Prime Minister Stephen Harper has waded into the debate over the future of Canada's television industry, using a high-profile speech to press for pick-and-pay options that would let viewers buy only the channels they choose.
In an election-style address to Conservative supporters marking the return of Parliament on Monday, Mr. Harper said his government is "helping families, and all consumers" by, among other things, "letting Canadians choose to pay for the TV channels they actually want."
Mr. Harper's comments come amid hearings called Let's Talk TV, where industry executives and groups are gathering in Gatineau, not far from Parliament Hill, to debate potentially drastic changes to the television system. Many have warned a pick-and-pay policy could actually drive up prices for most consumers and kill some channels.
The arms-length federal broadcast regulator, The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), has final authority over regulatory changes and has said that it hasn't made any decisions yet. Outside the hearing room, however, pick-and-pay TV has become a political football.
The federal government has previously called for pick-and-pay rules that would let TV subscribers unbundle packs of channels, most notably in last October's Speech from the Throne. That pressure for choice among channels is part of a consumer-friendly agenda through which the Tories have also taken aim at cellphone contracts and fees for paper bills.
Mr. Harper also said Monday that his government would "oppose any tax on services like Neftlix and YouTube."
Some industry stakeholders, including the CBC and the Canadian Media Production Association, have argued that unregulated online video services such as Netflix Inc. should have to contribute a percentage of their revenues to support Canadian programming – an idea Netflix and Google Inc. have strongly opposed.
After Ontario government officials appeared at the hearing on Sept. 8 and suggested the CRTC should regulate "new media broadcasting activities," Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover responded with a statement attacking Liberal tax policies and promising the federal Conservatives "will not allow any moves to impose new regulations and taxes on internet video."
Two days later, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais referred to "some noise that's occurring outside this hearing room" while hearing from the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting – a remark perceived as a veiled reference to Ms. Glover's comments.
"I can't prevent that noise occurring outside this hearing room, but … I can assure you of a fair hearing before us," Mr. Blais told the group.
In an interview on Aug. 21, before the hearing began, Mr. Blais acknowledged that "we're not isolated, we know what's going on," but said the CRTC has no contact with government about the outcome of Let's Talk TV. "We're arm's length," he said. "They follow what we do, I assume."