to double their rates to stay even. So you cut out a channel but didn’t save any money.

    Its wrong to think there is a whole bunch of money to be saved from going a la carte.

  9. justanexer says:


    I absolutely agree with you… I just want on-demand delivery. Netflix is by far what we use more than anything else, the only cable channels we ever watch is golf channel and hgtv.

    In fact we called rogers to drop our cable and they offered to reduce the price to $15/month, so we kept it with the reduced price. For our usage it’s still not really a deal (2 channels we watch a couple hours a week max) considering what we get on netflix for much cheaper.

    al a carte would definitely be a saving for me even if they charged a couple dollars a channel.

  10. Sergei has got it right. We pay more for what we don’t want to watch than for what we do want to watch. I spent about $4000 setting up a nice home theatre system in time for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. As a Shaw cable subscriber, could I get CTV Edmonton in HD? No. I had to pay extra to get CTV Toronto in HD and do the time shifting using my PVR. Today, I still can’t get CTV Edmonton in HD from Shaw. I’d have to subscribe to Telus TV. That’s not choice. All the SD channels that I must subscribe to (and don’t watch) in order to get any HD channels is not choice. Vertical integration by the major telcos under their present business paradigm and the CRTC regulatory scheme is just not in the best interests of Canadians.

  11. @moosebump
    “the broadcasters who own them will have to double their rates to stay even.”

    They can only increase their prices so much before they price themselves out of the market. Right now, on Bell, if I want a single, non-premium, out-of-package channel, like Food, or Treehouse, it will cost me an extra $2.50/mo/channel. I still have to buy the base package at the very least. That being said, I bet I can save $40/mo if I took the time to examine what we actually want and use, went with the base package and just added single channels to it.

  12. Some thoughts …
    I cut the cord quite a while ago, but it was mainly because I did not see I was getting much value for my money, that and the few channels I wanted were always in different packages. There must be a large research division at the cable companies that finds the most inconvenient package distributions possible.

    With so much junk on today I was better off buying the shows I wanted on DVD, our family really enjoyed going through the older quality series like The Cosby Show, The Waltons and of course the original Star Trek 😉

    The few current shows I was unwilling to wait on the DVD release I downloaded via iTunes, but that was so expensive, often more than cost of the DVD set, that my purchases were few and far between. With the arrival of Netflix a whole new world opened up which we are thoroughly enjoying.

    Of course we still need the news but the only over the air station we can receive here is CBC, and it is unclear what will happen to our old analog repeater in the Fall. Most likely I will spend more time using CBC’s streaming site.

    Honestly, I have considered getting a VPN service to geo-unlock the vast paid content services available in the USA. I would prefer the much greater selection on the USA Netflix and would just love to have access to Hulu plus.

    Of course I would first have to look into the legality of it, but I would also prefer to give some more time for our Canadian rights holders to allow more innovative services to operate here, rewarding both us and themselves in the process.

  13. I agree with moosebump. Furthermore, following his reasoning, all you’ll end up with is a MUCH smaller universe of channels: As Broadcasters & BDUs increase the cost to subscribe to niche channels to remain economically viable, their audience will drop off, resulting in less subscriber until they eventually close. Then what you’re left with is a handful of “Superchannels” that effectively control broadcast distribution and little else. This, in turn, will encourage people to seek niche content online (through legitimate and illegitimate sources), further hastening the demise of the conventional broadcasting system. And, because the bulk of the production funding is derived from the conventional broadcasting system, it will likely mean less TV production (and definitely lower production values).

  14. @Ecade “This, in turn, will encourage people to seek niche content online (through legitimate and illegitimate sources), further hastening the demise of the conventional broadcasting system.”

    Would not the niche programming you refer to still need to be produced even if it was watched online? Are we not talking about a shift from one venue to another? I would think writers, producers & actors would still be needed and be paid.

    Don’t take me wrong here, I am not advocating the demise of the ‘traditional broadcasting system’, but did video really kill the radio star or just transform it?

  15. Andrew McCoubrey says:

    FFS VFS instead of Free?
    Would your system not allow broadcast networks to choose to be free (and must-carry) as a business model? If I’m reading it right you think only CBC should be mandatory, and private OTA broadcasters would have to set a fee and be optional. Maybe, if forced to choose, all of them would opt for FFS anyhow, but I’m not so sure.

  16. Un-Trusted Computing says:

    Considering Netflix (and its peers eventually) are slowly getting into Television production it’s only a matter of time before they start becoming the main source of production dollars. I don’t think production is going away anytime soon, but the producing entities are changing, and that’s a good thing, because most of the large producing entities right now aren’t really producing much of value, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money on your TV budget.

  17. @Andrew McCoubrey
    That is the way that I read it as well. However, to play devil’s advocate here, allowing the CBC to collect fee for carriage would allow it to reduce the $1.1 Billion that it gets from the federal government every year for TV operations. Granted, some of that also supports production of programs, not just operating the stations, so the model is not exactly the same as a Global or CTV…

  18. IamME is right. Niche channels can only increase their prices so much before they price themselves out of the market — in the regulated a la carte system advocated here, they’re gone. The only question is just how much regulation is being advocated. Sure, IamME can subscribe only to Treehouse, but will he experience sticker shock when Rogers only knocks a buck off his monthly cost? And is IamME expecting the CRTC to regulate the à la carte prices to set them at below-cost rates in order for him to achieve a more meaningful discount? Because I’m not sure I see it.

  19. Base Access
    Further to Serge, the only way I see this working for a “traditional” content delivery schema is that there be a base access charge with the channels they deem we need to have, then the a la carte selection charges be applied on top of that. Will be cheaper? Probably not a lot.

    More bandwidth and on-line services can’t come soon enough. I’ll be interested in seeing what the Bestbuy service will have to offer.

  20. DIE_CRTC_DIE_DIE says:

    A la carte will never happen…
    …because it requires the CRTC to function as an effective regulator in the public’s interest.

    Maybe if there’s a massive shakeup after everyone’s favourite corporate whore Konrad Finkfuckface reaches the end of his run, and the Conservatives suddenly alter their Policy Direction such that it can’t be interpretted any which way the reader prefers… Short of that it’s a pipe dream.

  21. Anonymous says:

    @Jason Keirstead
    While I agree with you, I know that this might actually be used as an argument to do à la carte television since some people actually wants to destroy the presence of french in North America. We must not forget also, that the CRTC will ALWAYS do that’s best for Bell, Telus and Rodgers since they are in those compagnie’s pocket…

  22. I’ve been waiting for this for Years!
    I have been waiting for this idea for years. When I look at what channels I watch (I evaluate this at least twice a year) I notice again and again that I watch less than half of the basic channels and only about another 6 other channels. If I could cut the basic service in half and add 6 channels (say $2 a pop to be kind) my bill would go from $60+HST to $27+HST. I’m game for that!

  23. Ramblin' Rose says:

    Basic Service is now/very soon to be High Definition
    Once upon a time one could choose between rabbit ears, a tower of relative height with antenna and then cable came along and said we will give to basic service with less interference.

    The time has come for the CRTC to recognize that the minimum standard available over the airwaves from ABC, CBS, NBC, CBC, CTV and others is HD and that this should form the basis of basic cable and satellite service offerings and at the same time the CRTC should eliminate the telephone charges for touch tone as well.