Canada's broadcast regulator is redoubling efforts to help television subscribers unbundle their TV packages, pressuring TV providers to adhere to a new set of best practices for basic cable.
The guidelines are the result of a hearing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission held in September, calling the country's four largest TV distributors to account for the ways they rolled out slimmed-down bundles of channels that the CRTC first mandated in March.
The regulator said providers should promote new options, keep offers simple, allow multiple-service discounts even on entry-level packages and let subscribers change their channel mix online, among other measures.
To encourage compliance, the CRTC will only renew most TV providers' licences for one year, rather than the typical seven-year term, giving the regulator ongoing leverage to impose conditions on companies if they aren't co-operating. Until then, the CRTC promises to "closely monitor" TV providers' behaviour, especially after Dec. 1, when all channels must be available to buy à la carte.
"We have set out best practices for television service providers and created online tools to help Canadians navigate this new world," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a statement. "We encourage Canadians to shop around."
The so-called "skinny basic" packages, with price tags capped at $25 a month, are part of a push by the regulator toward a pick-and-pay system that lets viewers build their own channel lineups. The new rules arrived with much fanfare earlier this year, but some consumers were disappointed the new choices didn't lead to better deals, and the CRTC received hundreds of complaints.
In September, BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Shaw Communications Inc. and Videotron Ltd. were called to a two-day public hearing to answer for those frustrations.
"Some Canadians have told us clearly that they are not satisfied with the way the new changes have been implemented," Mr. Blais said at the hearing.
He also recounted a complaint from one person who felt their service provider "has effectively held me hostage," because switching to a skinny basic package would mean losing bundle discounts and a higher rental cost for a cable set-top box.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, or PIAC, urged the CRTC to ban such pricing practices, but so far, the regulator has stopped short of intervening directly in the fine details of pricing.
"I think, in this decision, the CRTC attempts to send a strong message to the TV providers, but ultimately leaves it to the consumer to fend for themselves," Alysia Lau, legal counsel for PIAC, said in an interview.
At the fall hearing, Mr. Blais also questioned whether it was "paternalistic" of Rogers to require subscribers to phone or visit a Rogers store to change TV packages, rather than offering online tools to add or remove channels. "I don't see it as being paternalistic," said Melani Griffith, senior vice-president of content for Rogers, adding that conversations with customers are crucial to keep customers from having to call back repeatedly.
The CRTC has designed online tools to help consumers get better deals, promoted with slogans such as "Demand better." An online brochure released Monday coaches TV subscribers through five steps, with advice such as, "Reminding them of your loyalty can help," "ask to speak to a supervisor or the department that can offer better deals" and "tell them you're ready to switch to another provider."
A CRTC spokesman said the commission is "equipping [Canadians] with tools to help them make informed choices in a competitive marketplace."
But such naked advocacy on behalf of consumers has drawn some companies' ire. In September, Mr. Blais said the CRTC received letters from companies urging that it stop offering such tools.
He brushed the complaints aside, saying: "[If] they want to sue us, well, make my day."