January 28, 2013

Let’s get real reform at the CRTC: eliminate “mandatory carriage” altogether

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

In the Toronto Star, Michael Geist calls for the CRTC to stop the “mandatory carriage” provision that forces cable providers to carry certain channels on their “basic” packages:

Canadians frustrated with ever-increasing cable and satellite bills received bad news last week with the announcement that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will consider whether to require cable and satellite companies to include nearly two-dozen niche channels as part of their basic service packages. If approved, the new broadcast distribution rules would significantly increase monthly cable bills with consumers forced to pay for channels they may not want.

Two issues sit at the heart of the broadcast distribution rules. First, whether the CRTC should grant any broadcaster mandatory distribution across all cable and satellite providers such that all subscribers are required to pay for them as part of their basic packages. Second, in the absence of mandatory distribution, whether broadcast distributors should be required to at least offer the services so that consumers have the option of subscribing.

[. . .]

While the financial benefits for broadcasters are enormous, the policy represents a near-complete elimination of consumer choice for the channels at issue. Rather than convincing millions of Canadian consumers that their services are worth buying, the broadcasters need only convince a handful of CRTC commissioners that their service meets criteria such as making “an exceptional contribution to Canadian expression.” That is supposedly a high bar, yet it is surely far easier than convincing millions of people to pay for your service each month.

Last year, CRTC chair Jean Pierre Blais emphasized that the Commission’s top priority was to “put Canadians at the centre of their communications system.” The mandatory distribution rules do the opposite. Rather than focusing on consumer interests and choice, the rules place broadcasters at the centre of the communications system by offering up the prospect of millions in revenue without regard for what consumers actually want.

There are few, if any, broadcasters that can be considered so essential as to merit mandatory distribution. Niche cultural broadcasters have a myriad of distribution possibilities and should be forced to compete like any other content creator or distributor. In fact, even broadcasters that position themselves as “public services” can often be replicated by Internet-based alternatives.

I always find it interesting how cable providers usually manage to group their offerings so that you can’t get the group of channels you actually want in the same package. I doubt that this would change even if the regulator allowed the change from “must carry” to “must offer”, however: there’s too much potential profit to the cable companies in crafty packaging strategies. You’ll almost certainly not see the opportunity to pay for just the individual channels you want, as that would be too consumer friendly (and, we’re assured by cable company reps, would kill off lots of niche channels because they wouldn’t get enough subscribers).

Of course, if a TV channel can’t attract enough subscribers, that’s usually a pretty strong economic signal that they shouldn’t be broadcasting anyway.

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