THE SKINNY ON SKINNY BASIC TV
As of March 1, Canadian television providers are required to offer slimmed-down bundles of basic channels. Here's a breakdown of what's available to consumers
Television viewers who have eagerly awaited the chance to downsize to a smaller basic package of channels will have a range of new options on Tuesday – and will also discover that not all skinny bundles are created equal.
For the first time, all TV providers must offer a slimmed-down bundle of basic channels for no more than $25 a month, starting March 1, thanks to new rules announced last year by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The much-anticipated "pick-and-pay" option – by which viewers can choose to buy any channel beyond the basic bundle individually – isn't required to be in place until December.
But viewers can now explore an early array of new choices to trim and tailor their TV packages, while jettisoning channels they never watch.
Bell, which is owned by BCE Inc., has chosen to embrace pick and pay right away, and made its full menu of channels available à la carte without waiting for the December deadline.
"The goal, as you can imagine, is we need to balance the risks associated with unbundling, while ensuring that we maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace," Geoff Wright, Bell's vice-president of content, said in an interview.
All TV distributors are trying to strike the same balance. And already, a few caveats are in order.
Sports networks remain the jewels in the TV crown, and are priced accordingly – it can easily cost upward of $15 a month to subscribe to even a few of the many channels offered by rivals Sportsnet and TSN.
In most cases, the $25 price tag for the skinny bundles does not include the required rental of a set-top box to receive the TV signals, which can cost an extra $5 to $15 a month.
And the à la carte channels don't come cheap: Most cost between $3 and $7 each per month.
Still thinking of trying the new offerings? Here's a breakdown of what's available. (Scroll ahead or use this index to navigate by provider.)
(Fibe TV available in Ontario and Quebec; FibreOp TV in Atlantic Canada; satellite TV across the country)
For $24.95 a month, the starter package has 20 channels and includes a $3 monthly "digital service fee." Local stations such as CBC, CTV and Global are included, as are The Weather Network and TVOntario plus legislative channels such as CPAC. Notably absent are the U.S. over-the-air networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS – the CRTC gave providers the right to include them, but Bell chose not to.
Bell offers two options to build on its starter package. One is to buy individual channels – to pick and pay. Most channels cost either $4 a month each, such as Slice, or $7 a month, such as HGTV. Sports channels cost more: It costs $15 a month for TSN's 1, 3, 4 and 5 feeds, and another $7 for TSN 2. A bundle with TSN and Sportsnet channels combined costs $25 monthly. The other option is to choose 10 channels from an à la carte menu for $37 a month – but sports and other premium channels such as The Movie Network and HBO aren't included in the list of choices.
To get the starter package, Bell requires customers to rent a set-top cable box that receives the signal. For Fibe TV customers, Bell's flagship service, that means renting a PVR for $15 a month, or buying the box for $500, and also paying for Fibe Internet with Bell. Satellite subscribers have a choice of a $15-a-month high-definition PVR box, or a $7-a-month high-definition receiver, but the latter can't record shows.
(Available in Ontario, parts of Newfoundland and New Brunswick)
For $24.99 a month, the starter package offers 30 channels including local stations such as CBC, CTV and Global, U.S. networks such as NBC and PBS, public access channels such as CPAC and The Weather Network, as well as TVO and the Rogers community TV channel. This bundle does not include a set-top cable box, which starts at $5.49 a month to rent.
Rogers has created 29 preset theme packages that can be added to the starter package, ranging from $3 to $18 (a three-channel bundle including The Shopping Channel is free). A drama and comedy package including 10 channels such as AMC, FX, Space and Lifetime costs $10 a month. A suite of seven Canadian news channels, including CP24 and BNN, costs another $5. So far, à la carte options are limited to services such as TMN, which includes HBO, or SuperChannel, or a range of multicultural channels. But "we'll be offering full standalone channel selection later this year," a spokesperson said.
The most expensive theme packages – by far – contain sports networks. The Sportsnet channels, which air most National Hockey League broadcasts, including Hockey Night in Canada, plus the Golf Channel, cost $18 a month to add on. A separate bundle with TSN's five feeds and some specialty channels such as CBS Sports Network also costs $18. Rogers says there will be a discounted price for customers who choose both sports bundles, but has yet to specify it.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said the new skinny bundle offered by Rogers doesn't include the $3 digital service fee. In fact, that fee is not applied to that bundle.
(Cable service available from B.C. to Sault Ste Marie, Ont., and satellite service across the country)
For $25 a month, Shaw's Limited TV package offers about two dozen channels (there are 40 total stations, including standard definition and high-definition duplicates), including CBC, CTV, Global, CPAC, The Weather Network and U.S. networks such as CBS and ABC. A required set-top box rental brings the cost of the skinny basic option to $30, while a PVR box that can record shows costs $15 a month to rent.
Shaw has taken a hybrid approach to building on the skinny basic bundle for now. Popular channels have been grouped into theme packs, which can be bought individually for $6 a month, or combined at a discounted rate. For example, Disney Channel, Family, Treehouse and Nickelodeon are grouped together in a six-channel bundle. Many channels are also available à la carte, most of them for $3 a month, but many of the more popular channels – such as HGTV or Showcase, for instance – are not yet offered on a standalone basis.
The way Shaw has bundled its add-ons rewards customers who buy more channels within a particular genre. A subscriber who wants to add HGTV, History, Food Network, Makeful and Much as a group can do so for $6. But they can also add a second or third bundle of channels – with networks such as Discovery or A&E – for a total of $10 or $15 a month. The message is still: The more channels you bundle, the better the price.
(Available in Ontario and Quebec)
Cogeco charges $25 for its most basic bundle, which includes local and regional stations as well as community and educational channels. It also includes the U.S. conventional networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS, which were left out by some other providers such as Bell and SaskTel.
Cogeco is allowing customers to build their own packages of 10, 20, 30 or 40 channels to add on to the basic bundle (in Quebec, the choices are 10, 15, 20 or 30 channels) for $38 to $59 each a month, with the full suite of basic channels included in that price. The company has also broadened the number of channels that can be chosen à la carte to 110 in Ontario and 60 in Quebec. Each channel costs $3.50 or $6 per month, depending on its popularity and the agreement negotiated with the network.
Cogeco is still suggesting there is greater value – and simplicity – in choosing preassembled packages. The Perfect Mix and Ultimate Mix bundles, which cost $59 a month and $90 a month respectively, but include the $25 of basic channels, include popular channels such as TSN, Sportsnet and AMC, without the hassle of having to pick one at a time with a customer service representative. These are much more like the traditional bundles many viewers will still stick with.
(Available in Quebec and Rockland, Ont.)
Videotron offers a $25 bundle of 23 high-definition channels, such as CBC, TVA, TV5 and the Assemblé Nationale channel. Its bundle is built similarly to those of other providers, but understandably includes more French-language networks. American conventional stations like NBC and PBS are not included.
Subscribers can add on build-your-own options of five, 10, 20 or 30 channels for $41 to $59 a month. Premium networks like TSN and TVA Sports can be added to these custom packs, but a viewer who wants all five feeds of TSN, for example, would have to choose them separately. And some popular channels, like AMC, charge an extra "nominal fee" when added to a custom pack.
Videotron was an early adopter of the build-your-own bundle, and was often held up as an example of better choice at the CRTC's Let's Talk TV hearing. In that sense, it has not had to make major changes to its bundling options. But it has still set its basic package price at $25, to fall in line with the new regulations, and will have to add a full suite of à la carte channels by the end of the year.
(Available in Manitoba)
MTS offers a starter package with 24 channels and set-top box rental included for $28. Channels are mostly high-definition, and include the major U.S. broadcasters as well as French-language channels, CBC, CTV, Global, City, APTN, The Weather Network and Christian channel HopeTV.
MTS has more than 30 channel packs, ranging from $3 to $5 extra a month and $10 for one extended sports pack. More than 60 channels can be purchased individually – for as little as $1.99 a month (for instance, Fox News) or as high as $2.99 (for example, Disney Junior). Some overseas networks are also available, for prices that range between $3 and $25 a month extra. Premium movie packs including HBO and TMN channels are also available starting at $18.
Some channels are difficult to tack onto the starter pack: CNN is only available in a $4 add-on bundle with A&E, TLC, Discovery and HLN; and while Teletoon is available on its own, Treehouse only comes bundled in a $5 pack with a dozen kid-friendly channels. The next package up from Starter is $45 a month and comes with 63 channels, but MTS is offering a temporary discount: All of that for $20-a-month, for the first three months.
(Available in Saskatchewan)
SaskTel's package features 19 channels, all of them Canadian, for $25, including CBC, CTV, Global, City, APTN and The Weather Network as well as the legislature channel and French-language channels. As with Bell, the U.S. networks are not included, but two local on-demand channels are.
SaskTel has a variety of expansion packs, each of them for $5.99. From the looks of it, none of the U.S. networks are available in a theme pack unless you get the HD channels. SaskTel also has 35 individual channels available for $2.99 each – like Viceland and Comedy Gold, but not the Food Network Canada or HGTV. All of those are also available as part of larger theme packs. There are condensed packs, such as Lite Sports that includes TSN and Sportsnet and Lite Information that has CBCN and CTVN but not CNN or BNN.
The listed price does not include the mandatory box rental, $3.45 a month, and it does not include any high-definition channels; to get HD versions of the Lite lineup (where available) you pay $10 extra a month. In other words, Lite with HD ends up being $38.45, not $25. Lite also does not include Internet, and the next cheapest TV package SaskTel offers bundles Internet, features 70 channels and starts at $79.95.
Note: Some offerings may vary by geography.