Opinion » Cybernaut


The cable dilemma



The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) could be all that stands between consumers and cable/satellite bills that are $10 to $15 higher per month.

It's a complicated issue. Television networks and the CBC - facing challenges raising advertising dollars with the rise of the Internet and the expansion of television to a bazillion specialty channels - want the cable and satellite companies to pay them a fee for carrying their stations.

The networks believe, rightly, that people rely on their local and national networks for news, weather, local sports, local content, community listings and more, and that it's not fair that cable giants will pay to carry American or specialty channels but not to carry local TV. Local stations also operate with certain expectations as part of their licensing, such as a commitment to produce or purchase 60 per cent Canadian content. That can be expensive to produce and it's an expense that specialty channels don't have - which also isn't quite fair.

The networks understandably want what those specialty channels are getting from the cable/satellite companies, a piece of the multi-billion dollar telecommunications pie.

For their part the cable companies say they are forced to carry local networks by the CRTC, and that if they were also forced to pay to carry those channels then they would pass that cost on to their customers. Hence the very real possibility of higher cable/satellite rates.

The networks respond that customers should instead have to pay for the stations that the cable and satellite companies are paying for and not local television. When you order a cable or satellite package you have no idea which channels are free and what is paid for, or why bundles and additional packages are priced the way they are.

There's a lot more to it and you can read up on the issues at http://television.askingcanadians.com.

I'm one of the thousands of people who has waded into the argument, leaving my two cents with the CRTC. The public comment period closes on Dec. 21.

For me, the central issue is the price. I will not pay more for cable, and truthfully I would prefer to pay less.

I currently subscribe to the Digital TV package for $61 per month, which includes the basic digital package and a handful of high definition channels. Really the only HD channel I watch is CBC for hockey, otherwise I could easily scale back to the Digital TV Basic service and save about $25 per month.

If the price of television increased another $10 or more, I would likely scale back immediately. I would even consider canceling my cable permanently, using the money saved to boost my home Internet connection to watch TV on the web, get a Netflix account, download shows from iTunes, and go to the pub occasionally to watch the games. I don't really watch that much television to begin with and could easily do with less, or without.

It's believed that the CRTC will compel cable and satellite companies to offer a local television package that's separate to their existing packages, or find another compromise that keeps prices the same but allows networks to bill the service providers.

The solution I would prefer is some kind of a la carte system where a handful of major networks and local stations are included in a basic package for $20 a month, then customers can purchase additional channels they watch individually and possibly even pay extra to watch shows on channels they don't subscribe to. Some channels like the sports networks could be $1 per month while others like movie channels could be $5 or more each.

The cable and satellite companies would then have the option of putting those channels together in bundles or offering deals like "buy these five channels and get these three channels for free" without dictating which channels you get. That's kind of what bundling means, not the current messed up system where all the best channels are split up into a bunch of different packages that force you to either make hard choices or cough up more money.

Giving people the option to say no to local networks is not an option. Even if all you watch are specialty channels local television is still a necessity in case of an emergency and to keep people informed of local events like elections, natural disasters, severe weather, flu outbreaks, lost children, wanted criminals, etc. - information that only a local carrier can provide.

There are limitations as to what the CRTC can do - they don't set prices for cable companies and aren't involved in any way in specialty channels. However, with enough public support maybe they can work out a solution that doesn't mean shelling out more money every month. Here's hoping.



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