CRTC reminds telecoms they must promote basic TV packages to customers

TORONTO - In less than two weeks, Canada's TV-service providers must all start offering so-called pick and pay cable service.

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But, so far, most have been mum on what those new packages will look like, much to the disappointment of the country's broadcast regulator.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued an information bulletin Wednesday to remind the telecoms that they must promote this service in some way to consumers by March 1, said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais.

“(It) was a shot across the bow,” he said in an interview.

Under the deadline set by the CRTC, all Canadian TV providers must offer a basic package of channels - priced $25 or less a month - and either a la carte channel selection or small bundles of channels. By December, these companies must offer all three options.

The new CRTC regulations arose from consultations with Canadians about TV choice and affordability.

But so far few of the telecoms have announced what their basic packages will include.

VMedia announced its skinny package in June with 28 channels for less than $18 a month. Shaw (TSX:SJR.B) now offers a $25 limited-TV package with 40 channels.

So far, none of the other major TV providers - Bell (TSX:BCE), Telus (TSX:T) or Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) - have listed basic cable plans priced at $25 or less online.

Blais said he doesn't want to presume bad faith. The companies are likely lining up their offers or watching to see what moves their competitors make, he said.

The companies are not required to announce their packages until March 1st.

Bell's online offerings will be updated by Feb 21, an online customer service representative said.

A Rogers customer service representative said the company will advertise its lineup shortly before the deadline, while representatives of Telus did not immediately respond to a query on the issue.

Blais said the spirit of the CRTC decision ought to be respected with the new offerings.

“Cable and satellite companies should not view this change as an opportunity to replace business practices designed to maximize profits from captive customers with newer forms of anti-consumer behaviour,” he said in a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto on Thursday.

“Instead, I urge them to make the products they sell even better for Canadians.”

The upcoming mini-bundles ought to be competitively priced to attract customers who wanted better choice and affordability, he said.

If the CRTC deems some companies to be disregarding the spirit of the decision as they implement their new offerings, the regulator will take action against them, he added.

The TV providers were not the only part of the telecommunications industry scolded by the CRTC on Thursday.

In his speech, Blais cast corporate executives of news organizations as greedy.

During the CRTC's recent hearings on local and community television, Blais said he listened to Canadians discuss the problems facing the country's news organizations and the need for strong reporting.

Meanwhile “corporate executives who own luxury yachts and private helicopters came looking for subsidies.”

When these executives want the CRTC to grant a license or approve a large transaction, he said, they make promises about how much they will invest in programming.

“But, the minute we initiate a policy hearing, we are told the cupboards are bare.”

Instead of offering government subsidies to struggling news organizations, Blais suggested Canadians ought to help finance local news through an arm's length organization to avoid government interference in reporting.



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