Last week, Canada's big three cable companies got called on the carpet by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to explain their implementation of so-called skinny basic packages mandated by the regulator last year.
When it was announced, Canadians seemed excited at the prospect of receiving a slate of basic television channels for $25. Unfortunately, the reality was much less palatable. Consumers complained to the CRTC that fees and the removal of bundle discounts meant that switching to the cable-lite package did not provide any measurable savings.
With Bell, Rogers and Shaw owning not only the majority of content creation and distribution rights but also the distribution channels themselves, it should not be shocking that, even with the CRTC's insistence on consumer choice, there is not any real motivation for change.
For example, Games of Thrones fans without a cable subscription in the United States can subscribe to HBO Now for $15 (U.S.) a month, either as a stand-alone streaming service or as an add-on to a cable-like streaming service called SlingTV that starts at an affordable $20 a month. The only way to gain access to this content legally in Canada is with a cable or satellite subscription.
For Canadians who truly want to "maximize choice and affordability," as CRTC policy is designed to do, the legal options are limited.
Those lucky enough to live in a major city can put up an over-the-air (OTA) antenna to get a similar slate of channels at no cost and in full HD quality. While to some it may be old technology, a recent study by market-research firm GfK points to a year-over-year rise in the use of antennas, especially among U.S. households with a millennial resident, where 22 per cent rely on OTA for TV. These "rabbit ear" signals are mandated by the CRTC as part of a broadcaster's licence, but Bell has recently requested as part of its licence review to shut down more than 40 broadcast towers.
Many rural consumers and Northerners have virtually no alternative options for live, linear TV. Even niche Internet Protocol TV providers such as Zazeen and VMedia operate in only a handful of provinces.
This lack of choice has led to Canadians using VPN technology to access à la carte U.S.-based subscription streaming services, or even further into dicey legal territory by gaining access to illegal streaming sites. Even there, Bell and Rogers have stepped in to prevent this by suing distributors of Android-based set-top-box devices preloaded with software to get illegal streams.
The current competitive landscape in Canada is untenable for today's consumers, who want to watch what they want, when they want and on the device they want. It is also critical for Canadians to have easy and affordable access to local news as well as programming that reflects Canadian culture and supports Canadian talent, lest that screen time be eclipsed by content from other countries delivered by the Internet.
The technology exists to deliver a true "skinny basic" experience to all Canadians through expanded investment and support for OTA broadcast television and IPTV from Canada's regulators. The CRTC has clearly heard from Canadians during the Let's Talk TV discussions that they value OTA television, local news and Canadian content and the current competitive landscape does not provide this in an affordable way that is accessible to all.
While Bell and Rogers made some concessions for "skinny basic" last week, more change is needed. It's time to embrace the digital age and let the market decide which programming delivery methods and options fit the lifestyle of today's consumers.
Canadian technology companies and regional Internet service providers need to be bold in taking on the incumbents and the CRTC could certainly use more teeth to enforce its "choice and affordability" vision. If not, an increasing number of Canadians will bypass current television programing in favour of an increasingly globalized streaming culture, sending potential ad and content revenue south and eroding our ability to showcase the talent and stories that make us Canadian.