Pick-and-pay cable packages: What you need to know

TORONTO -- Canadians now have the choice to pay no more than $25 a month for basic cable as the deadline for the CRTC-mandated so-called skinny cable and satellite packages dawned Tuesday.

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The new regulations came after the federal regulator's Let's Talk TV campaign, launched in 2013, found Canadians wanted more choice and affordability from their cable providers.

Here's what you need to know about the so-called skinny basic TV packages:

What's a basic cable package?

Basic cable packages must include at least 10 local and regional TV channels, public interest channels (like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), educational programming, community channels and legislative channels where available.

Is that all that's included?

That's the bare minimum for skinny cable packages. They may also include local AM and FM radio stations, up to 10 non-local TV stations and another province or territory's educational programming if there's no local alternative.

Some U.S. networks may also be included.

Shaw, Rogers, VMedia and Cogeco offer some U.S. channels in their basic packages, according to their online offerings, while Bell, Telus, Videotron and Sasktel do not.

What if I want other channels?

Customers can also choose to pay extra and add on supplementary channels to their basic cable packages through either individual, a-la-carte channel selections or small, pre-packaged bundles of up to 10 channels.

The CRTC mandated all cable providers must offer one of those choices by March 1, and must offer both options to consumers by December.

Some companies are already offering both pick-and-pay individual channel and bundle choices.

Rogers customers, for example, can add premium channels to the $24.99 starter package or pay for theme packs ranging from $3 to $18.

So does it cost less than previous plans?

While the monthly cost of the skinny package is capped at $25 monthly, that doesn't include installation or equipment fees.

Bell's starter package, for example, costs $24.95 for basic channels.

But new customers selecting that plan must pay another $7 monthly for an HD receiver, or $15 monthly for an HD PVR rental, or $499 to purchase the unit. There's also a one-time installation fee of $49.95 for customers signing on for a two-year contract, or $199.95 for those without a contract.

If customers want any channels not included in the skinny package, they can pay between $4 and $7 a month per channel, or $37 for a selection of 10. Some other service providers offer individual and bundled channels for less.

Customers on Bell's starter plan cannot combine their services with any other offers, according to company's website.

That sounds like a lot of money. Are skinny packages really cheaper?

The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a group advocating for better TV programming, has warned many people will likely see their monthly bills get bigger under the pick-and-pay system.

However, last month, the CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais warned the regulatory body will be on the lookout for anti-consumer behaviour.

The CRTC will not hesitate to act if it deems some TV providers are disregarding Canadians' wishes, the CRTC's decision or the spirit of the outcomes these companies were intended to achieve, he said in a speech in mid-February.

How do I make the switch?

TV viewers wanting to make the switch can visit the websites of cable providers to determine what packages, a-la-carte channel and bundle options most appeal to their needs.

The CRTC provides a list of service providers in various Canadian cities. (http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/comm/fourprov.htm)



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