TV choices widen

Friday, October 31st, 2008

CRTC grants consumers some added freedom to pick and choose channels in packages

Paul Vieira

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said the goal was to make sure the system is flexible. Wayne Cuddington file photo – Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — The federal broadcast regulator has denied the request from over-the-air broadcasters to charge cable and satellite operators for their signals, while granting TV consumers some additional freedom to pick and choose what channels they want as part of a cable package.

Those were two main elements of a decision released yesterday from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The ruling comes after three weeks of hearings held in April aimed at how to rewrite the rules governing the broadcasting, cable, satellite and specialty-TV sectors in preparation of the digital age that starts in 2011.

“From the outset we wanted to make sure the system was as flexible as it could be,” Konrad von Finckenstein, CRTC chairman, said of the commission’s work to develop this potentially groundbreaking ruling.

“We spent a lot time second-guessing ourselves, and trying to make sure we avoided unintended consequences. I hope we have done that but the proof will be in the pudding.”

The majority of changes that make up the decision won’t come into effect until September of 2011. However, one change takes effect Sept. 1, 2009 — that cable and satellite companies must pony up an additional $60 million, or 50 cents a subscriber, into a fund aimed at helping over-the-air broadcasters with local programming, such as local TV news. The CRTC said it does not expect this additional cost to be passed on to cable and satellite watchers.

The headline item during those three weeks of hearings was whether over-the-air, or analog, broadcasters would be able to charge a fee to cable and satellite companies to carry their signals. The broadcasters pushing hardest were CTVglobemedia and Canwest Global Communications.

However, in its decision, the CRTC said: “Although over-the-air broadcasters clearly feel strongly that they need the commission’s assistance in increasing their revenues, the commission does not have conclusive evidence in order to make a favourable determination on this matter.”

However, the CRTC did give broadcasters the right to negotiate with cable and satellite providers to determine compensation for distributing “distant signals,” which allows viewers to watch stations that originate in other provinces.

Meanwhile, in a slight win for TV watchers, the CRTC has provided some flexibility in how households are able to pick channels they want to watch.

The CRTC said it is eliminating “most” rules governing how cable and satellite companies package their channels for consumers. But this freedom is contingent on two conditions: At least a majority of channels, meaning 50 per cent plus one, are Canadian; and cable and satellite providers are willing to offer such a package.

In essence, then, the rules will likely give cable and satellite providers more flexibility in packaging channels for their customers.

Up until now, packaging rules specify that for every non-Canadian specialty service offered, there must be one Canadian specialty outlet thrown into the product mix. The ratio on pay-TV services is five non-Canadian to one Canadian.

© The Vancouver Province 2008


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