Regulator’s promise to act against providers without hesitation is ringing hollow so far.
Skinny Basic TV:
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It’s not too early to call the CRTC’s latest effort to lower consumer bills – skinny basic TV – a fiasco, and that’s certainly what a lot of people are doing.
Taking effect last week, the regulator’s new rules require TV providers to offer a set of basic channels for no more than $25 a month. They also have the option of offering “reasonably” priced channel bundles or individual a-la-carte channels, with both being mandatory come December.
The result is one that everybody but the CRTC saw coming. TV providers put on their best dancing shoes and did a jig around the rules, indeed offering up the required $25 package, but with a host of required additions, surcharges, hardware rental costs and general disincentives, all of which are technically allowed.
In the end, anyone who thought they might actually get basic TV service for just $25 a month is feeling let down. As one anonymous Bell employee told CBC, the intent is clearly to make skinny basic “unbuyable.”
(Bell is being particularly petulant about the whole thing by not including basic U.S. channels such as NBC, ABC and Fox because it doesn’t have to, requiring buyers to subscribe to its internet service as well, and forcing a $199 installation fee on anyone who doesn’t want to sign a two-year contract.)
The resulting condemnation has been broad. A Toronto Star editorial says the “CRTC should speak more loudly,” Globe and Mail columnist Kate Taylor says forcing pick-and-pay was “a bad move” and Buzzfeed, mincing no words, says “everybody hates Canada’s new skinny basic cable packages.”
And yet, CRTC chairman Jean Pierre Blais talked tough shortly before the March 1 implementation, saying the regulator “will not hesitate to act” if TV providers don’t get with the spirit of the whole affair, which is presumably to give Canadians truly affordable TV options.
The words “hesitate” and “act” have different definitions in regulatory land than in the real world, unfortunately. Despite the skinny basic offers being out there for a week, the CRTC is going to “closely monitor the situation” over the next indeterminate while, a spokesperson said on Thursday. That sounds like hesitation.
The CRTC has also said it does not regulate hardware rental fees – a major source of extra surcharges in the fledging skinny basic regime – because it is too difficult to do so. When asked if Bell in particular is allowed to force skinny basic customers to also subscribe to its internet service, the spokesperson said, “I don’t know.”
The CRTC is now in the position of having to add more rules, this time banning surcharges and other abuses, which will perhaps kick off yet another long drawn-out process of hearings and consultations, or at least inevitable appeals and court challenges.
The whole thing will be pointless in the end since the providers, if prevented from nickel-and-diming on TV service, will simply raise internet and wireless fees. Actually, they’re doing that anyway, but anyway…
It’s cute that Blais thought TV providers, who are run by the same executives he recently criticized for owning yachts and helicopters, would respect the “spirit” of the CRTC’s attempt to lower consumers’ bills. It’s even cuter when he says the regulator won’t “hesitate to act.”
This whole skinny basic fiasco is only serving to expose just how ineffectual the regulator can be.