Should Canadians Have to Pay For TV Channels They Don’t Want?

Consumers have become accustomed to lots of choice for entertainment and information services. Music and movie services offer single downloads and a range of subscription models, while newspapers and magazines sell their content as individual issues or subscriptions on multiple platforms.

Yet Canadian cable and satellite providers remain a stubborn holdout. The broadcast community has long resisted a market-oriented approach that would allow consumers to exercise real choice in their cable and satellite packages, instead demanding a corporate welfare regulatory framework that guarantees big profits and mediocre programming. My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that could have changed had the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission pushed back against Bell Media in a major case involving the terms of broadcast distribution, but a ruling late last week indicated that it remains reluctant to do so.

  The case pits Canada’s largest broadcaster and a major broadcast distributor against a group of cable and telecom providers including Telus, Cogeco, MTS Allstream, and Eastlink. The common link among this group is that unlike Bell, Rogers, and Shaw, who act as both broadcasters and broadcast distributors, these companies function as independents by only offering broadcast distribution through either cable or IPTV services.

The independent providers want to be able to offer consumers the option to customize their own programming packages. While the prospect of a full pick-and-pay model for individual channels seems unlikely, tiered packages that would allow consumers to create their own package of 15 or 30 channels might be on the table. This model, which is available in Quebec and was used by Rogers in a trial earlier this year in London, Ontario, gives consumers the possibility of some cost savings along with far more flexibility in customizing a television package that meets their interests.

Bell and Shaw strongly oppose the consumer choice model (Rogers is more open to the possibility). Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, recently told, an industry trade publication, that consumer choice is wielded with a television remote as consumer choose what to watch from among the myriad of channels they have effectively been forced to subscribe to as part of most cable and satellite packages.

When asked about the possibility of extending the pick-a-pack model outside of Quebec, Bell said at a recent CRTC hearing that it is “dreadfully fearful of a penetration decline that would wipe out revenues that are necessary to support the obligations of these services.” In case that wasn’t sufficiently clear, it added that “choice and flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of the regulated system for 30 or so services which are at the very heart of the specialty system.” In other words, Bell does not believe consumers should have choice and flexibility if it results in lost revenues for its specialty channels.

Broadcast distributors have grown fat over the years by forcing consumers to purchase expensive packages that include channels they may not want. In fact, the broadcast distributors became so profitable that they ultimately purchased the broadcasters themselves.

With a vertically integrated marketplace now entrenched in Canada, Bell is well positioned to grant itself significant advantages. The twin goals of wide distribution of its specialty channels and the growth of its broadcast distribution services could result in lessening competition by offering packages that independent distributors can’t match, charging uneconomic rates for the distribution of individual channels, or forcing the independent providers to package unpopular Bell-owned specialty channels with high-demand channels. 

It falls to the CRTC to ensure that there is real consumer choice by recognizing that choice does not come from clicking on a remote control. The current system rewards market power over innovative services or programs by guaranteeing broadcasters commercial success based on the inclusion within a popular package, rather than based on consumer interest. The time to prioritize competition and choice over broadcaster self-interest is long overdue.


  1. Just go over-the-air and forgot Bell, Shaw, Rogers
    Many places in Canada (Toronto, Windsor, Niagara region, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa) get a dozen or more channels including the major networks (including non-simsubbed US networks close to the border) in high definition with an antenna.

  2. Is A la carte too much to ask?
    I just want HBO and the NFL Network. Why the hell can’t I just buy them on their own?

  3. I have Netflix. It gives me enough that I’m more than happy. And I can watch it when I want. I should get an antenna though.

    Chances of me resubscribing to cable very much depend on being able to pick and choose the channels I want, not package deals where I need to get 5 different packages to get what I want with lots of stuff I don’t care about.

  4. Pick-and-pay model in place in Quebec is far form cheap!

    I’ve been a customer of Videotron’s Illico cable TV service for many years (Videotron is owned by Quebecor, who is the top cable TV distributor in the province).

    Our current subscription is 20 channels “à la carte”, which means you get to choose the 20 channels you want. In fact, you need to choose from a pre-defined list: some more specialised channels are not permitted.

    The trick is you cannot really pay only for your 20 channels, because Videotron forces you to susbscribe to their basic service if you want to subscribe to any other of their service (ibcluding “à la carte”). That means I need to pay around 20$ per month for some basic local and/or generic channels, even if I don’t want them. Then, I can get what I want by choosing the others.

    All in all, with the recent increase in cable TV prices over the last years, my monthly invoice is now 55 $. It costs me 55 $ to have the privilege of choosing the 20 channels I want. To me, this is ridiculous and way overpriced: my Internet and telephone services’ total monthly invoice runs between 75 and 85 $. If I had no girlfriend to have a say in this, the cable would have been disconnected a long time ago.

    We need more competition in this domain. In Quebec, there are exclusivity zones for cable distribution, meaning there can be only one cable TV provider for each zone. Fortunately, Bell is coming up with their Optical Fiber TV offering soon, but still, it is far from enough.

    Canadian telecoms are a joke. Cellphones, cable TV…we are getting it in the a** and can’T do anything about it.

  5. The old media is dead
    I work for a cable company and I choose not to subscribe to cable television, even with a staff discount. This doesn’t mean I don’t watch tv. There are many other methods of media consumption – like the video store down the street – that I choose to match my budget.

  6. OTA & Internet services
    I think that these companies are realizing that the days of these packages are numbered with a record number of people “cutting the cord”. I think this is why we are seeing them all buy the popular channels. CTV & Bell for example.

    One could take the comments of Bell on the `a la carte` option as a sense of community. We all pay for baseball fields, but we don’t all use them. If only the players paid, we’d have very few baseball fields. If everyone picked the channels they received, special channels such as treehouse would be very expensive and may not be there when you want child programming. We would lose a lot of programming that is only wanted for a small number of people.Of course this logic falls apart once you realize that baseball fields in communities are free to use for everyone and no one is raking in massive profits by renting the space that we all pay for.

    Considering that people now have another option and are simply choosing to not have any channels, they must stop forcing people into what they don’t want. Either they switch payment models and try and stem the cord cutters by having more satisfied customers or they will lose even more profits by trying to maintain a hard nosed approach of a failing business model.

    Who knows, maybe the loss of treehouse may cause a decline in obesity.

  7. And they wonder why people are giving up cable…
    HBO is the worst for this. A perfect example of the stupidity of cable TV.

    Me: Hey, I want to watch this Game of Thrones thing I’ve heard so many good things about.

    HBO: Okay, get HBO.

    Me: But I don’t want any other channels. Or even other shows on HBO, for that matter. Don’t you have a streaming service, something like Netflix?

    HBO: Oh yeah, it’s called HBO Go! You can stream our shows over this new fangled Internet thingy.

    Me: Perfect! How do I get that?

    HBO: You need a subscription to HBO.

    Me: *facepalm* You guys really don’t get how this Internet thing works, do you?

    Seriously, there are so many things to do with your free time and entertainment budget. Cable TV just isn’t worth it.

  8. Viable alternative says:

    My solution
    First of all to get the channels I would enjoy on Cable, I would be paying in the range of $80 a month. Not good value for the money in my opinion. I use my internet connection which I already use and pay for with other activities, so that does not work into the equation. Then I use these following services:

    Strong VPN – $4/month
    Netflix USA – $8/month
    Hulu USA – $8/month
    Pandora USA – FREE

    Total of $20 a month.

    All you need is to either have a friend with a USA credit card or use one of the pre-paid credit card services available. I would use the Canadian Netflix if it offered more than just a sliver of the USA version, and of course Hulu and Pandora are not even available in Canada.

    Of course none of this would be necessary if the Canadian media industry would not be asking for such high royalties and licensing fees. The cry of Canadian content is a red herring, heck I’d even throw a buck or two on my subscription costs to go directly towards Canadian programming.

    Business must adjust or die, their fat profits are not my concern.

  9. Weren’t the incumbent satellite and cable providers “directed” to submit something to the CRTC on April 1st about what they were doing to increase consumer choice and flexibility?

    I wonder what happened to that…

  10. Having packages + a la carte would work for me. (I was able to do that at one point with an old cable co, but not every channel was available a la carte – I was just lucky the 2 I wanted happened to be. 1 package + 2 standalone chans.)

    The internet covers me quite well nowadays, though. Can’t say I watch everything “legally” over the net, but I’ve been priced right out of the legal means, so whatever.

  11. Cord Cutter says:

    Per month costs:
    A fat internet pipe from my cable provider = $55
    I use a small voip provider with my own hardware for phone service = $3.50 with all features plus $0.01 per minute
    I installed a tv antena and receive 30 to 40 over the air channels, many HD US networks = free
    Canadian Netflix, great for kids shows = $8
    Proxy service for Hulu, PBS, BBC so on = $4.50
    Internet based entertainment companies such as Revision3, youTube tv and movies, and Twit = free
    If I can’t find something to watch legally, which is getting harder everyday, I can use the “other network” = free
    Bonus is the advertising my family is subjected to has been reduced to almost nil.

    Most specialty channels have an internet presence and many of their shows are available to watch for free. The only hangup now is a bewildering array of websites and video frontends. A ripe market would be for a video aggregator that can create a PVR type front end with remote control to access all of this diverse content in a clean simple interface.

  12. Blow More Smoke Up Me Ass… Please!
    First the CRTC told us the higher costs would save our culture.

    Then they told us the higher costs would save local TV.

    I think Canadians are just about full of their smoke and I know my ass is particularly full.

    Enough with the bullshit! Let the free market be free. That means letting the competition south of the 49th in to play with Canadian broadcast oligopoly!

    There is no way the CRTC is ever going to be able to tame Canada’s broadcast oligopoly. Period.

    Me. I like many others have all but given up on our government, it’s agencies and our representatives to do anything for the greater good. Unless of course Mr. Good signs the registered lobbyist list. (:

    Just turn the shit off.

  13. Slowy trying to wean the family off cable, we moved into a new house that gave us free internet, tv, phone for a year and do not plan to renew cable tv when the free period expires.. switched to which is about $2.50 a month for phone and will need to keep internet, $55 and luckily my cable ISP has no caps (Source Cable in Hamilton). US Netflix for $8 and $5 for service seems to suffice. You have to bite the bullet and break this TV addiction and just not give these companies your money!! I just wish there was an affordable way that I can watch my beloved Buffalo Bills, football season will be a challenge :/

  14. C-11
    Wouldn’t limiting content to a certain region be considered a ‘digital lock’, and wouldn’t using a VPN to circumvent such lock constitute a crime under Bill C-11?

    I’m currently re-watching Stargate SG1 on but I’d rather have watched Star Trek TNG etc. (available on Netflix US but not Netflix CA). About time there’s mandatory FRAND licensing for content.

  15. Just cancel cable and get OTA/online
    Like others have said just cancel cable. OTA, DVD, iTunes, Netflix, CentreIce – there’s a bevy of ways to legally get TV now.

    These outdated industries like cable/sat will never get it. Cancel your service let them die.

    While your at it switch your internet, cellphone to an indie provider like Teksavvy/Wind etc and totally abandon the beasts of Bell/Rogers/Shaw etc

  16. N. Telling says:

    “wouldn’t using a VPN to circumvent such lock constitute a crime under Bill C-11? ”

    Let’s get picky. By using a tunneling service I am, for all legal intents and purposes (if I recall correctly), bound by the laws of the country the serving system is in as if I was sitting at that physical system performing commands. That’s one of the reasons why Megaupload’s founder got extradited to the US, for some of his servers were on US soil.

    So, as far as I can tell, I could conceivably send a file, for example, an ISO image, down to a computer in Israel, decrypt it, and bring it back.
    I could connect to some US-based VPN service, and look at an episode of “The Daily Show” (or Hulu or something else) without running afoul of Canadian law, since it’s completely legal to look at it under US law.

    That might be shaky legal ground, but that will give me more than nine-tenths of the law (possession of a copy being those 9) and I’d like to see a jury convict on that (considering with subscription-based services I’m paying for the show anyways). I guess we’ll have to see a precedent-setting case from the Supreme Court on that, and until then, I’ll stick with the general consensus of “like you’ll ever be able to enforce it”.

  17. Bill Wittur says:

    Horse and Buggy Policy for a Car World
    Our media and communications policy is being written by the horse and buggy industry when cars are whipping around everywhere.

    In an ideal world, we never would have pushed the CBC over the brink with conversion to digital and would have done everything we could to protect its basic mandate which is to provide free information access to Canadians. Of course, I care less about ‘entertainment content’ than I do about good, professional original news (and not regurgitated propaganda from Canadian Press).

    The CBC would continue to air TV and radio content without forcing Canadians to subscribe to over-inflated cable and satellite services.

    All Canadians need to seriously rethink their monthly communications costs and tally up what they’re paying just to get one or two channels.

    The CRTC? Our media and communications regulator and our governments need to accept the fact that the future has been here for very a long time.

  18. Netflix FTW
    I still have basic cable, and do not forsee expanding that in the near future. I will not pay $15.00 or more per group to get the 3 channels I want that are split between those groups. OTHO, Netflix lately has gotten better, with more selection and lots of old episodes from recent programs.

  19. Telecom mess
    I’ve been subscribing to Dishnet for quite a while now. The service is cheaper, has greater selection. I can get a decent selection of Spanish language channels that I want which no Canadian provider will give me at any cost. The picture and sound quality is better. More HD channels and the Dishnet receiver has an optional plug in module that uses a standard antenna to pull in local channels in HD at zero extra cost, also something that no Canadian provider will do.
    Also, live programming is not delayed by two weeks, is actually live and laced with Canadian adverts.
    I also do not use any of the incumbent internet service providers. I get better speeds with NO data caps for less money.
    I refuse to give one cent to the Bell, Shaw, Telus, Rogers cartel.
    There are better choices but they should be more readily available and not illegal. The situation here is ridiculous. Toss the can con regs and the foreign ownership rules so we can have some real competition please!

  20. I don’t even watch TV anymore
    All the TV shows that I or my family watch are streamed for free on the networks’ web site one day after airing. So we can’t watch it the very day it airs… who cares? Not me… not my wife. As long as we remember to watch the shows we want to catch sometime during the week, before it gets replaced by a newer episode, all is good.

  21. I used to have Bell up until late last year (Oct 2011), I was paying about $100 a month and was only watching like 5-6 channels, it was ridiculous. In an ideal world, have the cable company set a price per channel and then let market forces determine what will be charged for that channel. The popular channels will probably cost more, but if people want to pay for them, let them. Who needs hundreds of channels when you are only watching half a dozen. If some smaller networks die, so be it. Thats the law of the free market. I’m glad I cut the cord back in October and now just have Netflix. Goodbye Satellite!!!!

  22. Canadians are wimps!! We have that damn CRTC and their bed-fellows Bell Shaw and the cable companies with their oligopoly telling me what I can watch! Screw them. I have DIRECT TV straight from the USA and don’t give a rats ass that it is illegal. I will damn well watch what the hell I want to. This ain’t North Korea or Cuba. Or is it?

  23. I watch most of my shows online. It would be nice to get Treehouse for my kids because when we have cable services and the rare time the TV is on, it’s only on Treehouse. Unfortunately, in order to get it I have to pay, what I consider to be, an insane amount of money, when we only use one channel. It would be nice if we could pick and choose channels, like at $2 per one per month or with some added discount depending on the number of channels you get/want.