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With hearings under way this week that could force Canadians to receive (and pay for) even more television channels they don't want, it's a good time to ask: Whatever happened to the supposed push by Canada's broadcast regulator to allow consumers to pick and receive only the channels they want?
The short answer is that it's not going to happen. Cable companies here and in the U.S. have tested versions of the "à la carte" cable offering – often begrudgingly and at the behest of regulators – but the best consumers can likely expect is a little more choice, a little more flexibility – and a whole lot of extra channels they continue to pay for but don't watch.
Consumers and advocates have pushed for the ability to just be able to pick only the channels they want to watch. Of course, that goes against the interests of companies that own networks and would prefer to bundle them as packages to cable companies, keeping their revenues higher and spread over a broader array of networks. Selling individually selected channels would result in sharply higher costs per individual network, as revenues they now receive from packages would have to be replaced by a smaller number of paying customers. (For example, Bell does offer à la carte cable service, but only in Quebec – matching Vidéotron – and charges more for a package that includes that feature than for its regular package.)
Network owners would also have to lower the fees they can charge for advertising, since an à la carte choice would reduce casual viewership of many channels that viewers aren't forced to take. The combined effect would be severely reduced margins for producers, network owners and distributors, or sharply higher costs being passed on to consumers.
Distributors have told the CRTC there's little demand for "skinny" packages that offer a small list of channels for a lower price than basic-TV packages, and a pilot project by Rogers Communications to offer pick-and-pay service in London last year came and went with little fanfare. New CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais has shown little interest in the issue to date. Consumers have had a more sympathetic hearing from the CRTC in recent years, but this is one issue where they seem unlikely to win much ground for the foreseeable future.
Sean Silcoff is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow Sean on Twitter at @seansilcoff.