Rogers Communications unveiled its plan for streaming more than 1,000 National Hockey League games on the Internet last week. Having invested billions of dollars to obtain the Canadian broadcast and Internet rights to NHL hockey, the cable giant pointed to the future of broadcast by embracing consumer demand for making games available online.
As part of the launch, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley responded to questions about the approach by stating “there’s no such thing as too much choice. Let the consumer decide what they want to watch.” Pelley was speaking about hockey streaming, but my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes his comments should resonate loudly this week in a broader context as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission opens its much-anticipated public hearing on the future of television in Canada.
The CRTC hearing has already generated thousands of advance comments from major stakeholders and individual Canadians. It has also unleashed considerable angst from established broadcasters, broadcast distributors, and content creators, who fear that the broadcast regulator will overhaul the current system by implementing changes such as mandatory pick-and-pay channel selection for consumers and reforms to longstanding policies such as simultaneous substitution (which allows Canadian broadcasters to substitute Canadian commercials into U.S. licensed programming).
In fact, the CRTC has left little doubt that change is on the way. In a working document released late last month, it narrowed the likely outcomes to include requiring a mandatory basic cable service at a fixed cost (as low as $20 per month), a mandated pick-and-pay system that would allow consumers to select individual channels rather than being bound by unwanted packages, and the gradual elimination of simultaneous substitution.
While these changes are likely to spur a barrage of horror stories and dire warnings throughout the hearing – broadcasters will claim that the pick-and-pay will effectively kill some unpopular channels and broadcast distributors will warn that increased choice will lead to higher prices – the Rogers hockey streaming announcement signals most of what Canadians really need to know.
First, the CRTC is not forecasting the future of television as much as it is catching up to today’s reality. A broadcast regulatory system premised on limited consumer choice and scarce airwaves has given way to virtually unlimited options and an abundance of delivery mechanisms. With Rogers able to offer nearly the entire NHL season on the Internet, the conventional broadcast system already faces enormous competitive challenges. If the established system does not offer consumers sufficient flexibility and choice, they will go elsewhere.
Second, the Rogers announcement reinforces the importance of existing regulations designed to foster competition online. The company noted that its package would be available to all Canadians, regardless of which cable or wireless provider they use. The broad availability of the service can be attributed both to the economic benefits of selling to a bigger market and to regulatory rules that restrict vertically integrated companies from granting themselves undue preferences.
Moreover, Rogers acknowledged that data used by its wireless customers to stream hockey games would count against their monthly cap. That approach reflects the need to conform to Canada’s net neutrality rules that are designed to maintain a level playing field and represents an about-face from an earlier television streaming service.
Third, as Pelley noted, there is no such thing as too much consumer choice when it comes to the options to watch programs when, where, and on what device Canadians want. The Canadian broadcast regulatory system has long benefited channels with limited viewership and broadcast distributors who forced consumers to purchase unpopular channels as part of expensive packages.
The CRTC hearing is ultimately about shifting away from that model by providing consumers with more choice. That change should force broadcasters to improve their products and broadcast distributors to offer competitively priced services. As the Rogers approach to streaming hockey demonstrates, if they fail to do so, consumers now have other options.