When someone goes into a shop to buy a pair of cotton socks, the store does not insist that the customer also buy two other pairs, one of mostly polyester and another of wool, plus four men's shirts, three women's hats and a seersucker suit. But that's how things have long worked in the land of cable television. You could usually only order the channels you wanted if you also agreed to pay for a load of those you didn't.
So let us give a small round of applause to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (under orders from the Conservative government's 2013 Throne Speech) for finally dragging the cable TV business into the modern world.
The new business model is to be "pick-and-pay," which really just means shopping for TV channels. The CRTC will still force customers to buy a "skinny package" of basic channels for $25 a month or less, and that mandatory package will include some channels you'd rather not watch, or pay for. But there should be a lot of consumer choice beyond the basic tier.
Some observers think viewers will end up paying somewhat more than they do today, to receive the channels they want. Others believe the opposite. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the television business is essentially a commercial one, and it should mostly be conducted according to commercial principles. Popular channels should be allowed to prosper without being compelled to cross-subsidize other, less popular operations.
The commission is also moving in the right direction by limiting Canadian-content requirements to prime time, thereby raising the stakes. Rather than compelling broadcasters to spread their Can-con dollars around, the CRTC will allow more resources to be devoted to fewer shows, aiming for really popular successes – and engaging culture, we hope, too.
Under orders from their political masters, Mr. Blais and his colleagues are finally sailing a new course. They are moving in the right direction. But it all feels like too little, and far too late. Twenty years ago, traditional television was the only game in town and the CRTC was at the centre of the action. That was a very long time ago.