The days of guaranteed placement on the Canadian television dial are nearing an end, as the country's regulator is signalling to broadcasters it may never again grant that privilege to specific channels.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Thursday rejected a dozen bids for inclusion on basic cable packages, including one by Sun News Network, which had argued it was being treated unfairly by television providers, some of which refused to carry its signal.
The regulator said it was unlikely to force certain channels onto TV lineups in the future and make viewers pay for them through a controversial tool known as "mandatory carriage." (Basic cable is made up of mandatory channels, plus whichever services the provider bundles with them.)
"The environment has changed. How one thinks about accessing content also has to change," said Jean-Pierre Blais, the chair of the CRTC, in an interview.
The commission held two weeks of hearings last April to consider adding channels to every basic cable lineup. To qualify for mandatory carriage, a channel must add something unique to the Canadian broadcast system and give a voice to a group that would otherwise not have one.
But with price-conscious consumers threatening to cut their television subscriptions as costs creep higher, and alternative services such as YouTube and Netflix making it easier to watch popular shows, the commission was wary of adding new channels.
If all the bids had been approved, it could have added as much as $2.75 to the average monthly television bill.
The regulator acted cautiously, adding only two channels to the national mandatory lineup, both of them French: Accessible Media, which already exists in English and provides services for viewers who have difficulty with their vision; and Nouveau TV5, which will provide programming about the Francophone experience.
It also granted the special status to the regional service operated by the Legislative Assemblies of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, to cover those law-making bodies. All three channels are operated by not-for-profit organizations.
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and CPAC, which already had mandatory carriage status, had their licences renewed, but they did not receive the boost in the wholesale fees for which they'd hoped.
All of the other applicants were turned away, including Sun, ZoomerMedia's VisionTV and a channel called Starlight that looked to broadcast Canadian movies. The rejected channels are unlikely to get a second chance to apply: Mr. Blais said he couldn't foresee any circumstance that would cause him to open the field to applicants again.
"This may very well be the last time," Mr. Blais said.
Prior to the hearing, Sun had said it would shut down its two-year-old operation if the CRTC didn't force all cable, satellite, and IPTV systems across the country to carry its signal, and pay it a higher wholesale rate than the average 6 cents per month it is currently receiving. But after the CRTC said Thursday it will look at helping all national news services secure carriage across the country, Sun promised to stay on the air for the time being.
VisionTV also said it no longer believed it needed mandatory carriage to survive.
Starlight, however, said it was "deeply disappointed" by the CRTC's rejection of its application, and it seems unlikely to continue.
Described Video Guide, a proposed service that would advise viewers where TV shows with described video could be found, said it would file a human rights complaint over its rejection.
The CRTC's move away from mandatory carriage signals another shift toward a television system that allows consumers more choice, Philip Lind, executive vice-president of regulatory at Rogers Communications Inc., said.
"We are moving toward more and more instances where the customer can really declare what he or she wants to pay for," he said. "I think it was pretty clear from the outset that the applications were swimming upstream in trying to force customers to pay for something they had no choice in choosing."
The CRTC intends to begin a consultation process in the fall that could lead to a complete overhaul of how TV services are packaged.
Chris Gerritsen, a Telus Corp. spokesperson, said the company was "pleased that the CRTC has upheld the principle of consumer choice in much of their decision today. We continue to believe in offering our customers great choice and flexibility in the content they consume. We also will continue working with all parties to reach commercial terms that meet the needs of our customers and our shareholders."