It was the worst-kept secret in Ottawa.
For months, people in the television industry had been whispering ominously about an impending decision by the broadcast regulator that would give Canadian consumers the ability to pick and pay for exactly which TV channels they wanted. The decision, which the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission finally handed down on Thursday afternoon, mandates cable and satellite TV providers to offer so-called "skinny basic" packages for a maximum price of $25. Subscribers will be able to add whichever channels they want, on either a standalone basis or in packages. The CRTC's chair Jean-Pierre Blais trumpeted the move as "another important step forward for Canada's television system," and one which was "all about choice and affordability."
This week's decision is actually the third major one to come out of the CRTC's Let's Talk TV public consultation process. The first, announced in late January, will enable Canadians to watch the multimillion-dollar U.S. ads during the annual Super Bowl broadcast at the same time as American viewers do. It was a bizarre move, which seemed designed mainly to relieve the CRTC of the burden of having to listen to Canadians complain that they are being denied their inalienable right to watch slick TV ads.
Within days, Bell Media, which currently holds the Canadian rights to the Super Bowl broadcast, went to court to get it reversed. (Bell Media's parent company, BCE Inc., owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.) But if it was unexpected, it was also populist – and, for the normally staid CRTC, weirdly calculating.
The second decision, which was handed down last week, kiboshed some of the Canadian content air-time quotas that helped the domestic industry grow and flourish over the past couple of decades. Some broadcasters believe it will lead to higher-quality Canadian shows, since they'll be able to concentrate their spending on fewer programs. Others aren't so sure; still others are terrified of the changes. But really, few outside the TV industry know enough – or, more to the point, care enough – about that debate.
No, the thing that apparently caused people to riot in the streets (or at least the modern equivalent: send angry e-mails to the CRTC) was the common industry practice of bundling TV channels. Most people regularly watch only a couple of dozen channels on a regular basis, and they are tired of paying for the hundreds of others available on their cable lineups.
So the Harper government, which is all for free enterprise except when there are votes to be had, decided to do something about it. Too bad they made the CRTC look slavish in the process.
In September, 2013, the commission announced a national conversation about the future of television. Called Let's Talk TV, it asked Canadians to hold "flash conferences" with friends and colleagues talking about TV, or phone or write to the CRTC to voice their frustrations with the system, and outline how things might change. But even before the CRTC could start the process, the Harper government handed down its marching orders: The Speech from the Throne on Oct. 16, 2013, declared: "Our Government believes Canadian families should be able to choose the combination of television channels they want. It will require channels to be unbundled, while protecting Canadian jobs."
The CRTC is supposed to operate on an arm's-length basis, so it can develop policy that is free from politics. So much for that.
Last September, the commission invited more than 100 industry and consumer groups to articulate their views of the evolving TV landscape. Things got heated when Corie Wright, director of global public policy for Netflix Inc., was ordered by Mr. Blais to provide some sensitive business information. (The CRTC regularly requires this of companies that operate under its jurisdiction; the information is kept confidential.) Later that day, Heritage Minister Shelly Glover issued a statement that seemed to be a shot across the bow of her own regulator, noting on Twitter: "We will not allow any new regulations or taxes on Internet video – we will reject a Netflix and YouTube Tax." She also said: "Government has been clear in policy commitments. Promised TV channels would be unbundled."
And so they will be, and right on time, too. Word around Ottawa was that the government wanted the pick-and-pay decision to come out in early spring, in order to give the Conservative Party another pro-consumer issue for this fall's election.
Interestingly, the news broke early on Thursday, after it was leaked to a number of press outlets. The CRTC prides itself on confidentiality, and it holds announcements like these until 4 p.m. (ET) because the information has the potential to move stock markets. I can't recall the last time a leak like this occurred. But then, I can't recall the last time the federal government took such a keen interest in a particular CRTC proceeding.
I'm not saying, of course, that someone in the Harper government leaked the news. But after setting the stage for this particular TV drama and overseeing a lot of the action, it wouldn't be a surprise if they wanted to write their own ending, too.